Muscular, bronzed Indonesian men with big smiles and long, wavy hair have been seducing foreign women along the white-sand beaches of Bali for more than three decades now. Known as "Kuta cowboys," after Bali's popular Kuta Beach, these men often hold low-paying beach jobs renting snorkeling gear or selling sodas, but what they are really peddling is romance. Many call them gigolos a term they reject but for years, they've been flirting with foreigners without causing a fuss. That is, until now. Local police raided the beach on April 26 after the trailer for a new documentary on the Kuta cowboys went viral on the Internet. Indonesian authorities detained 28 men described by the head of Kuta's beach security as "young, fit-looking and tanned" on suspicion of selling sex. Could this be the beginning of the end for Bali's famed Kuta cowboys?
The film that triggered the crackdown, Cowboys in Paradise by Singapore resident Amit Virmani, contains candid interviews with Kuta cowboys in which they describe not only their strategies for wooing foreign women but also their hopes and heartbreaks on the beach. Virmani says his film, which intended to explore what motivates these men, has been grossly misunderstood and isn't an exposé on male sex work. Before making the film, Virmani says, he assumed, like others, that Kuta cowboys were merely male prostitutes. But after making the movie, that stereotype "was royally shattered," he says. "Love happens."
Though the cowboys do not receive money directly for sex, women do typically pay for their meals and often lavish them with gifts. Some cowboys ride scooters, listen to nice stereos and live in apartments paid for by foreign women. The men sing love songs to women on the beach, escort them to the island's dance clubs and will often take the women home. In the film, they treat seduction as a job, referring to finding women as "fishing" and text-messaging lovers as "work." One cowboy says that if he goes shopping with a woman who only buys him a T-shirt, he will leave her immediately and go after a woman who'll shell out more. They're adamant, though, that while they receive money, they never ask for it and that they are emotionally attached to the women. "I am not a gigolo," says Agung, a former cowboy, in the film. "The gigolos don't speak from the heart. They speak from the mind. But I speak from the heart."
Women come from all over the world to find sex and romance in Bali. In Cowboys in Paradise, Rudi, a handsome 31-year-old cowboy, stands shirtless in his modest apartment and points to German, Dutch and Australian flags hanging on his walls, each one sent to him by a different girlfriend (one of whom he momentarily forgets the name of). The two most common places where people come from are Japan and Australia, but Virmani says that increasingly, Bali is "the United Nations of love." The cowboys market themselves to foreign women as the keys to unlocking the "true" Bali; one Bali expat in the film says the cowboys "try to sell paradise" and "posit themselves as being the intermediaries."
A life of surf, sun and sex, however, has its perils. With per capita annual income only about $2,200 in Indonesia, many cowboys consider marrying a foreigner and moving away to the bright lights of the developed world the ultimate goal. In the film, Agung marries a Japanese tourist and is whisked away to Japan, but after six months of working what Agung thought was an unpaid job to learn a craft, he finds out that his wife has been secretly taking his wages. When he confronts her, she takes out a stack of receipts recording every cent she spent on him and informs him that he is in debt to her. Agung escapes to Bali only after seducing another Japanese woman who pays for his plane ticket home. Still, Agung insists, he didn't go to Japan just for the money. "[She] truly loved me, and I loved her," he says.
Men don't just risk heartache as a Kuta cowboy. Even though the cowboys don't think of themselves as gigolos, they should "be considered part of the male sex trade," says Virmani, and as such, they are a high-risk group for HIV. Statistics on the HIV rate among Bali's beach boys don't exist, but HIV is a real threat: the HIV rate in Bali is 84 times that of Australia, according to the film. Wayan, a Kuta cowboy, says that though he usually uses condoms, "a lot of those who do yoga" don't want to use condoms since "they trust their intuition that my energy is good." Wayan isn't too worried about spreading diseases even though he's never been tested because, he says, "the Europeans ought to be healthier."
Despite the film's attempt to push past the image of the cowboys as paid-for-use boy toys, local authorities are afraid that spotlighting the island's romance trade will hurt Bali's image. The Kuta cowboys have ostensibly been tolerated for decades even though unlike in some parts of Indonesia prostitution is illegal on the island of Bali. Nyoman Suwidjana, vice chairman of the Bali Tourism Board, says he is "very uneasy" with the film, fearing it could encourage more sex tourism and create a "community quite separate from the mainstream." Already, Suwidjana says, "[foreign] women have become less friendly to [local men]"; because they are approached by cowboys so often, they assume all sociable locals have ulterior motives. In reality, says Suwidjana, most cowboys come from elsewhere in Indonesia and assume Balinese names. "The beach has been taken over by outsiders," he says.
Suwidjana is not the only person upset with the film and the cowboys. Virmani has been receiving anonymous death threats for months from people who he suspects haven't seen the full movie and think he's tarnishing Bali's reputation. He shrugs them off, but he worries about the people who appeared in the movie. As soon as Virmani heard about the beach raids, he took down the trailer from his website, leaving a note saying, "We are aghast at the recent raids in Kuta. This is not the point of the film." But it was too late; his film had hit a nerve. Now authorities in Bali have accused Virmani of fraud and working without the proper permits. If found guilty, he could be arrested and face up to four years in an Indonesian prison, according to the Jakarta Globe. Bali police say they have even contacted Interpol "to track him down in Singapore." The police say they are serious about ridding the beach of cowboys, telling the Globe the raids will continue. At the moment, though, the Kuta cowboys are risking arrest and continuing to stroll the beach, which for Virmani, at least, is where they belong. Says the filmmaker: "The beach would be a very dull place without them."