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The history of sex work in Indonesia is filled with contradictions and conflicts. Women from poor families were recruited by nobles to take the position of concubines to serve the twin roles of domestic and sexual servants.
Foreign traders, soldiers and officials also exploited the opportunity to recruit poor women to maintain temporary households, and petty officials took on the role of pimps to organize sex workers for increasingly commercialised operations. The complaints of religious leaders from both the Christian churches of the colonisers and the Islamic and Hindu believers among indigenous people put pressure on the state to regulate or forbid sex work, largely unsuccessfully. In a detailed review of the history of prostitution up to the end of the New Order this article traces the transformation of sex work from a largely socially acceptable practice into a widely condemned, but begrudgingly accepted social reality.
On the surface of social discourse, the sale of sexual services is almost universally condemned. Particular criticism is levelled at women engaged in such transactions. They are called wanita tuna susila —women without morals— and are often stereotyped as predatory. In contrast little is said about the men who are their customers. From time to time feminists and religious moralists attempt to focus attention on pria tuna susila men without morals , but the terminology has always failed to capture the popular imagination.
In this context prostitution in Indonesia is full of contradictions. Though easily found throughout the land, it is the subject of broad condemnation. Placed in a legal status of great ambiguity, the institutions of prostitution are often owned by governments, managed by former government officials, and subject to both regulation and taxation.
Prostitution in Indonesia differs greatly in form, social setting and operation from those commercial sex institutions of Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, and also displays many important regional variations.