Narratives of Agency: Sex Work in Indonesia’s Borderlands. Conclusion

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Ani’s and Lia’s stories throw into sharp the false dichotomy between “force” and “choice” in the debate over women’s involvement in sex work. Both women have experienced choice and constraint throughout their lives— as young married women, as single mothers, as labor migrants, as sex workers, and as women married to foreign men. They have exercised agency within the structural bounds of their particular circumstances, and with varying degrees of success, at each life stage. Their marriage to foreigners has catapulted them from their status as poor transmigrants firmly into the lower middle classes, where they are able to consume a lifestyle unattainable for most Indonesian women of their class background. The anonymity afforded by their lives on the outer fringes of the Indonesian nation-state has allowed them to conceal the nature of their involvement in sex work from their families. However, the moral and social sanctions placed on women’s sexuality leave an enduring mark on their lives.

While the border zone has provided them with prospects that they would not have had elsewhere, it also imposes risks and other costs. For women seeking new futures on the border, hard-won respectability can all too easily disappear. The physical distance between marriage partners gives the women a high level of autonomy, but leaves them vulnerable should their husbands tire of the commute. And, while their husbands are aware of their “history,” their families and neighbors are not, leaving them constantly fearful that the truth about their social mobility may be discovered. We are not suggesting that all working-class women (or sex workers) have these same opportunities by virtue of being present in the islands, as class mobility is contingent upon many factors and must be actively and consciously achieved. Ani and Lia have shaped a future for themselves far different from that available to them in the transmigration villages where they grew up, a future in which they have the moral protection of a married status and ample economic resources, while maintaining a level of day today autonomy unimaginable to most Indonesian women. Yet although they have benefited from the fluid nature of class formation and community structures in the borderlands, as former sex workers, Lia and Ani continue to carry the stain of the past with them as they navigate the often treacherous path between structure and agency.

 

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