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Indonesia's Orgasm Activist Wants Her Country to Talk Frankly About Sex

Oct 14 2015 1:00 PM
Indonesia's Orgasm Activist Wants Her Country to Talk Frankly About Sex

Photo by Jovo Jovanovic via Stocksy

With her book, 'The O Project', Firliana Purwanti is on a one-woman mission to shake up her conservative country.

In a country where virginity has been institutionalized as the ultimate moral virtue for women and medicalized FGM continues to be performed on baby girls as part of childbirth services, one Indonesian female orgasm advocate is bringing the fight for gender equality back to the bedroom.

Firliana Purwanti is a 38 year-old activist based in Jakarta with 20 years of experience at the forefront of the Indonesian women's rights movement. She's a firm believer in the radical power of female sexuality, especially within her own country. As she puts it, it's about resisting sexual annihilation as a form of wider exclusion. "When your orgasm is being denied, your existence is also being denied, as a human being."

Purwanti advocates for sexual pleasure as an effective path towards female empowerment. In 2010, she published the first edition of her sold-out book, The O Project: a qualitative study into the sexual experiences and orgasms of 16 Indonesian women of different sexual orientations. After translating the book into English last year, her second edition is due to come out in 2016.

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Talking under pseudonyms, these women—friends of Purwanti, or people associated with her progressive network within feminist and queer communities— share their intimate experiences, unfiltered. In one story, a 25 year-old self-described butch lesbian called Jamie recounts how she started masturbating in elementary school, rubbing against a bolster cushion while thinking of her religious study teacher.

"I discovered that the pleasure of orgasm from masturbation is nothing compared with having sex with a woman," she says in the book, further explaining how she learned how to scissor with her partner after watching a lesbian porn movie. "Uh-huh, like petting. But I could be wearing jeans, and she could be wearing jeans. And I could [have an orgasm], just like that."

Firliana Purwanti believes more women should climax. Photo courtesy of Firliana Purwanti

Through all different stories—of pleasure, but also the absence of it—Purwanti wants to prove that power imbalance within a relationship can affect women's ability to climax. "In an imbalanced relationship, I'm pretty sure the inferior one will have difficulty achieving an orgasm because they are unable to tell their partners what to do and how to do it," she told Broadly.

It's a pretty straightforward assumption, and a widespread reality among Indonesian women. Take Ami, for instance, the 45 year-old former sex worker who is the second wife of a polygamous man. She reveals in the book that she used to feel pleasure with her customers, but things changed since she got married: "My husband is much older than me, 22 years older. To him, it's very straightforward. Once he's erect, he just enters right away. He never tries to find out where my 'sensitive' point is. He never thinks of that."

She can't do or say anything about it, because it's pamali—taboo—and the man, well, he gets his fair share, so either he doesn't care or he's most probably clueless. Maybe both.

First of all, I really like orgasms. But apparently not a lot of women are as lucky as I am and able to enjoy their sexual pleasure.

"I wrote the book for women, but surprisingly more men are interested in [it]", Purwanti admits. "I guess they don't know about [female orgasm]. I guess nobody told them how women would like to achieve it." In fact, it actually helps her to introduce a wider narrative of women's rights. "When we start talking about sex, when we use the sex language, men start to understand what we're talking about."

Purwanti's work is critical of Indonesian social constraints and taboos that demonize not just premarital sex, but any form of sexual expression. The ideal woman is seen as one whose sole purpose is to remain chaste until married and then serve the man in bed—as well as everywhere else.

A woman in the book mentions the case of a female friend being divorced for not bleeding on her wedding night, like many virgins are (wrongly) expected to. Purwanti writes about a string of raids on young couples whose consensual sex with their partners was apparently "damaging the reputation of their neighbourhood" in East Java; or the instance of two lesbian partners in East Jakarta being forced out of their boarding house because of their sexual orientation. Just last month, teens were banned from dating after 9pm in a district in West Java.

It's within this restrictive approach to sexual desires and gender roles that her campaign remains crucial. "I wanted to write a book about Indonesian women's orgasms because I'm so tired of Indonesian conservatives who have been criticising the women's movement as a Western thing," Purwanti explains.

Other Indonesian activists have also said that Western feminism serves as a scapegoat to discredit homegrown awareness of women's rights, with one campaigner for a women's rights organization saying that feminists have been accused of spreading corrupting cultural influences from the West.

But Purwanti's radical choice to feature only Indonesians in her book has sought to counter these assumptions. In fact, it offered her the chance to highlight the experiences from marginalized groups—such as lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, sex workers, and those affected by HIV—and acknowledge the pluralism of female identity. And also, of course, to validate women's sexual rights as an organic national issue, intrinsic to Indonesia's own culture and history.

Women like Tia, a 41-year-old female sex worker who has managed to orgasm up to four times in a row, with a customer. "A skillful customer, one who knows how to find the thing inside with his mouth, that I like. I have many customers who like to sarmento [stimulate the clitoris] like that."

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Bringing together so many diverse stories, Purwanti wants to prove that masturbation, sexual pleasure, and homosexuality have naturally occurred in Indonesia all along, like anywhere else. She reports on more than one century-old dildos made of wax and wood and a lesbian scandal recorded at the central Java court in 1902.

"In my book I discuss sex toys being used by Acehnese women since the early 1900s, and I discuss about lesbian practices at the Javanese Palace, so [the conservatives] can't say these are Western influences," she adds.

Purwanti's research was prompted by learning about how many women actually struggle to climax. In her book, she quotes the results of a 2008 survey by the Asia Pacific Sexual Health and Overall Wellness showing that 77 percent of Indonesian women are dissatisfied with their sex life, as reported by the Jakarta Globe. Worldwide, an analysis of different studies from the past 80 years by Elisabeth Lloyd suggests that only 25 percent of women are orgasmic during intercourse.

"First of all, I really like orgasms. But apparently not a lot of women are as lucky as I am and able to enjoy their sexual pleasure," Purwanti says. In her view, most Indonesian women do not orgasm because they are discouraged to explore their sexuality. "It's all about discrimination. That women should be good girls until their wedding night. 'Good girls' mean you don't talk about sex, 'good girls' mean you don't know anything about sex."

It's all about discrimination. That women should be good girls until their wedding night.

And the pressure is evident when looking at the degrading two-finger virginity tests imposed to women to enter the military or police forces—and occasionally proposed for high school girls too—during which doctors try to check whether a candidate's hymen is intact or not.

The policing of female sexuality gets even worse when it comes to FGM, or female circumcision, as it is commonly referred to in Indonesia. A government ban was finally reinstated last year, after ministerial guidelines had been attempting to regulate the practice since 2010. According to the Jakarta Globe, 2013 figures from the Health Ministry suggest that 51.2 percent of Indonesian girls have been subjected to some form of FGM.

Purwanti argues that female circumcision offers no medical benefits and it is mainly performed to suppress female sexuality. "The ideology behind [it] is really for purity, so that women will not be naughty, they will not be too wild in bed. That's the reason behind it. There is nothing scientific about it."

Within such a sexually repressive context, the revolutionary potential of Purwanti's activism is clear, although—within a country of 250 millions—her reach is probably still limited. Still, Purwanti feels optimistic about the future empowerment of Indonesian women.

She is currently planning to release an extended and updated version of The O Project in 2016 to include a chapter on sexual pleasure for women with disabilities, and update some sections about virginity and female circumcision policies.

Today, her hope resides with the entrepreneurial spirit of the female sex toy retailers and other businesses, which have slowly started to sprout up in Indonesia. "I think the reason they open that business is that they think that women's pleasure is important," she explains.

Important enough, at least, to be commodified for a wider audience and an increasingly enlightened female market. In a world where nothing speaks louder than profit, where there is commercial demand, hopefully, there is a way. At least, that's if Purwanti has anything to say about it.

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