Discussion / Event

Published: 21/01/2011

This time we discussed heteronormativity issue, particularly in sexual work. This discussion was held at WRI’s office in Jakarta in January 20, 2011. The speaker were Irwan M Hidayana, a researcher of the Center of Sexuality and Gender, FISIP UI; and Myra Diarsi from WRI as the moderator.


Heteronormativity as a parameter of sexual relations between men and women in social policies and practices. The parameter plays on strengthening public opinion and understanding of sexuality, so they who are not included in these norms are often removed, become targets of violence and discrimination, and do not have space in community.




  1. Hetero-normativity is the sexual relations’ norm between men and women. The sexual relations’ norm is a standard of what is considered “normal” and natural. Hetero-normativity as a dominant norm that has been continuously nurtured in the social practices and implemented through various policies.
  2. Hetero-normativity negates any possible sexual relation other than that of men and women. Any other sexual relation is considered “abnormal” or deviant. Those who do not conform to the norm are often sidelined, not having space and becoming targets of violence and discrimination.
  3. Hetero-normativity has been influenced heavily by the domination of male sexuality that applies the binary opposition in determining sexual relations between men and women. This opposition positions women face to face men. As a result, women who do not relate sexually to men are positioned in the category of abject, the vile or the low. Widows, sexual workers and lesbians are the most obvious examples of it.
  4. Hetero-normativity affects the control of female sexuality. Women are regarded as “goods” or commodities that could be traded or exchanged. Therefore, women have never had the autonomy and sovereignty of their bodies.
  5. The discussion of the issue on prostitution could not be limited to the dichotomy of “choice or coercion” because simplifying it would negate social reality and other larger context.

Presentation Summary:

1. Hetero-sexuality has been constructed and constantly reproduced through various social institutions such as religion, educational institutions, legal and normative standards that produce “normal” and natural label for only two sexual identities (male and female). The validation mechanism of sexual relations is through the institution of marriage. Institution of marriage is the product of the enforcement of hetero-normativity because it has been promiscuous in giving status or stamp of bad moral to certain people, who do not fit with mainstream patriarchal construction. Although closely related to the dominance of male sexuality, hetero-normativity is not always applied by people who live in the patrilineal system. For example, the Bugis people in South Sulawesi have a history of recognizing the diversity of gender and sexual orientation. There are five forms of gender, among others, Calabai, Calalai and Bissu. Unfortunately, the diversity of gender and sexual orientation has been rarely applied in recent Bugis society because it has been ‘defeated’ by the domination of patriarchal hetero-normativity mainstream through social institutions.

2. Hetero-normativity in social reality also implements a binary opposition affected by the unequal power relations between men and women. Binary opposition is the concept that confronts and opposes anything, e.g. male X female, black and white X, day X night. As a result, social relations in society require women as an opposition to men. Women with sexual identity relations with men (e.g. widows, sex workers and lesbians) would be subjects of stigma, discrimination and targets of violence. It happens because those women are not regarded as normal and following the mainstream that has been constructed in society. The hetero-normativity system has been very strong in controlling and constructing women’s sexuality to keep using the mainstream hetero-normativity as a benchmark. It could be seen in non-heterosexual sexual orientation, like lesbians. Although their sexual relationships do not include men, lesbians still categorize their gender identity into the standardized forms of hetero-normativity system. Lesbians who take the masculine role are called butchi and lesbians who take the feminine role are called femme. It could be traced that hetero-normativity is in fact of a building or construction that favor the dominance of male sexuality than female sexuality.

3. The domination of male sexuality leading to unequal power relations between men and women backgrounds the concept of abjection (meaning to consider sexual identity that does not serve as opposition to anything as abject and low). It also establishes the hierarchy and the categorization of sexual identity of women, who do not have relations with men. The identity of a widow could be a good example. Such a system of identity provides a hierarchical categorization of a widow and a divorcee. Although both are considered low and abject, the social position of a widow is higher than that of a divorcee. Furthermore, a widow occupies a higher social status, compared with a woman with an identity of sex worker (because she relates to men only when she receives payment for her sexual service and the relation runs only temporarily). However, the lowest and most despicable is women who have identity as lesbians because they refuse to relate to men.

4. In order to study the practices of hetero-normativity, Irwan M Hidayana presented some researches from LBH-APIK, IKPI and Kartini Network, which specifically address women’ sexual identities beyond hetero-normativity, such as widows, sex workers and lesbians as groups that are considered abject, discriminated against and subjected to violence due to the strong hetero-normativity practices in society.

5. The issue of sex workers concerning whether it is a choice or coercion continues to be a debate and crucial issue for discussions. It is aimed to raise a variety of very complicated contexts that are yet to be revealed and are still hegemonized. As the world of sex workers is considered a materialistic and hedonistic world, the sex workers are not recognized by the system of hetero-normativity because it is considered transitory and not realistic. Whoever got into the world of sex workers, the only way to get out of such unrealistic world is by following the existed mainstream social mechanisms, which is through marriage.

Study Questions:


  1. If hetero-sexuality is something natural, why does it have to be sustained, repeated, and highlighted through various practices of social institutions?
  2. Hetero-normativity: What does it mean? What does it form? How does it practice?
  3. Why is hetero-normativity constantly constructed and for what purposes?
  4. Can the use of hetero-normativity be considered neutral? Why is hetero-normativity considered to be something negative for some people?
  5. With so many female NGOs in Indonesia, why are there merely few female NGOs that discuss the issues of sex and sexuality?
  6. Why is hetero-normativity once associated with religious-normativity and always defended?
  7. Based on research conducted with LBH-APIK, KPI and Kartini Network, what is the contribution of the research methodology for social sciences? How is the methodological accountability regarding the number of sources mentioned in the study?
  8. What are the causes and factors that seem to ‘lose’ from hetero-normativity in the context of Indonesia, and what are research gaps regarding hetero-normativity in Indonesia?
  9. Why prostitution is considered morally despicable? Is it because of the material and moral dichotomy? Is there recognition or reward to prostitutes in our society?


Answers and Responses:

1. Because hetero-normativity is constructed and reproduced through various institutions and social institutions such as religion, education institutions and legal products. The most obvious example is the Marriage Act. The legal product adopts hetero-normativity because it is harmful to and marginalizes women’s rights and sovereignty to decide what is best for them. Society through social institutions, policies and legal products refers to the mainstream’ social norms, culture and religion that favor hetero-sexual relations and marginalize other sexual relationships.

2. Hetero-normativity is a building or construction that favors male sexuality than female sexuality. Any sexual relations outside the relations between men and women tend to be negated and excluded. The form of hetero-normativity is the society’s construction that continues to be reproduced through social norms, culture and religion. The practice could be seen from the presence of a norm or a standard used as reference in determining someone’s good or bad moral.

3. Hetero-normativity has been perpetuated to carry the interests of men and to maintain patriarchal systems that favor the dominance of male sexuality over female sexuality. This interest is linked to power and ownership of women. Because women are still regarded as property, commodities that can be controlled and exploited, for the benefit of men.

4. The use of hetero-normativity is not considered neutral. It is because of hetero-normativity use perspectives favoring one party against another party (the dominance of patriarchy), and unfortunately, what comes forward is the domination of male sexual masculinity over women’s sexuality. In turn, it gives quite a lot of impacts and implications and the sense of ‘negative’ for women, who do not have relation identity with men, and other non-heterosexuals identity groups.

5. Because the construction of hetero-normativity is still dominating and becoming mainstream. Sex and sexuality is only viewed through the lens of patriarchal moral and considered taboo for public discussions. In addition, the power to discuss sexuality is only owned and dominated by men. Women should not get involved to discuss what and how to shape and form their own sexuality. Therefore, the NGOs who dare to take apart the ‘taboo-ed’ construction of women’s sexuality tend to be discriminated against and subject to violence from the power and domination of hetero-normativity.

6. Because religious-normativity is influenced by Celestial religion, something that is considered coming from God and became a benchmark norm could not be contested. Religious-normativity and hetero-normativity work the same way by using male perspective. If we attempt to challenge it, we would be considered sinful and even considered not normal. Eventually, we would be discriminated against, excluded and become targets of violence.

7. The research by LBH-APIK, KPI and Kartini Network, which has been documented in the book entitled “Taking Apart Suppressed Female Sexuality”, contributed to methodology, including because of the comprehensive involvement during the making of the initial research framework between researchers from various institutions (Bandung Wangi, KPI and LBH APIK). This engagement can be seen from the discussion forums organized that enable all researchers to sit down together and discuss about issues ranging from the context of the problems until the making of guidelines for the interview. Such a method is different from the conventional research methods, in which research coordinator and field researchers do not communicate to each other, conduct discussions or joint discussion on the research framework. Another thing could be seen from determining the identity of the source categories and identities, which are open to variations of sources from various backgrounds and history. This method is used to show the diversity / variation to gain more varied and richer research data. In relation to the question about accountability involving the number of sources (why five sources), it is due to the data collection that used the method of ‘life story’ and in-depth case studies. The purpose of this diversity is to ‘represent’ or to carry the characteristics of ‘representative’ of the three target groups of sources: widows, prostitutes and lesbians. In summary, this study suggests that hetero-normativity was not homogeneous, the effects are diverse and that hetero-normativity is not just a matter of domination of masculine or more passive feminine. The problem is how hetero-normativity affects the lives of people who have no sexual relations or have non-heterosexual sexual relations, for example, a widow, a lesbian or sex worker.

8. Among other factors, there are historical cultures in Indonesia regarding sexuality that have been silenced and, even, abolished. There is Centini literature of Javanese literature, whose existence has been forgotten. The historical and cultural values of Centini have been defeated by the dominance of Celestial religions and the influence of modernization. It is worth noticing that the more modern a society is the more rigid the gender and the stronger the system of hetero-normativity applicable. The research gaps, among others, are that there should also be research based on the perspective of men to see the sexuality of both women and men. Until now, there are not many researches on the diversity of gender and sexuality conducted by local researchers Indonesia and it also influences why these gaps occur.

9. Prostitution is considered abject because hetero-normativity implements the concept of abject to categorize good women and bad women through moral lens. Respect for prostitution exists in Indonesia, which could be seen in the documentary movie ‘Ragate’ or the social reality in the northern region of West Java, such as Indramayu, where people could accept the fact that commercial sex workers (PSK) have another roles as children who take part of “making money” for their parents, mothers and the primary breadwinner for their children. There is a kind of recognition from society due to their social roles of the family although in reality a reward does not exist.



Hetero-normativity claims that through various social institutions, the recognized social relationship is only that between men and women. Therefore, the existence of social relations beyond that relation tends to be negated and excluded.