Prostitution – an unfair gender-biased crime

RECENTLY, prostitution hogged the headlines in Jakarta and in Johor Baru.

Despite differences in scope and players, almost all Indonesians and Malaysians applauded the tough action taken by authorities against the perpetrators.

This suggests many individuals in both countries perceive prostitution through the prism of morality rather than as a socio-economic issue.

At end-Oct this year, The Jakarta Post reported Governor Anies Baswedan's refusal to renew the operational licence of Alexis Hotel, thus shutting down a widely-rumoured luxurious "dreamland for men" in the Indonesian capital.

One of Anies' campaign promises, Alexis' closure was widely lauded by the Jakarta governor's supporters.

Nearly two weeks later in Johor Baru, a 39-year-old mother was jailed an astonishing 150 years on 10 charges of prostituting her two daughters, aged 13 and 10 respectively, to Bangladeshi men for RM50 payment for each session – a ruling lauded by almost everyone.

Writing in The Jakarta Post, Julia Suryakusuma offered an enlightened perspective on prostitution.

Notable for its frankness and acerbic wit, her article should be read by all Malaysians, particularly those lacking empathy for those forced by economic necessity to become prostitutes.

Suryakusuma's article makes five points.

First, poverty is a major driver of prostitution.

"For the lower classes, economic factors – i.e. poverty – is the strongest motivating force.

"Eradicating poverty, improving education, providing jobs would help to stem prostitution but it would never totally eradicate it, as high-class and celebrity prostitution attests, kept alive by none other than the patronage of our esteemed government officials," she says.

"If a family needs a house, all they would need to do is sell off their daughter. They get a loan for their purchase and it's the daughter who gradually pays it off through her sex work," she writes.

Second, many small businesses depend on income generated by members of the oldest profession.

When Tri Rismaharini, Mayor of Surabaya in East Java, closed down Dolly – "in its heyday the largest prostitution complex in Southeast Asia" – the closure "devastated the local economy ... The people who live around the complex had a symbiotic relationship with the inhabitants of Dolly, providing food, laundry and other services," Suryakusuma notes.

Third, monetary gratification (corruption) and sexual gratification (prostitution) are closely linked, she comments, citing inspector-general Anton Charliyan, head of the National Police Public Relations Division (in 2015).

"In Soeharto's New Order, the practice of 'one woman, one project,' using not just money, but also women to bribe government officials was standard practice," she says.

Fourth, attempts to eradicate prostitution are exercises in futility, she adds.

"Even the raids that are conducted by the police are invariably a means of income for the public order officers.

"The sex workers pay them off, and they can carry on playing their trade – until the next raid, and so the cycle continues," she writes.

Fifth, a better approach towards prostitution is to licence the industry and use the income generated to fund public services, she implicitly suggests.

This pragmatic approach was adopted by Ali Sadikin, one of the most successful governors of Jakarta. During his tenure from 1966 to 1977, Sadikin was "sometimes given the title of gubernur maksiat – governor of vice" because he legalised prostitution and used the revenue generated to build schools, health clinics and other necessary public facilities.

"In contrast, Anies stated that he was unwilling to accept the 30 billion rupiah (RM9.1 million) in taxes from Hotel Alexis, which he says is immoral money," Suryaku-suma writes.

Across the Straits of Malacca, the Johor Baru woman was widely condemned as a "monster mother" while the teacher whom the 13-year-old daughter texted for help was lauded helping to initiate the police action to end the two young girls' forcible foray into prostitution.

While the mother's act of compelling her two young daughters to have sex with Bangladeshi men is morally reprehensible, is her 150-year jail sentence appropriate?

For a start, the mother was legally unrepresented when she pleaded guilty. She had no lawyer to offer an effective plea in mitigation that could have, arguably, reduced her jail sentence substantially.

Additionally, she is an unemployed single mother with four very young daughters – the latter two are aged five and four.

This, plus the fact she charged the Bangladeshi men RM50 for each sex session with both daughters suggests prostituting her two daughters may have been prompted by economic necessity.

Although betraying her two daughters is deplorable, is her three-digit jail sentence fair? How many men have been jailed 150 years for raping their daughters or grand-daughters?

Fathers as well as mothers have a duty of care towards their children. Why are women – and not men – penalised for a similar dereliction of duty?

Prostitution is the ultimate gender-biased offence – sex workers are repeatedly punished while their clients remain totally free.

Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. She can be contacted at