‘A little nerve-racking’: worry and scepticism in Bali over ban on sex outside marriage

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

One day earlier, Indonesia’s parliament confirmed that sex outside marriage would be outlawed in a draconian overhaul of the country’s criminal code. The reforms, which are expected to take effect in three years, will include a ban on cohabitation between unmarried couples and would apply to Indonesians and tourists.

The news has triggered a backlash from rights activists and prompted protests in Jakarta. However, the reactions at one of Indonesia’s most visited tourist destinations ranged from scepticism to concern.

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

“Indonesia needs tourists to come, but what if foreigners that aren’t married want to come here? I think it’ll be hard to implement this kind of rule,” she says.

A Balinese surf teacher who identified himself as Tony, 28, was similarly sceptical that the criminal code would affect Bali. “I don’t think it’s going to happen because in Indonesia there’s not only Muslims but all religions,” he says.

Tourism fears

While Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, is a majority-Muslim country, the dominant religion in Bali is Hinduism. Bali has also emerged as a liberal enclave in recent decades, spurred by the more than 300,000 tourists a month that usually visit the island, according to the latest census. Tourism, however, is also a point of concern triggered by the announcement.

Putu Slamet, 24, is a local driver who feels tourism could be negatively affected by the new rules. Due to marry next year, he doesn’t live with his partner but knows it might be a deterrent for young couples from overseas.

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

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

“I have a couple of guests already talking about it,” says the manager of Black Pearl hostel, Michelle Setiawan. She was previously put off 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 says. “I understand because it’s a majority Muslim [country], but there are non-Muslims here as well so it’s not fair.”

‘Stepping back in time’

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

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

A souvenirs vendor walks among tourist at a beach in Canggu. Photograph: Made Nagi/EPA

The newly revised version of the criminal code specifies that only parents and children will be able to report sexual activity to the authorities. However, uncertainty about enforcement remains a talking point.

Jerger adds: “It depends on how they operate after that, and how they check it. I would not say it does not affect me at all, I’m still thinking about it.”

For couples whose parents could report them, it’s 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’s so many great things to living in Bali … but stuff like that hanging over your head is a little nerve-racking. Probably because of my girlfriend and friends, it seems more of a concern for Indonesians.”

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