Indonesia's Porn Obsession

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Reporters mob pop singer Nazril "Ariel" Irham and his girlfriend, actress Luna Maya

Back in school, Jason Iskandar and his friends did more together than cram for exams. One of their favorite pastimes was trading porn DVDs or swapping files downloaded from the Internet. That was middle school — and he was 14 at the time. "I can confidently say around 99% of the kids in my school had seen some kind of porn," recalls Iskandar, now 19. "My other friends had already accessed pornography when they were in elementary school, when they were around 12 years old."

As Indonesian police scramble to figure out who disseminated the graphic videos of two of the country's top celebrities that surfaced on June 4, and whether or not to prosecute the stars under the country's antipornography laws, the rest of society might want to do some investigating of their own into why there are so many fans of porn in this country with the world's largest Muslim population. Reliable data about the usage and reach of pornography in Indonesia is hard to come by, but the sensation caused by each new clandestine sex film brought to light reveals a deep-seated fascination — perhaps obsession — with the seamier sides of life.

That sex scandals like the current videos of the heartthrob singer Nazril "Ariel" Irham from the multiplatinum band Peterpan (who is being detained by police) and his actress girlfriend Luna Maya, captivate Indonesians from time to time is not surprising. But blame does not lie solely with the Internet. True, more and more Indonesians are gaining access to the Web via cell phones and Internet cafés, but young kids around the country have long been able to get their hands on magazines, often crudely drawn or poor-quality reproductions of dodgy magazines from the West. In 2008, lawmakers passed a special law banning pornography instead of regulating it, driving porn underground and into the hands of the most vulnerable consumers. "Why are there so many fans of pornography in Indonesia?" asks Juniwati Masjchun Sofwan, head of the Indonesian Commission to Eradicate Pornography. "Because there has been a lack of control since the press and society found new freedom in the 10 years since Reformasi."

Indeed, the authoritarian President Suharto kept a tight lid on press freedom until his fall in 1998, which ushered in the period known as Reformasi, but pirated videotapes and magazines could be found even then in small towns and villages. Law enforcers, then and now, hold shows of force for the press, destroying pornographic materials en masse after the raids, yet pirated materials quickly surface again in various shopping centers. "The problem is far from being solved and won't be solved by an antipornography law or by censoring the Internet," says Usman Hamid, head of the Kontras organization and a leading human-rights campaigner in Jakarta. Usman suggests that the issue of pornography has long been ignored by the police and has become more of a political commodity for politicians to get voters' support. "It is impossible to patrol a country as big as Indonesia," he says. "The police need to go after the producers and distributors, but they don't because they are also a source of funds for them so nothing happens."

If the police and government are unable or unwilling to stamp out the circulation of pornography or even regulate it in the hands of adults, perhaps there needs to be wider discussion of the bigger elephant in the room. "There is no sex education in the public schools or the Muslim boarding schools known as pesantren," explains Guntur Romli, who writes on sexuality and Islam and studied at Al Azhar in Cairo. "All that is taught is what is halal or haram, and that is the end of the discussion." Given the country's strict antipornography laws and the growing chorus of fundamentalist views regarding what is considered moral or immoral behavior, Indonesia is likely to find itself fighting a battle that won't only be won by censoring the Internet, as is currently being proposed by the Ministry of Information. "We cannot talk about sex only in terms of Islamic fiqih," adds Guntur, referring to the study of laws pertaining to ritual obligations. "Waiting to discuss sex when you're married is too late."

Juniwati of the Indonesian Commission to Eradicate Pornography, who has spearheaded attempts to clamp down on the distribution of pornography, disagrees. She echoes a widely held view that sex education should not be taught at schools. "Biology is fine, but discussion of sex should be done at home by parents," she says. "The problem is that parents don't know what their kids get up to outside of the house and generally know less about technology than their kids."

Therein lies the problem — and one that is addressed at great length in a new study by the U.S.-based Witherspoon Institute. In their recent study conducted in the U.S. entitled "The Social Costs of Pornography," the authors determined that the prevalence of pornography in the lives of children and adolescents is far greater than parents realize. "This study points to one more troubling fact about the access of children to the Internet, including Internet pornography: Their parents are almost all unaware of what they are doing," the report reads. "Nearly all of those parents independently reported that they doubted their children would access pornography on the Internet."

That gap is found in equal measure in Indonesia, and nowhere is it more evident than in the younger population and in the schools, as Iskandar makes abundantly clear. "In my school, pornography was not something taboo. You could even say that it was more taboo to talk about condoms or our own sexual activity," explains Iskandar, who is now a documentary filmmaker. "But I don't think pornography is influencing my private life in any way." That may be the case, but that may also be what two of the country's pop stars were thinking, until their home video ended up on the computer screens and cell phones of millions of their fans.