Indonesia: Defining Porn In Order To Ban It, Plus Mini-Skirts Cause Rape

Is this pornography? Thanks to the Tropenmuseum and Wikimedia for the image.

A series of new Indonesian laws would set criteria for defining pornography in order to ban it, as well as outlaw immodest clothing for women based on the belief that women’s attire is what causes them to be targeted by rapists.

I hardly know where to begin with this set of erroneous assumptions – and yes, I acknowledge that religion, specifically various sects of Islam, is important in the situation and adds a layer of complexity which I will not be able to fully address here. However, I bring up this news story in order to educate our American readership about global events, and also to point out some parallels in our supposedly-more-enlightened country.

So, first: how do we define pornography? We have been there, done that in the US, without much success. As this overview of obscenity court cases demonstrates, what is considered “obscene” varies a lot. Even materials that incite lust (which is a general definition of obscene) can be considered worth protection under the law if they contribute to social criticism or can be said to have any artistic value whatsoever. Further, Justice Potter Stewart in one of these cases coined the well known phrase “I know it when I see it,” which is entirely subjective and elides the actual process of defining pornography. I view this as a cop-out, especially since I would’ve never made it through grad school if “I know it when I see it” had been my answer to any of dozens of essays and exams asking me to, for instance, define a genre of folklore or discuss sexism in fairy tales!

The Indonesia case is interesting because one minister acknowledges that definitions of sexual display vary between cultures. He notes: “Balinese women, for instance, they have unique way of dressing, the upper part of their traditional dress (does not cover their shoulders) but it’s not pornography. They also dance gracefully and it’s not considered pornography.” Basically, he’s expressing the idea that what’s considered sexual or sexy varies between cultures. As a cultural scholar, I can tell you that this is totally true. However, he goes on to completely miss the point when he says: “So we have to set criteria of what pornography is.” Um, if you just said that the idea of sexuality varies between cultures, how are you going to set criteria for defining inappropriate sexual display?!

Then there is the expression of the familiar idea of victim-blaming in the Indonesian context. When people attribute rape to women wearing inappropriate clothing, they are ignoring the very real facts of such cases, such as how rape is usually about power rather than sex. Further, this view tends to make men into monsters: “You know what men are like. Provocative clothing will make them do things.” If I were a man being characterized as an uncontrollable beast always tottering on the edge of raping someone, I’d be pissed. Rape culture and victim-blaming do exist, and in the US they have been amply documented. While I wish we could say we’re over that inaccurate and judgmental BS, lots of people still rely on these outdated constructs so they don’t have to face the reality of how our culture enables rapists while silencing survivors.

Finally, there is the strange but prevalent dynamic whereby women’s sexuality is patrolled more closely any time women make gains in equality or when social upheaval occurs. The article’s author describes a number of pressing political problems, such as how “thousands are demonstrating on the streets about fuel price rises and the cost of living, but the Indonesian government’s response has been to crack down hard on short skirts.” It would be far too easy to draw a parallel to the situation in the US, where we remain entrenched in overseas wars and our poor are dying from lack of adequate health care, but politicians are endlessly debating whether it’s immoral to require employers to give women access to birth control that is often medically necessary.

At risk of sounding pessimistic, a lot of this comes down to control. Women have historically been in weaker social, political, and economic positions than men in many cultures, and so when some things start to get out of control, people freak out and try to assert power where they can (which unfortunately, happens to be over disempowered people: women, immigrants, and so on). So while it’s tempting to take an us vs. them perspective and frown on other less-developed countries still figuring it out, we’re not acting much better or more enlightened than they are.

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About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.