July, 12 2014
For the Love of Condoms: Food for Thoughts on Sex Industry

A visit to a restaurant that gives free condoms to its patrons became a revelation to this writer.

by Priska Cesilia Rosida Siagian
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After finishing my meal, I asked the smiley waiter for the bill and he came to my table with a bill holder. I opened it and inside, along with the check, I found two condoms.

No, I am not eating in a brothel. This is a normal restaurant in Bangkok serving typical Thai food. Only it’s known more for the generous freebies of condoms they give away to its customers.
           
Cabbages and Condoms has been serving condoms in addition to good food as part of its campaign to prevent HIV/AIDS. At the entrance, male and female mannequins line up wearing dresses and outfits made of condoms. On the ceiling, lampions fashioned out of condoms make the place glow attractively. There is a wheel of fortune that guests can spin, giving bits of information on transmission of sexual diseases, and how practicing safe sex is the best solution for all.
           
The brilliant idea came from Mechai Viravaidya, founder of Population and Community Development Association (PDA), a non-profit organization on family planning and HIV/AIDS education and prevention. Mechai believes in taking progressive and creative measures to raise awareness in the importance using condoms for safe sex. This means condoms and birth control should be as accepted and accessible as vegetables in the market. Hence the restaurant’s name.
           
The cozy place and delicious food also made me realize how intimate food and sex are in real life. How many of us will immediately click a link of an article that has the word aphrodisiac? Or how about using food to flirt or as part of foreplay?  
           


Yup, food and sex definitely come together. Like eating, sex is stimulated with our senses of smell, sight, taste, and touch. That is why you never get orgasm if you’re starving. The choir inside your tummy demands more attention than all the sexual stimulations. Psychologist Abraham Maslow even put food and sex in the same category of humans’ basic needs. .
           
This reminded me of what just happened in Indonesia. When I visited Cabbages & Condoms Restaurant, Dolly, the red-light district area in Surabaya, East Java, that is reputedly the biggest of its kind in Southeast Asia, was being closed by the city government. 

While I don’t disagree with this, I believe the best approach should also take into account customers of sex workers. The government should not criminalize the sex workers only, but also the buyers. Whether men or women, sex buyers are the main player of supply factors in the trading system. The fair thing to do in dealing with sex industry is to regulate the sex buyers by criminalizing them like sex workers.

Is that possible? It has certainly been done.
           
Sweden has the Act of Prohibiting the Purchase of Sexual Services to protect sex workers. This law was issued because they believe that sex workers are the weaker party that is prone to exploitation. So they criminalize the sex customers by slapping them with fines or imprisoning them for six months.
           
The Act has proven to reduce prostitution business in Sweden. Before the law, there were an estimated 2,500 female sex workers women compared to 125.000 male sex buyers. After the law was enacted in 1999, the number of sex workers dropped to around 1,500 in 2002.
           
The government’s evaluation also found that the Swedish’ perspective of prostitution has shifted since. They saw this business as inhumane and they want the government to increase the prison sentence from six month to one year.

This proves that regulating sex buyers does not only protect the weaker party, the sex workers, but also effectively slows down the prostitution business growth.
           
I am not against Surabaya  Mayor Tri Rismaharini’s decision to close the prostitution complex Dolly. It is a brave decision. But closing it will just make prostitution business and human trafficking become more invisible. It also will increase the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS. As the business relocates and goes underground, we also risk exposing it to children and teenagers.
           
If only the society is more open to condoms, maybe the government will have the political will to distribute it more freely. They can put it in every brothel or even inside the pockets of sex buyers. This will curb the spread of sexual transmission diseases and save many lives.
           
And if only the government puts the whole prostitution business in a fairer perspective, acknowledging that it involves sex buyers as well, then perhaps the burden of shame will not be bear by the sex workers only.
           
All these thoughts came because I visited Cabbages and Condoms restaurant on the same day Dolly was closed. A month or two earlier, I would probably only react by smiling when seeing condoms inside the bill holder. I might get flirtatious with my husband and signaled him to make out later.
           
But sometimes care comes from little things that remind us of the core of the problem. Today, Cabbages & Condoms reminds me of the law of supply and demand’s role in the business of sex trades.
 
About Priska Cesilia Rosida Siagian
A former reporter, Priska has published two books about health. She is currenly living in Bangkok.