To all fellow young female writers in Jakarta
At an art exhibition a man grabbed my shoulder out of nowhere. He pushed out his bony chest and said, “Hey, I’m a painter!” He looked surprised when I shook his hand off my body and frowned at him – as if that was not the usual reaction he got when he grabbed a girl’s shoulder out of nowhere, as if he’d picked up many girls before at art exhibitions simply because he was a painter.
Another night I went to the launch of a book by a young female writer. “A new writer has arrived,” an older male writer said to a table full of older male writers. “Who wants to mentor her?” From the tone I assumed that he meant, who wanted to take her as his mistress. The other male writers laughed. Nobody pointed out how disgusting that remark was, as if she was his possession to pimp out. He didn’t seem to mind that I was there, didn’t seem to care or worry that such talk might mar his reputation. It seemed, instead of showing up to appreciate her work, those male writers showed up to see if they could make her their new mistress.
At the time I had recently resigned from my job as an editor in a publishing house. I had found a better-paying job, and the publisher had crossed the line with me. Whenever we went to meetings outside the office, he offered me to spend the rest of the afternoon with him. I said politely, “I have work to do.” He said, “Don’t worry about that. I’m the boss.” He visited me at my cubicle, and once brought me perfume. One time he caressed my cheek without my permission. After he left, I tossed my cubicle, and my co-workers smirked, “Ah, the boss is at it again.”
When I was researching my novel I asked for a meeting with a photographer. As he was showing me how the dark room worked, he moved behind me and fondled my buttocks. I felt angry, disappointed, and sorry for myself: this man probably never saw me as a serious writer, he only agreed to meet with me to have his way with me, I bet this wouldn’t happen if I were male. Amid all the raging emotions inside me I managed to say, “If you don’t stop, I will tell your girlfriend.” I wished I’d said, I didn’t come here to sleep with you, but it was more self-assertion that I could muster at the time. He stopped and said he was only trying his luck.
He showed me the rest of the printing process. He explained that he and his girlfriend had an understanding—they are free to sleep with other people while traveling out of town, or with students on campus. I think relationship works differently for different people, but that “students on campus” exception intrigued me. Is he taking advantage of his position as a lecturer to bed students? And the feminist writer girlfriend gave her blessing for this behavior? Was he saying that there were so many students willing to sleep with him that he needed a separate clause with his girlfriend?
On another occasion, I interviewed a brilliant writer as part of research for my novel. We had a great conversation, he seemed to think highly of my work and the things I said. When he was driving me home, he asked me when we could have sex.
I was shocked, offended, exasperated. He had no qualms about offering sex during what was supposed to be a professional conversation—it seemed he didn’t care if I lost respect for him.
I felt falling to a bottomless hole. Once again I thought highly of someone and they saw me as a pretty face to bed. The sadness was making me cold inside.
ONE OF THE country’s top writers, who was well known to have dated a string of talented and beautiful female writers many years his junior, sent me a text message one morning after we’d talked at a literary event the previous night: Sweet Eliza, how are you today?
Harmless enough, but I wanted to make clear as soon as possible that I was interested in his mind, not in getting together with him. Would you be willing to read a draft of my novel? I wrote. He suggested we meet at a restaurant. I wrote I’d give the manuscript the next time I see him at a reading.
I paused before hitting Send. He had built art communities, written many books, served in the board of many literary organizations, and what did I have? Merely the pride of a young woman thinking herself intelligent and talented enough to make it on her own.
Was it arrogant of me to refuse the chance to spend my days and nights learning from a top writer? Was it conceited of me to think that I might be able to find ways to develop my talent without having to shack up with someone decades older than myself, whom I had never been attracted to? But he never chose just any writer—his past lovers were not only beautiful but also gifted. I’d heard people say that he was in love with them, and he took them very seriously as writers. The women went on to write acclaimed books. So why not grab this opportunity yourself? Date him for a few years, as the others did, write and publish your novel, and then leave him, as the others did, for someone you truly love? Was it wrong to insist that I was to be treated as a colleague, not as a pretty thing to fondle and fuck and be shown the way? Was it proud and stupid of me to want to find my own way? Don’t you fear that you might be excluded from being invited to festivals and events held by the organizations in which he served as a board member? You should think about your career before your ego. Or perhaps you just didn’t want success that badly?
I’d heard what the literary establishment did to young women who’d entered such relationships: a senior poet deflowered a young writer and turned the experience into a song. Many other writers made fun of her. I’d heard stories from young female writers about older male writers kissing or groping them without permission, or worse.
I’d read a female writer’s confession about becoming a mistress to an older male writer so that he would teach her how to write. She also became a rich man’s mistress so that he would pay for her living costs while she wrote. I respected how she was in control of the situation and found empowerment. Couldn’t you be like that? Stoop to conquer? In the end you’ll show the world who really wins.
In the instances where the female writers wrote good books and achieved fame, many people sniggered that their success was due to having been the male writer’s lover. I never wanted that to happen to me.
If I succeed or if I fail, it will be because of me. My work. Let there be no doubt.
I hit Send.
I made a vow that I would never date or sleep with anyone connected to the literary scene in Indonesia. It’s not a matter of pride, it’s a matter of survival.
YOU MAY SAY that there is nothing wrong as long as everyone involved are consenting adults. True, but things get complicated.
In Jakarta we don’t talk about our body or its desires, we don’t talk about consent, about equality or power dynamics in relationships or sex. Young women just coming of age may find it difficult to turn down a man, especially if that man was manipulative or could influence the future of their career or education.
Sex is reserved for married, heterosexual couples. Our society is often cruel to people, especially girls and women, who choose to have sex outside of marriage. Buying condoms is stigmatized. Abortion is illegal. Girls could get expelled from school for getting raped or getting pregnant. I knew a woman thrown out from where she lived because she had a child outside of marriage. When the common euphemism for sex is for the woman “to serve” the man, you can imagine that women’s position in sex is also inferior that many a woman would not feel empowered to insist that the man uses condoms or to ask him to pleasure her. You can also imagine how this perception of inferiority is further reinforced when the woman is a younger aspiring writer and the man is a senior established writer or the woman is a student and the man is her professor or lecturer in college.
What I condemn is the apparent disregard to the woman’s wellbeing. I’m sure the older writers are well aware of the conditions of our social environment—yet many of them can’t seem to be bothered to make sure that the women whom they are sleeping with won’t get into trouble for getting pregnant or for being found out. Instead, many brag of their sexual conquests or leave the women once they’re pregnant. There was a huge controversy last year when a poet impregnated his student and the student reported him for rape. Many doubted the student, because their sexual relationship had gone on for a long time, but I could imagine that she might feel she had to keep quiet and give him what he wanted, because she felt she wouldn’t be able to find another man because she was no longer a virgin (our society tells girls and women that our self-worth depends on our virginity), or that he might tell the university to get her expelled, or that she might simply feel powerless to reject him.
It may be true that in some instances the older male writers were just “trying their luck”, and in some cases the women did willingly enter into relationships with them. It should also be noted not all older male writers in Jakarta like to prowl for younger female writers or students to sleep with. In some instances, it seems the men do take the female writers seriously, and it’s because they think we’re smart and amazing that they want to have a relationship with us. As a young female writer, I often find the attention a nuisance and an obstacle rather than something flattering. I feel that not only do I have to learn to write, I must also learn to protect myself against unwanted sexual advances, learn how to say no without offending the ego of the older male writers, and how not to lose heart because the older writers I’m supposed to look up to treat me first as a pretty face and only second or third as a writer.
It’s not only the literary community. Too many times my girlfriends complained about bosses or co-workers offering them paid vacations, expensive gifts, or hard cash to go out or sleep with them. This what their behavior says: we think your affection can be bought, we don’t care revealing ourselves as sleazy assholes in front of you because your respect means nothing to us.
Men show young women, whom they think nothing of, sides of themselves that they’ll never show the colleagues they respect. I know a manager chased my friend for months, slept with her, and denied knowing her in front of his colleagues because she was “just” a receptionist. I know an ambassador talked about non-discrimination, but when a cell phone was missing at his house during a pool party, he only searched the Indonesian girls. I know an NGO director bounced me against the wall and twisted my arm when I was leaving him. I stand in corners of events and parties holding my drink and my knowledge, feeling an electric wave of secret power stir inside me. A power possessed by people considered invisible.
Jakarta literary elite is a small group, one would find them involved with almost every literary events or opportunities. If you’re a young female writer who have been harassed or treated in a sexist way, you may feel there isn’t space, support, or benefit for you to speak up. You may feel alienated or discouraged. When you work hard but only get noticed because someone thinks you’re pretty, you may feel frustrated. You may stop coming to various events or taking up various opportunities because you don’t want to meet or deal with the writers who have harassed you. You lose confidence in your ability.
That’s why we, young women, must not be invisible. Female writers can get together and lift each other up. That’s why we need more diversity in what we read, what we publish, and who we involve in literary organizations and events. We can create more training and opportunities for female and minority writers. We can object to showing racy pictures of women as comic relief during business meetings. We can write and work to empower women’s position in relationships, sex, and society. We can elect and promote deserving women to leadership roles. We can show the world that women have our own power of creation, and it must be respected.
Eliza Vitri Handayani is a novelist. She likes to write about people often misunderstood or labeled bad, rebellious, sinful. She posts some of her work at elizavitri.net. Say hi to her via Twitter or Instagram at @elizavitri.