Report Marcel Thee & Tasa Nugraza Barley
Diana — not her real name — is a 23-year-old prostitute who has worked in massage parlors for more than three years. She giggled softly over the phone as she revealed that the holy month of Ramadan has affected her work only “oh-so-slightly,” if at all.
Like most entertainment-related businesses, the sex industry has had to deal with the challenges posed by Ramadan. But despite the setback, the industry has managed to adapt — even coexist — with the religious holiday.
“The regular customers still visit regularly,” Diana said, adding that the only difference is that the massage parlor where she works opens an hour later and closes earlier than usual.
“I think the [parlor owners] are used to taking care of business no matter what the season. Maybe they just have to give more money than usual to neighbors and security,” she added.
Before the holy month of Ramadan, the Jakarta administration issued a directive stating that entertainment venues are to close their businesses on certain days.
The city also vowed to take firmer action on those who violate the 2004 tourism bylaw, which stipulates that “in order to respect Ramadan and the Muslim holidays, nightclubs, discotheques, saunas, massage parlors and bars must close the day before and during Ramadan, Idul Fitri holiday and the day after Idul Fitri.”
However, reality is a different matter altogether. “It’s business as usual,” said Bunga, a 20-something prostitute. (All names in the article have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.)
Stories that revolve around the sex industry during Ramadan are legendary. More experienced prostitutes regale newcomers with tales of raids, arrests and jail time.
Hani, a 20-something who has only recently started working at the same parlor as Diana, said that a lot of the older girls have stories of how they know of others who were previously arrested.
She stopped short of detailing what “unpleasant things” have allegedly been done to her colleagues, but the fear in her voice was palpable, even over the phone.
Unlike Diana and Hani, Bunga doesn’t answer to a pimp because she is not connected to any particular establishment. For her, there’s little fear of raids.
Bunga’s involvement in the sex industry started two years ago when she accepted a man’s offer to have paid sex with him. She used the money she earned to purchase a new cellphone and clothes and has been hooked ever since.
As her client list grew longer, she decided to become a prostitute full-time six months ago, even renting an apartment in West Jakarta to symbolize her new life. Her work enables her to send money to her family in Cirebon, West Java.
She relies on the word-of-mouth to obtain new clients. “My satisfied clients often tell their friends about me,” she said.
Unlike Diana, Bunga acknowledged that she has experienced a drop in her income over the last month. “During Ramadan, the clients still come for a visit, but there are just not as many of them as there normally are,” she said.
According to her, she normally gets around four to six clients each week who pay Rp 400,000 ($44) for a one-hour visit. If she’s “lucky,” she gets up to 10 visitors a week.
But Bunga said that Ramadan has put a dent in her income, as “this month, I’ve been getting around only one to three visitors each week.”
She attributes this drop in income to guilt. “I think many of my usual clients would feel guilty about committing such a sinful act during this holy month of Ramadan. So they have decided to put things off until after the month ends.”
Roberto works as a pimp full-time. “I used to work at a bank before, but the salary was not good,” he said. A friend showed him the ropes a few years ago and this made Roberto realize how easy it was to earn money in the business.
“Yes, I know that this is not a noble thing to do, but I guess I don’t have any choice,” he said.
Roberto takes extra precautions to stay under the radar, especially during this time. He makes it a point to use different aliases and frequently changes his phone numbers when transacting on online forums where clients usually look for sex.
“I can say with confidence that people don’t stop looking for paid sex during Ramadan,” he said. “Online sex forums are still crowded with guys looking for teens to hook up with. In these forums, men still very actively trade nude photos and call girls’ phone numbers.”
Roberto advertises his girls — who are mostly between 18 and 24-years-old — online and when someone expresses interest in them, he sends them a message stating rates. After a deal is made, he arranges the time and place for the meeting.
But Roberto eventually admitted that the number of “executions” — the slang used for sexual encounters — dips during Ramadan. “I usually have around 15 transactions or more each month. I’ve only made six this month,” he said. “Many of the clients have arranged a date for after Ramadan.
“They don’t want to do it during the holy month because they’re afraid of karma. To me, what’s the difference?” he said, with a laugh.
Benny is a father of two who regularly patronizes massage parlors. He said that he tries to cut down on his habit during Ramadan, “but it’s a challenge.”
“Sometimes, it’s very hard to control certain urges, especially if you’re stressed from work and you get e-mails from pimps offering their newest ‘items.’ ” he said.
Mawar, 22, is a prostitute who welcomes clients at her rented house in Tebet, South Jakarta. She is one of the “items” that pimps often “sell” on Web sites.
She said that she still runs her “business” even during Ramadan, adding that “I wish I could have a holiday, but I need a lot of money for Lebaran.”
Mawar said she is planning to go home to visit her family in Semarang this week and that she needs to earn enough in order to buy the gifts that she is expected to bring. “I want to buy food and clothes for my parents and siblings back home,” she said.
As far as her family is concerned, she works as a secretary in a big office. “If they knew what I’m doing, they would kill me,” she said.
Bunga agrees that she also needs a lot of money for Lebaran. “People may call us dirty, but we’re still humans who just want to be happy, at least, even on Lebaran,” she said.
“I want to buy nice Islamic clothes for my father and mother. I want to see them happy.”
Although Tifatul Sembiring, Communication and Information Technology Minister, has vowed to ban all porn sites, sellers of pornographic DVDs seem to be doing just fine during Ramadan.
Doni, not his real name, primarily sells pornographic films online. According to him, the “fasting season is almost over anyway, so what if I sell [pornographic] films?”
When asked if it meant that he didn’t sell any films during the earlier part of the month, he sounded irritated. “There has been no problem with sales. Everything is OK.”
Vincenko, who also sells pornographic DVDs, agreed with Doni, saying that he did not notice a difference in sales over the last month. “I don’t see why it would make a difference. You can watch it after fasting hour, right?”