Sherly says she is not a prostitute. Never mind that the petite, 20-year-old’s nude pictures adorn a local Internet sex forum, or that she is selling her body out of necessity. To Sherly, she is different from a “real” prostitute.
She is just one of many young girls who market their sexual services online, specifically on Internet forums dedicated to documenting the sexcapades of Indonesian men. The girls are known as bisyar , short for bisa dibayar , which translates as “can be paid for.”
Most of the girls are independent operators who find clients exclusively on online forums and networking sites such as Facebook.
In these forums, there are numerous threads dedicated to individual girls. Some of these are created by customers who wish to share their experience about a specific working girl and some by men with “friends” they want to pimp. Many are created by the girls themselves.
The girls’ pictures can be found inside the forum threads. Some of these clearly show what is on offer, while others are blurred to protect the girls’ identities. Some reveal just enough to titillate, while others don’t leave anything to the imagination. The working girls’ physical as well as personality attributes are also described.
In addition, details on what is offered can be found along with the pictures. These include explicit sexual services that they are willing to perform.
To confirm the services offered, senior members and moderators of the forum tend to be among the first to “test out” the girls. Afterward, and only if everything goes well with them, will the girls’ threads be tagged as “Verified.”
Perhaps setting them apart from regular prostitutes, some girls specify the type of male that they are willing to take on as clients. The descriptions often read like a dating Web site wish list. A self-billed 20-year-old girl exotically named “Olenka Svanovski” — who uses an “Internet mediator” to negotiate her transactions — specifies her preference for men with a sense of “humor, smart, normal physique, doesn’t have to be muscled but not fat, friendly, with nice manners and simple.”
Sherly and two other girls named Risha and Siska listed phone numbers in their profiles. Request for interviews were initially met with reluctance, but they eventually agreed to share their side of the story.
When asked whether they operated under their real names, all three tried to brush off the question, saying they only wanted to be known by their Internet personas.
Sherly, Risha, and Siska say they are fully aware of their sexual limits and are in business for various reasons.
According to Sherly, she is working in the sex trade because her father is paralyzed and bedridden in a hospital after a heart attack. She took it upon herself to shoulder the bills, offering her family the explanation that she was earning money by selling cellular phones at Mangga Dua in West Jakarta.
She has set a limit for herself: “Around 30 men will be enough to pay for the rest of the hospital bills.” At her rate of Rp 600,000 ($67) per three-hour session, Sherly expects to make around Rp 18 million by the time she gets out of the game.
Sherly says she keeps her father company when she’s not busy with clients.
Like Sherly, a lot of the other girls on these sex forums include the reasons why they do what they do. Although it is very difficult to verify their stories, it certainly helps attract clients. Men reply to forum posts like Sherly’s with a mix of lust and empathy.
“Poor girl. Very dedicated to her parents,” writes one man whose name is on Sherly’s wait list, also proudly displayed on her thread.
Four weeks after starting her thread, more than 20 forum members have lined up to conduct their business with Sherly.
“Many more registered, but many did not pass the test. Some of them were just plain ugly and some were old,” she said, adding that prior to accepting applicants, she made sure to specify “No old and ugly looking guys please” on her profile.
“Turns out that most guys don’t consider themselves old or ugly even though they are,” she added.
Sherly screens each prospective client by having them send “a clear, frontal facial photo” through e-mail.
On the other hand, Risha, 19, said that she is in it to buy “expensive stuff, like a BlackBerry and nice clothes.”
Unlike Sherly, Risha does not screen her clients. “As long as they pay my price [which begins at Rp 1 million], are not that gross to look at and are willing to take me out, it’s fine,” she said.
But things are more complicated for Siska. By day, the 23-year-old is a school teacher. It is a different story after school hours when her husband is away. She does not post on Internet forums directly, relying on a friend post on her behalf. On her page, she is described as a “white-skinned kindergarten teacher.”
“My husband is never home on Wednesdays and Thursdays and I want to make some extra money on the side,” Siska said. She charges Rp 1 million for two hours and has dates between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. twice a week.
Sherly, Risha and Siska said that they were not ashamed of earning money in this manner because they simply viewed it as a temporary job. “I do the transactions carefully with diligence,” Siska said. “And I don’t sell myself to multiple men on the streets.”
“I am just having fun and making money on the side. I’m not out harming anyone,” Risha said.
However one may view their profession, the men who avail of their services are certainly enthusiastic. A user by the name of Asterix details his experience with Risha and summarizes it as “damn good.”
Another forum member, under the name Donny, said in a text message that the “best that we can do is try to help [the girls] out by being good clients.”
“Of course it’s not noble [to pay for sex], but the girls are there and they would get the money elsewhere if I didn’t book them. I think that when the girls deal with people from a [specific] online community, it is much better and also safer. We tend to watch out for the girls’ well-being more, as well as keep tabs on each other.”
Psychologist Githa Bahagiastri M.Psi thinks that the rising trend of Internet prostitution — regardless of whether the girls see themselves as a “real” prostitute or not — can be credited to the rise of technology, which has created a culture of instant gratification. In this case, it’s fast cash for the women.
“The main factors would be the need of acceptance by peers and economic factors. If they are still in school and have yet to earn their own living, then certainly they are more susceptible to the temptation of instant wealth,” Githa said, adding that a person does not have to be poor to fall into the prostitution trap.
“They can also come from a broken home or an apathetic household,” Githa said. “Of course, personality is a factor, but the most important thing is for them to get it into their heads that everything is a process. The money made from selling their bodies has very negative long-term consequences, including STDs and pregnancies.”
According to Githa, the best thing that can be done to help these girls is to provide them with jobs or an environment where they will be able to hone their skills and talents so they will have an alternative to selling their bodies.