Sexual Cultures in East Asia: The Social Construction of Sexuality and Sexual Risk in a Time of AIDS

By Evelyne Micollier | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11

SEX WORK IN TIMES OF AIDS, CAUGHT BETWEEN THE VISIBLE AND THE INVISIBLE

IVAN WOLFFERS, PAULA KELLY AND ANKE VAN DER KWAAK

In a workshop on reproductive health needs in Semarang (Indonesia) in 1987, the provincial health authorities told one of the authors (IW) that there was practically no prostitution in Central Java. Later that same evening, after we had had dinner and had driven back in the night to the hotel, the same people showed me where sex workers along the entry roads to the city were attracting their clients. Officially they denied their existence but, as men of the world, they knew where to find them. In 1988, when the English-language newspapers in Thailand started to write about the emergence of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the city authorities of Bangkok were challenged on the existence of the many massage parlours. They denied that these were places where sex work took place. It was massage and nothing else but, as it concerned adult people who had their natural needs, it was quite possible that other things might happen too. Officially the authorities denied this aspect of sex work, but they also had their private knowledge of what might happen in the rooms of the massage parlours. Now, almost fifteen years later, this attitude has changed dramatically in both Indonesia and Thailand, because it created an unworkable situation. How can HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns be developed if one of the most important ways of transmission (sexual intercourse) is denied? The HIV/AIDS epidemic has confronted countries in Asia with the ways they are dealing with sexuality.

In most societies sexuality belongs to the tacit knowledge of human beings. People know about it, have ways to communicate about it, but they hesitate to be open about it. The HIV pandemic has confronted societies with behaviours that contribute to increased risk of transmission of the virus. Sexual behaviour in particular has become the focus of attention of public health specialists and researchers. This change in attitude does not mean that all aspects of sexuality are highlighted in the same way. And it may also be expected that, in the process of making sexuality more 'visible', certain expectations of 'correct' versus 'incorrect' sexual behaviour will be introduced.

The last ten years have produced more research then ever before on sexual behaviour in Asia, though not all of it is of sufficient quality. The

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