objects in mirror are closer than they appear

Posted by anya on June 7th, 2010 filed in Uncategorized

Two ideas have been floating here, somewhere both in my head and above, somewhere else, where I can’t adequately process them. Let me give it a shot. At first, they’re seemingly unrelated, and I suppose that the way this will make sense is if I speak of it chronologically. The first idea came last year, even, although I began to dwell on it only with this successive trip to Indonesia.

When you come to Bali and go to Kuta Beach, there is an undeniable air of surf/beach-bum cool. Part of that whole deal are the well-known Kuta Cowboys, some of whom are the people I know best in Indonesia. Recently, a documentary trailer was released that aimed to show what these guys are about. It caused an amazing amount of controversy in this corner of the world, with the government immediately cracking down on the boys themselves – a group was rounded up and taken to the police department to be questioned under allegations of negatively affecting tourism. In a heartbreaking gesture, many of the guys cut off their long hair to get away from the stereotypical long-haired Kuta Beach Boy look. I talked to people on the beach about this trailer before having seen it, and now that I have watched it, I’m still amazed at how two and a half minutes of at once vague and pointed footage can generate such a fuss. My friend Deni, one of said Beach Boys, described the trailer as “not entirely wrong, but almost wrong.” I loved his description, not because I necessarily agree with him, but because I can’t believe the double standard that exists between this documentary and countless others that have aimed to shine the light on (mostly female) prostitution in Asia.

Whereas the female sex trade (particularly in Asia) is often seen as survival prostitution, the scene at Kuta is painted of one in which boys collect notches on bedposts, reveling in the power of the fantasy they create for tourist after tourist. And this is what struck me: men are allowed agency in prostitution, whereas women are most often denied it. Here, it is assumed that this is all for fun, that the casual sex is simply a favorable afterthought in the overall paradise that is Bali. Asian women, however, as portrayed as having no other choice, as being forced to take this upon as a means to support themselves and their families. The reason that this bothers me is because I think the type of relationships exemplified in Bali can be as much about survival for the Kuta Beach Boys as they are for many Asian women who are living this lifestyle. In a situation where you never, ever know how much money you’ll bring in each day from renting surfboards and giving lessons, you have a natural tendency to cling to a source of stability, to a person who never has to wonder whether they can afford to spend a dollar on dinner that evening. At the same time, the reverse is true. There are those men and women who do this purely because they can, purely to indulge in the fruits of Western sexual liberation.

Deni had a point when he said that the trailer was “almost wrong” – it portrayed one scenario of several, after which we are left to deliberate what room is left for genuine feeling. It’s hard, this honesty thing. Fantasy is an ingrained aspect of traveling somewhere where you are dripping with privilege – the fantasy of ever being equal begins, for a moment, to seem real. That fantasy doesn’t just dissipate when you fall in love. I have experienced being painfully aware of my own privilege in the past few months, and it has made me question my commitment to living in Asia. I constantly crave anonymity and I wish nothing more that my efforts to learn Indonesian and do as common people do would bring me closer to being seen as a part of this society. At moments, I manage to convince myself, but that’s just until another motorbike speeds by and the driver turns his head to check that, yes, it was a white person he saw.

And yet I know that without the realities of this scenario I would hardly be able to afford trips to Bali, buffet lunches at the Shangri-La, and massages on a whim. I find myself in the perverse position of abhorring the expat lifestyle and yet knowing that I’ll never be able to (or perhaps even want to) give it up completely. Where does this leave idea #1? Oh yes, perhaps at the somewhat anti-climactic conclusion that all of us buy into a fantasy and most of the time we retain the agency that exists alongside doing so. I think that that is true for both the one who is seen at the exploited and the one who is perceived as doing the exploiting (and the mere mention of this instantly makes things more complicated). The government is ill-advised to treat the Kuta Beach Boys as a threat to tourism – it would be smarter instead to realize that this form of exploitation at least comes with the added benefit of fulfilling a basic human need. Many other more common forms fail to do even this.

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