'Orgasm Lady' fights for women's sexual liberation in Indonesia

Human rights activists Firliana Purwanti has been advocating female sexual pleasure to raise awareness about women's empowerment and gender equality in Indonesia.
Human rights activists Firliana Purwanti has been advocating female sexual pleasure to raise awareness about women's empowerment and gender equality in Indonesia.PHOTO: B.B. HALIM

Indonesian Firliana Purwanti believes that sex empowers a woman and talking openly about it puts her on equal footing with men - a conviction that not only makes her an anomaly among women in her country, but also a symbol of change.

Dubbed "The Orgasm Lady", the 39-year-old human rights activist based in Jakarta has been advocating female sexual pleasure to raise awareness about women's empowerment and gender inequality, issues which are often neglected in conservative, patriarchal Indonesia where men wield authority in both home and work life.

By speaking up about myths on female virginity and society's double standards on female sexuality, she also hopes to tear down sexual taboos and challenge gender power hierarchies. She says the country has long "valued a woman based on her hymen".

"Our morality is being watched through our vagina," she told The Straits Times last month.

"We have the right to decide when to say "No" or to say "Yes" when we want to have sex. Hellooo, women are sexual beings, we orgasm, too!" she added.

Ms Firliana, who is also a development programme worker, shot to fame after her book on the experience of female orgasm, The O Project, was published in 2010. It flew off the shelves, becoming the country's best-selling feminist book.

The O Project offered unfiltered and intimate account of the sexual experiences of 16 Indonesian women of different sexual orientations. It was "no porn or cheap sex talk" but a fun and refreshing way to discuss women's rights issues in the public domain, she said.

It was also a culmination of her personal struggles not only as a woman, but as a Javanese Muslim bound by Islamic traditions and cultural and social expectations to be a "good girl", the euphemism for being a virgin until marriage.

"Our self-esteem is very much dictated by the society based on the hymen as an indicator... that is so wrong and so unfair," she said.

"Not the case for guys, doing it for the first time, losing virginity, is an everyday story," she added.

She is now working on a second "more serious" book, which she hopes to complete by 2018, that will look into such issues as sexuality and politics, female circumcision and teen marriages.

Raised in middle-class but traditional Muslim family in Jakarta, Ms Firliana said she and her two elder sisters attended religious classes when they were young but sex education was never taught at home or in school.

She turned to books on feminism and gender equality, and later concluded that virginity was overrated. - That was why she decided to lose it to her boyfriend when she turned 21 years old, she said.

"And I like it! Why didn't I do it earlier?" the bubbly woman exclaimed with a guffaw.

But she kept her active sex life under wraps from her family. She recalled telling her mother a white lie about her volunteer work with Aids patients when the latter found condoms in her bedroom drawer.

"Why can't women choose to enjoy sex when they think they are ready without hesitation?" she said.

"It took me years to make that decision. The moral debate in my head was so strong, it really made me hesitate," she added.

There was no stopping her since. Ms Firliana went on to have a dozen more relationships before tying the knot at 30 to an Indonesian Christian who converted to Islam. But she filed for divorce earlier this year.

She said: "The more empowered you are, the more difficult it is for you to be in a marriage. Empowering women to value their happiness or orgasm is easier said than done."

"When your partner doesn't care about your orgasm or happiness, your existence as a human being is denied."

SEX AND POLITICS

After having broken the hymen of silence and liberated women with her first book, Ms Firliana is now ready to take romance outside the bedroom and into the political boardroom.

"Sex is also a political issue. You can use sexuality as a tool to understand the power struggle between men and women," she said.

There are too few women in politics in Indonesia, she said, and their participation is often subjected to their husbands' approval. That is discrimination, which she believes is essentially similar to rape.

"Power imbalance is rape. Rape is not about desire, but about someone who feels superior forcing his urges on the inferior one."

Ms Firliana hopes to run for office in the future so she could advance women's rights, but is currently taking it slow and steady, preferring to thwart gender bias and change mindsets about women's traditional status beneath the sheets.

Since joining former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party in 2010, she has helped to review policies on gender issues and mentor female politicians on women's development.

For as long as women are not empowered and sidelined in policy and decision-making, her crusade for love, sex and orgasm will continue to live on, she said. aarlina@sph.com.sg