Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Underground and at risk

Underground and at risk

Iskandar Nugroho

   ‘Protect yourself by using a condom, Protect Papua from HIV’: a poster used in Papua to educate about condom usage
   Papua Province AIDS Commission

It’s a Saturday night in downtown Jayapura. A group of young men queue patiently for access to one of the ten computers in a popular internet cafe. They sit together on plastic benches, staring at mobile phones that beep constantly with a stream of incoming messages.

Among the crowd waiting to use a computer is Valentino (not his real name), 21 years old and born and raised in Sorong, West Papua. Valentino is of mixed Papuan and Kei background. He left home two years ago to enrol as a student in economics at Cendrawasih University in Jayapura. Every Saturday night he spends time online, browsing the internet and checking emails, as well as joining in an Indonesian language gay chat room. He enjoys the chance to share feelings and experiences, but his main agenda is to find someone for sex.

The delayed recognition of the existence of male to male sex and sexual networking in Papua is a huge issue in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

As long as the internet cafe isn’t hit by one of the rolling electricity blackouts that plague the city, he can always find someone to spend his Saturday night with, usually back in the house where he rents a room. If the internet does fail, he still has other options: less than 50 metres from his usual internet cafe is one of the Jayapura ‘hotspots’, or meeting places for men who have sex with men (MSM).

Undercover sex

Undercover meeting places for men like Valentino have long been part of Jayapura’s MSM scene. The main shopping mall, the taxi terminal and city parks are key sites for the scene. But there are also less ‘appropriate’ meeting places for people in search of casual sex, like the grounds of Jayapura’s main mosque. There, men looking for sex with other men mix with people selling, or in search of, other forms of casual sex, all divided according to their different groups.

Those in the MSM ‘category’ include men who are prepared to pay, or be paid, for sex, usually as a way of supplementing their meagre incomes. Sometimes ‘payment’ takes the form of ‘phone money’, or money for alcohol, which is consumed in large quantities in urban Papua. They often congregate with people of their own ethnic background, but a form of networking exists between different MSM groups. Waria (transgendered or transsexual males), for example, will sometimes make a contact on behalf of a man looking for a different type of MSM partner, or vice versa.

An internet-based sub-culture

In the wider world of urban Papua, same sex behaviour is still heavily stigmatised and relationships between men are not recognised. In fact, social and cultural taboos make it impossible to openly discuss sex outside marriage. Men are under strong pressure to marry and fulfil their roles as husbands and fathers, and any man known to have engaged in sex with another man is a source of shame for his family and community. As a result, married men in search of sex with other men are constantly on the move, seeking partners far removed from their own family, church and community environments. These taboos are extremely dangerous. Papua has the highest rates of HIV infection in Indonesia, five times the national average. In fact 30,000 people out of a population of only 2.5 million are estimated to be infected with HIV. MSM groups are at high risk of contracting the virus, because of their ‘no talk, just sex’ attitude and behaviour.

… social and cultural taboos make it impossible to openly discuss sex outside marriage.

The internet plays a role, especially for young and educated Papuans, in getting around social sanctions. It allows them to engage in private conversations, arrange meetings and check out a prospective partner’s profile, often complete with a photo. These young men are part of a mushrooming trend all over urban Papua: from internet cafes to private homes and offices internet usage is booming. The internet is cheap and easily accessible, linking cities like Jayapura not only with other towns all over Papua, but with the world at large. In Papua itself, it enables sexual contacts to be made between men of all types, from the main urban centres to the outlying districts. The reach of the internet parallels the mapping of the HIV epidemic, which has now spread all over Papua and through all age groups of the population.

Valentino was introduced to the internet, and especially its gay chat rooms, by a Papuan friend studying at a university in Makassar. Like many other men all over urban Indonesia, Valentino and his friend have found the main Indonesian language gay chat room to be an ideal meeting place. They show no interest in seeking out a long term cohabiting partner, perhaps because social norms in Papua would make this unimaginable. But the internet supplies them with what they are looking for: direct contact with both locals and visitors in search of MSM. Since becoming a regular visitor to the chat room, Valentino has met up with men from a wide range of different backgrounds, ethnicities and professional and educational levels. Even when he is back home on holidays in Sorong, the internet keeps him in touch with local MSM activity. Men like Valentino also put their internet contacts in touch with those who have no internet access. They regularly share contacts with each other and the wider MSM community, meaning that once someone becomes part of the network, phone calls, SMS and MMS (image inputs) from strangers is an everyday occurrence. There is no privacy and no confidentiality. It is all seen as a form of MSM solidarity.

A huge challenge

Valentino’s own sexual history began at an early age, and has involved multiple partners. Apart from having a sexual relationship with his girlfriend, he has had sex with men aged between 18 and 40, including students, civil servants and military personnel from all over Indonesia, and even with foreign tourists visiting Papua. He and his MSM partners all distinguish themselves from waria, and don’t themselves have sex with waria. Like Valentino, most of them have girlfriends, and plan to marry. For them, sex with men is just casual fun. It is usually associated with alcohol, confirming a 2006 Cendrawasih University study which found that in Papua, alcohol is widely believed to enhance personal image and confidence, as well as sexual drive.

Overall, there is a dangerous lack of information and awareness about the risks associated with unprotected sex among MSM in Papua.

Condom use by men like Valentino is extremely low, and also inconsistent. One finding suggests that condoms are associated in most men’s minds with sex between prostitutes and immigrants, which they believe is the only sexual activity that carries a risk of HIV infection. Many of those interviewed on the subject say that condoms are only necessary if someone has sex with a sex worker in a designated prostitution zone. Those who have been exposed to education campaigns, or have been outside Papua, are better informed. But many still do not use condoms for fear that their ‘secrets’ will be discovered by their wives or girlfriends if they are found to be in possession of condoms. This means that their regular female partners are also being exposed to high levels of risk. Overall, there is a dangerous lack of information and awareness about the risks associated with unprotected sex among MSM in Papua.

   The first ‘Papua Condom Week’ being celebrated in the Jayapura taxi terminal, February 2008. Members of the
   Jayapura Transgender Association (Iwaja) were actively involved with the campaign
   Iskandar Nugroho

Valentino himself is one of a very small group of men in Jayapura who were exposed to a trial condom promotion through internet chat rooms. His participation in the program not only made him aware of the importance of condom use in the prevention of HIV – it also caused him to come forward as a volunteer informant on the undercover MSM scene, providing information about a closed community that will be crucial to future intervention campaigns. As an educated young Papuan who is an avid fan of the Persipura national champion soccer team and is sexually active in the context of MSM networking in Papua, he is a perfect target for HIV/AIDS educational campaigns.

The delayed recognition of the existence of MSM and sexual networking in Papua is a huge issue in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Indonesia’s far eastern provinces. Much more needs to be done in order to raise awareness of the need for behaviour modification and regular testing among at risk groups like MSM.     ii

Iskandar Nugroho (iskandar.nugroho@usyd.edu.au) recently completed an assignment for the AusAID-funded Indonesia HIV/AIDS Prevention and Care Project in Papua. The views expressed in this article are his own and not necessarily those of AusAID.

Inside Indonesia 94: Oct-Dec 2008

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