Sex Trade: Oppression or Empowerment?

Ford and Lyon’s article on the Narratives of Agency: Sex Work in Indonesia’s Borderlands discusses how women who live in the constrain of a patriarchal society in the transmigration village of Indonesia, through exercising agencies within these boundaries manage to move out of their original social structure to become a lower middle class woman. The two women discussed in this article are Ani and Lia, two women that originally belonged to a transmigration village in Indonesia. Through being deceived or free will, they went into the sex industry and managed to find foreign husbands, allowing them to live the lives of a lower middle class woman. While these two women had very different circumstances, and both had very different motivations for their marriage, they managed to move up the social ladder, which would not have been possible if they had stayed within the structure of their patriarchal society in the transmigration village.

The article raises the false dichotomy that women in the sex trade were either forced or deceived into joining the sex trade, following the conventional belief that prostitution compromises the rights of females. While it is true that many prostitutes were deceived into the sex trade as Ani was and were unable to leave the industry because they did not know how to, I feel that in some cases prostitution may be a way to empower women and allow them to be able to defy patriarchy from within the social system. As can be seen from the case of Lia and Ani, both were not very highly educated, one just passing high school, and the other dropping out of high school at an early age. Within a patriarchal village, without any proper means to survive independently, both Lia and Ani would have had to follow the conventional pathway of getting married and having children within the village. However what prostitution gave them was a pathway out of the convention of the village. While prostitution as many would argue was an indication of strong influence from a patriarch society, and a demeaning of female rights, it is through this tool that both Lia and Ani were able to rise up the social ladder that they originally could have had. As such working within the patriarchal structure, Lia and Ani managed to use the sex industry as a tool to improve their lives.

Furthermore, although they married in the end, and were given financial stability through their marriage, it need not mean a submission to patriarchy. In both Lia and Ani’s case, they both married foreign men, which gave them a greater degree of autonomy around the household, as their husbands were not always with them. Ani’s children are also under her care, as such within the household, the amount of power that Ani had would have been substantially higher than that of a household in a conventional transmigration village. Their marriage were also not just a matter of finding financial stability but rather they had the choice to decide to want to get married, as can be seen in Lia’s case, where she rejected a rich suitor before. This indicates that marriage was not a submission to patriarchy, but rather a personal choice that Lia had the power to decide on, as such indicating an assertion of the rights of the female. This is also evident in how Lia has the power to decide whether she wants children or not, as such her marriage is not an unequal one with her husband holding the financial security, and she also has the power to be able to decide whether her reproductive may be utilized or not. This would have been unlike the traditional family where Lia may not have had the power to be able to decide who she marries or whether she has the rights to determine her reproductive abilities. As can be seen from Lia and Ani, marriage was not a submission to patriarchy, but rather a personal choice, which gave them greater autonomy over their lives.

As such I feel that this article raises two issues that have been conventionally argued as an indication of gender inequality, prostitution and marriage to men of higher social status. While in many cases gender inequality exists within the sex industry as well as conventional marriages, they are not necessarily indicative of inequality. In fact prostitution may be a tool in which women can work around a patriarchal society to be able to achieve a better status. Furthermore, marriage to a richer man need not be seen as women giving up power, but rather a personal choice of the woman, and autonomy of the woman is not necessarily lost with this act. Thus prostitution and marriage need not lead to oppression, the patriarchal structure may constrain women in many ways, but through various agencies present within the social system, women can still find ways to adapt and pursue the live that they desire.

Ford, M. & Lyons, L (2011). Narratives of agency: sex work in Indonesia’s borderlands. In Kathleen, M.A. & Kathleen, A.G. (Eds.), Everyday life in Southeast Asia (295-303). Indiana: Indiana University Press.

More pages