Last Wednesday, Ika and I were invited to have lunch at a woman’s house we met in the support group. The woman is a sex worker, and she lives in what was once a hotel and is now a kos (boarding house) for sex workers. I was really excited (and a little nervous) for our visit: it was a completely new experience for me.
Without going into too much detail, let me first say that this kos, although peopled pretty uniformly by sex workers, was not how I had imagined a brothel or similar environment. Unlike Dolly (see: Surabaya) or other areas where the house is the site of business, this former hotel functioned more as a housing community than a place for sex work. The building is composed of a series of bungalows and apartments, and, as the woman we visited explained, she doesn’t work in her home. Instead, her clients take her to hotels or to the bungalows used for such purposes.
So, back to our visit: When we first arrived, we thought the place was deserted. Slowly, men tending the garden crept out and cast us sideways glances. They were obviously confused by our presence. We asked for directions to our friend’s room, and were met with more looks of discomfort. However, we explained we were friends, and were given directions (begrudgingly to her room).
The apartment is small, with beautiful woodwork (the building is in the style of traditional Balinese architecture) and a view of endless coconut trees. We stayed for 3 hours, had lunch, gossiped, talked about her life, family, and HIV, and even met her pacar (lover/boyfriend/husband). Before he came over, he called and seemed angry that Ika and I were there (because he thought I was a man bule, not a woman bule). However, once he met us, and realized I was indeed female, he relaxed and joined the conversation.
Although our friend is confident that this man gave her HIV (he’s the only person she’s had sex with without a condom), he refuses to get tested, or acknowledge the possibility that he is HIV+. He doesn’t know she is HIV+, or is on ARVs, or why she goes to “the clinic.”
When we asked her about this, and why she chose not to tell him, she explained that he was so deeply in denial that she felt being honest wouldn’t do any good. He’s a pimp for another brothel (not the one where she works), and has another wife, too. Although she didn’t say so, I think that she is afraid of him.
He left after a little while and we resumed our conversation: our friend told us about how her cousin had convinced her to come to Bali to work, and had essentially sold her into sex work. With great sadness she talked about her strained family relationships, and the pain of not sharing her seropositivity with her loved ones.
When we eventually left, Ika and I trekked back to Taman. On the way back she mentioned that in one particular area of Bali famous for prostitution, an “X” on a house number indicates the house is a brothel. Although prostitution is not legal, I’ve learned that the economic exchanges behind-the-scenes have made it permissible and not secretive. As residents of the banjar, the brothel pays dues to the community (including the police).
I’m not sure what to make of this. My initial thoughts: legalizing prostitution would be greatly beneficial to all those involved- sex workers and clients alike would be regulated, thus theoretically ensuring everyone’s safety. However, this isn’t legalized: it’s ignored due to financial relationships; and the women are therefore not protected as they would hopefully be if the industry were regulated. Obviously, this is an extremely simplified argument on an extremely complex issue; but, nonetheless, I am left with a bad taste in my mouth.
Later that week, Ika and I visited a dukun (traditional healer) who claims to be able to cure HIV/AIDS in 3 months. I went into the interview with extreme prejudice. I really thought I would hate this guy. After all, he turns a profit on “curing” people of cancer, HIV, diabetes, impotence, heart disease, etc, without actually curing them. However, through talking to the dukun, I found myself questioning my presuppositions. The dukun was a famous actor, and self- proclaimed “bad boy” sinner who gave up the fame and fortune (except for the Jaguar parked out front, and the exorbitant fees he charges patients) in order to “get right with Allah.” He spoke about religion and spirituality, and was quite charming and funny. He believes disease is a sign from G-d that the afflicted is living sinfully, and that if someone gets better, it is a similar act of G-d, not of medicine. (Yet he still sells a cure-all miracle drink in addition to other more specific herbal remedies to all of his patients). I disagreed with parts of his philosophy, and still do not think he can cure his patients. I’m wary of anyone who, however indirectly, proclaims themselves to be a messenger of G-d.
At the same time, while we were there, we met one of his patients who, a month before, had cervical cancer or an ovarian cyst. She introduced herself and sang the dukun’s praises: she declared herself cured and feeling great. She was at the clinic to pray and break the Ramadhan fast with the dukun and the staff.
Basically, I was challenged by this interview. I know it’s wrong to go into an interview with presuppositions about the interviewee. However, I felt very strongly that this man was categorically bad. You can’t be cured of HIV/AIDS (unless you consider the Berlin Patient cured). I still firmly believe that the dukun cannot cure his patients, but I also think that some of them do benefit greatly from his services. He gives these people hope, which can be dangerous if it is tried and failed, but can also motivate someone to fight harder and live on. Whether or not he is sincere, his words move people.
Parts of the interview were very scary: he fed me and Ika some paste of herbs he had in his apothecary. Only after eating it were we informed that it is used to cure impotency. He also touched my forehead with 3 fingers, and chanted something neither Ika nor I could decipher. After about 10 seconds, he asked me how I felt. I told him I felt relaxed (which I was) but then I noticed my forehead felt like it was being burned. I told him this, and he asked where I felt hot. I told him the heat was isolated to the 3 points on my forehead his fingers were touching, and he told me that that was good, because he uses this technique to discern whether or not someone is HIV+, and if my whole body had been hot, I would have HIV.
Before we left, the dukun gave us holy water (the bottle has his face on it), stones from Mecca (which we were instructed to make into pendants or rings and wear all the time), and he gave me prayer beads. He told me to smile and laugh more, and to relax. He advised me to be less serious, and to reconsider what I valued as knowledge. Earlier he had spoken about 3 levels of knowing (the first: pure observation, the second: observation and inference, and the third: prophetic wisdom). He advised me that although going to University may be important, that it was “superficial” knowledge. Although I had introduced myself as a student researching women living with HIV/AIDS, he suggested I instead recognize that I was there in his clinic first and foremost by G-d’s will.
This post is very disjointed, and I apologize for that. My head is bursting with anecdotes from our research, and I am trying to process everything I’ve learned thus far. My hope is that, in writing this post, I can help myself unpack what have been both rewarding and confusing experiences. Additionally, I hope that those who read this will be able to help me through this process, and that together we can gain a better understanding of the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding issues of gender and sexuality, HIV/AIDS, sex work, and social processes of othering.