Erotica Remains in Eye of Beholder
Since it was passed in 2008, Indonesia’s Anti-Pornography Law has enabled broad attacks on everything from miniskirts to works of art to pop stars unlucky enough to have their private sex tapes broadcast publicly.
The law defines pornography as any form of expression that “arouses sexual desire” and “violates society’s values of decency.” But the heated public debate surrounding it demonstrates the jury is still out on what those supposedly commonly held values might be.
The law’s moralism has hindered dissent: opposing it suggests support for pornography, thereby inviting a judgement of character. Few have had the courage to publicly challenge the law and its assumptions about what is “obscene” and what is “decent.” But amid the sensational bickering among politicians and public commentators, a more sober discussion has taken place at the Salihara cultural center in South Jakarta. After last year’s public lecture series on sexuality, the center launched another series this year on erotica, inviting various intellectuals to discuss the sexier side of art, religion and sacred cultural texts.
Erotica is any form of expression intended to arouse sexual desire — precisely what is condemned by the Anti-Pornography Law. But the speakers at Salihara’s monthlong lecture series argue that erotica is different from pornography. What is erotic is not always obscene, they say. And what arouses a viewer may not have been intended to do so by that which is viewed.
“The danger is that anything erotic could be considered by some to be pornographic,” said Mohamad Guntur Romli, who organized the series. “When actually, what people are usually talking about is what they think is appropriate and what is inappropriate. That is the message we wanted to convey.”
The Jakarta Globe caught up with each of series’ four speakers to ask their thoughts on erotica, miniskirts and the spiritual side of sex.
‘Headscarves can be erotic, too’
In the closing lecture, popular essayist Goenawan Mohamad explored erotica in modern art to show it is not just about revealing the body — it can also be about covering up.
He opened his lecture with an image by 20th century Central Javanese painter Basuki Abdullah featuring seven naked sprites bathing in a stream. The legend behind the painting, entitled “Jaka Tarub,” tells of how a young man chanced upon this scene while hunting in the woods. The young man hid the clothes of one of the sprites so that she could not return to the heavens. When he returned the clothes, he demanded that she become his wife.
Goenawan explained that the young man in the story put himself in a position of power by taking control of whether the sprite’s body was covered or revealed. It is this power of the viewer that is erotic, he argued, not whether the body is seen or not.
“What is erotic in art is both what we do see and what we don’t,” he said. “What is sexual is not only sexual, what are bodies are not only bodily and what we perceive is not only what is visible.”
In an interview after the lecture, Goenawan explained that like the legend of Jaka Tarub, the miniskirt debate sparked by the Anti-Pornography Law is more about the fantasies of the viewer than nakedness.
“What is erotic is something that can stimulate the imagination,” he said. “In the same way, a jilbab [headscarf] can be erotic, too.”
‘There is erotica in the Bible’
Septemmy Lakawa, a lecturer at the Jakarta Theology College (STTJ), gave her interpretation of the Bible’s Song of Songs to argue that erotica is present in holy scripture, as passion is present in faith.
“Many people still understand erotica as something negative,” she said. “But I say that desire, passion, those in fact show us how Allah is present, how God is present.”
Septemmy said the young people who attended her lecture at Salihara were surprised to hear the poetic verses of the Song of Songs, which many interpreted to express romantic love and its physical expression.
“They asked, ‘Can a book this sexy be Biblical?’ ” she said. “I answered yes, it can be very Biblical, very theological, because it talks about love and passion, just as God is full of passion.”
Septemmy further argued that erotica, whether in scripture, dance or any other form of expression, was simply a human attempt to express the presence of the divine.
Because God in Christian theology assumed human form, the body and all its natural experiences can be considered sacred, she said. The concept of “pornoaksi” or “pornoaction,” as condemned by the Anti-Pornography Law, does not align with Christian theology.
“Pornoaski is not a theological word,” she said. “It is a word that has been very much politicized and then used in religious arguments that also have no theological basis. Giving a definition to a body that is moving, covered or exposed, and so on, is a problem for the interpreter. The problem is not with the body that moves.”
‘The erotic and the mystic cannot be separated’
Translator Elisabeth Inandiak shared her findings about the links between language, erotica and mysticism which she discovered while studying “Serat Centhini,” an 18th century text that describes the wisdom and customs of Central Java.
Tasked with translating a French version of the text into Indonesian, Elisabeth discovered a range of scholarly reactions to it. Some considered it to be too sacred to translate, while others thought it was too dirty. Elisabeth found the separation confusing.
“Actually, the main teaching of ‘Centhini’ is that the erotic and the mystic cannot be separated,” she said.
Erotica does not necessarily imply a physical act, she said. “Erotica is a fantasy that comes before a sexual act, a wonder of the senses [that comes] through thought,” she said.
Therefore, if the fantasy is somehow “dirty,” that is a product of the thinker, not the object of desire.
“It is not erotica, but the eyes that look upon it that can be dirty,” she said.
‘Women’s bodies have been criminalized’
Saraswati Dewi, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Indonesia, compared Eastern and Western approaches to erotica as she discussed the Kama Sutra, the famous Hindu text on sexuality.
“The Kama Sutra is very explicit,” she said. “[It states] that one of the main functions of the human body is to experience and receive pleasure.”
The Kama Sutra integrates the spiritual and the erotic, she said. Pornography, on the other hand, treats the body as a sex object.
“In my opinion, Indonesian society still regards the body, especially the female body, as cause of temptation,” she said. “That is why women’s bodies have been criminalized.”
Indonesia’s Hindu-Buddhist past informs many of its cultures, she said. These traditions pair male and female symbols to symbolize harmony.
“Erotica shows how art, religion and the body can be described gracefully, while emphasizing an element of eros , or desire,” she said. “Meanwhile, pornography is more overt about sex, which uses the body only as a mere object.”