Indonesia needs proper sex education, period

Photo courtesy of iStock

There’s so much going on in the world right now, but it’s possible that you have come across one viral statement from a commissioner at the National Commission for the Protection of Indonesian Children (KPAI), which has been making its rounds across international news outlets (including non-English speaking ones, y’all) for its undeniably WTF nature, as she’d said that women can get pregnant by simply being in a pool with men.

Let’s recap a little: this commissioner, Sitti Hikmawatty, gave an interview to an Indonesian news outlet published on Feb. 22, where she discussed issues of premarital sex and illegal abortion clinics in Indonesia and later making the now infamous viral statement.

Sitti suggested that pool water could act as a medium for sperm, saying that certain types of sperm “are really strong” that a woman can get pregnant without penetration.

“[Pregnancy] can happen without contact, like with a swimming pool acting as a median, for example. Some types of sperm are really strong,” she said.

“Even though there’s no penetration, the man [in the pool] can get aroused and ejaculate, causing pregnancy.”

Indonesians are unfortunately no stranger to ridiculous statements from their officials, and even in February alone we actually had more than just Sitti causing us to collectively roll our eyes, including one of Indonesia’s top minister saying that the rich should marry the poor in order to fix inequality. (Oof, that’s another one to unpack, isn’t it?).

KPAI Commissioner Sitti Hikmawatty. Photo: Facebook

Sitti, a college professor and is literally tasked to oversee child protection matters in the country, may have apologized for her “incorrect statement,” which she claimed is personal and not from KPAI, but the fact that she’d said it at all is still deeply concerning.

So much so that many Indonesians took to social media and called for her to step down from the commission. Sitti will be facing an ethics committee established by KPAI, who will determine whether or not she committed any violations in regards to her capacity as commissioner.

Though what will become of Sitti is not yet known, I believe her statement shed even more light on the urgent need for proper sex education in Indonesia — perhaps not just in school and for the younger generation, but also for the general public.

Sex shouldn’t be a taboo subject

Any Indonesian could easily confirm how taboo a subject sex is that it’s rarely, if ever, discussed in most spaces — be it formal or informal. Personally, I can’t quite recall if we ever touched on the subject outside of biology class during school and even then I can’t remember exactly what I’d learned there. I still find it extremely awkward, even today, to talk about sex with certain friend groups: because I was raised to believe that this is not something you ought to be discussing at all.

Last November, a story about a girl’s sexual naiveté prompted a discussion about the importance of sex education in Indonesia, after it was revealed via social media that she didn’t know what semen was. Here’s an excerpt of the article on this from Coconuts Jakarta:

Some people didn’t hesitate to call this girl “stupid” online, but if her story were indeed true — she’s really just a victim of prevalent conservative attitudes in the country, where sex education is still very much lacking. And yes, the two are very much intertwined.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Currently, Indonesian schools only teach limited aspects of reproductive health across their subjects, most only focusing on abstinence and STD threats. This is because sex education is still largely seen as a moral issue. Matters regarding consent, sexuality and other gender-sensitive issues have no space as of yet, which makes me wonder how our younger generation is coping with questions that must be swirling around their heads in this department. The fact that sex education is still very limited only further strengthens the notion that this is a taboo subject, giving little to no space for our youth to ask questions or discuss matters related to sex and never mind understanding the complexity and connection between growing up and sexuality.

Conservative attitudes have long simmered within Indonesian society, and that is not much of a surprise. I myself grew up with this idea of an invisible line that I should not cross, which deterred me from asking important questions on issues of sex, sexuality and even reproductive health. As an adult, I realized how the lack of proper education on this topic became barriers to better understanding myself and the world, for sex is such a fundamental aspect of life itself. If it weren’t for my savvy use of the internet, there’s still so much I wouldn’t know. How about Indonesians who have no access to the world wide web? And even for those with access, how are they navigating the tons of information out there, where misinformation is also rampant?

Even the slight mention of sex at most discussions are often categorized as obscene here in Indonesia. Why shouldn’t girls feel comfortable talking about menstruation? Why can’t boys talk about puberty? It’s about time we make spaces for these crucial conversations.

Conservative attitudes are getting in the way of basic facts

The archipelagic nation has witnessed a growing shift toward conservatism in recent years, an indication that signals how instead of moving forward, we’re actually taking a few steps back.

This is exemplified, in my opinion, in Sitti being in the position of commissioner of a child protection commission, which reaffirms what I’ve been concerned about: conservative attitudes getting in the way of basic scientific facts, which shouldn’t be debatable in the first place because there is a difference between opinions and facts.

I will not accept if people regard her viral statement as a “one-off blunder,” because as a person in her capacity she should know a whole lot better and should at least be able to acquire proper, fact-based education/training on the subject. The forgiving nature amongst many Indonesians means we don’t necessarily hold people accountable for their actions, but such is crucial when they oversee important matters such as child protection. If people like Sitti, who is arguably incompetent, are in charge — is it a wonder then that girl didn’t know what semen was?

Now, when you take a moment to consider carefully what Sitti had said, it carries an underlying caution to the ladies to stay away from public spaces that have to be shared with men (which is like, most spaces, yo). While I wouldn’t know if it was intentional, what Sitti said further pushes the idea that women can only find safety in domestic spaces where they are not subject to these kinds of “dangers” which therefore further reinforces harmful conservative attitudes that keep women at home and to domestic duties, rather than free to do what they please.

I, for one, love to swim. I certainly cannot afford to build one for myself nor have I ever seen a women-only pool exist (they really don’t have to, I don’t think): so if I were to take Sitti literally, am I supposed to just never swim again? (She didn’t say anything about ocean water, perhaps I can still swim in the ocean, then, in her bogus reality).

When there’s a lack of basic understanding (again, as exemplified by the story of the aforementioned naive girl), girls and women are even more vulnerable to become victims of sexual violence; a crisis of which we are amidst of here in Indonesia. About one-third of women in the country have experienced sexual abuse, with conservative estimates hovering at around 90% of cases going unreported. So, when the country takes up the task of providing sex education for its people, it’s actually ticking off one of the boxes in solving the crisis.

Here’s what I’m wondering: are we adequately teaching young boys and girls to know the difference between acceptable and inappropriate behavior? Are they well-equipped to know that there is such a thing as consent, and that “no” means no? How are we ensuring safe spaces for our youths to speak up about these issues, especially for when they are unfortunate victims of someone else’s gross misdeed? Have we done all that we could to prepare the younger generation to embrace their identity and sexuality?

I recently finished the second season of Sex Education on Netflix, a brilliant series that does such a great job unpacking the issues of sex and sexuality through the lenses of clueless teenagers who’s navigating the complexity of growing up. Episode after episode continued to blow my mind away, and I can’t help but feel like it could’ve and would’ve positively impacted me if only there was such a show in my own teen years. Thank God it exists today, but what about those without access to Netflix? And what does it say when we solely depend on one web television series to do the heavy lifting?

The sad reality remains that our elders, many of whom are government officials and policymakers, still adamantly uphold problematic and archaic views on sex education, all in the name of morality and traditional values. But that shouldn’t stop us from voicing what we believe in, and in this case that is demanding for proper sex education in Indonesia. And, while we’re at it, maybe we can get Sitti a Netflix subscription so she can learn from Sex Education herself?

Indonesian journalist, currently based in Bali.

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