Concern and skepticism in Bali over ban on sex outside marriage

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<p><figcaption class=Photograph: Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP/Getty Images

As the sun rose over Canggu, one of Bali’s most popular beachfronts, the mood on Wednesday was calm. Like any other day in paradise, the water was filled with early morning surfers and the sand littered with beachgoers. This morning, however, was different.

A day earlier, Indonesia’s parliament had confirmed that sex outside marriage would be banned under a draconian overhaul of the country’s penal code. The reforms, which are expected to come into force in three years, will include a ban on cohabitation between unmarried couples and will apply to Indonesians and tourists.

The news sparked a backlash from human rights activists and sparked protests in Jakarta. However, reactions in one of Indonesia’s most visited tourist destinations ranged from skepticism to concern.

Related: Indonesia’s ‘sexual morality’ laws are just part of a broader and chilling crackdown on dissent

“These rules were proposed a few years ago, and it didn’t happen…so I don’t know if the government is really going to implement them,” Santi Aprilia, an Indonesian housewife, told the Guardian.

“Indonesia needs tourists, but what if foreigners who are not married want to come here? I think it will be difficult to enforce this kind of rule,” she said.

A Balinese surf instructor who identified himself as Tony, 28, was also skeptical about the penal code’s impact on Bali. “I don’t think that will happen because in Indonesia there are not only Muslims but all religions,” he said.

Tourism fears

While Indonesia, the third largest democracy in the world, is a predominantly Muslim country, the dominant religion in Bali is Hinduism. Bali has also become a liberal enclave in recent decades, boosted by the more than 300,000 tourists a month who usually visit the island, according to the latest census. Tourism, however, is also a concern raised by the announcement.

Putu Slamet, 24, is a local driver who thinks tourism could be negatively affected by the new rules. Due to marrying next year, he does not live with his partner but knows this could be a deterrent to young foreign couples.

“If they come here and can’t have sex before marriage, they will think again about coming to Bali or even to Indonesia,” he said.

Slamet’s concerns are echoed by others working in tourism on Bali’s south coast.

“I have a few guests already talking about it,” says Black Pearl hostel manager Michelle Setiawan. She had previously been pushed back from visiting the Indonesian island of Lombok after she was asked to show proof of her relationship. Setiawan is also unsure how such a ban will be enforced.

“I feel like it doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “I understand because it is a Muslim majority [country]but there are also non-Muslims here, so it’s not fair.

“To go back in time”

As for the island’s expat community, it was another day in the remote office. However, similar conversations about the new rules have crept in.

“I feel a little sorry for Bali because I feel like I’m stepping back in time,” says 37-year-old travel blogger Christina Jerger. A fan of the film Eat, Pray, Love, she felt the news showed Bali in a different light.

A souvenir seller walks among tourists on a beach in Canggu. Photo: Made Nagi/EPA

The new revised version of the penal code specifies that only parents and children will be able to report sexual activity to the authorities. However, uncertainty about the application remains a matter of discussion.

Jerger adds: “It depends on how they operate after that and how they verify it. I wouldn’t say it doesn’t affect me at all, I still think about it.

For couples whose parents might report them, this is a sobering reality. An Australian resident living with his Indonesian girlfriend who asked to remain anonymous “because of the law”, says he is “a bit nervous”.

“Obviously there are so many great things to experience in Bali… but stuff like that hanging over your head is kind of unnerving. Probably because of my girlfriend and friends, it seems more of a concern for Indonesians.

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