Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
17 July 2008updated 17 Jan 2024 6:06am

The spice girls

Indonesia’s transgender underworld

By Elizabeth Pisani

When I first met Lenny she was dressed in a jilbab, the mark of a good Muslim woman in Indonesia. She was wearing a slash of garish pink lipstick. And her penis was hidden under a long black skirt. Later, it turned out that I’d known her ten years earlier. But she wasn’t Lenny then – he was Eko, the manager of one of my favourite restaurants.

Lenny is a doyenne of Jakarta’s transgender underworld, a world in which people born as men choose to live as women and sell sex to men. Their clients are straight; they’re just looking for a bit of variety. And Jakarta’s transgenders, or waria, are happy to provide it. I was working with Lenny and her colleagues Lina and Resty on a study of HIV and sexual behaviour when we first met.

“OK, listen up!” I said, going through the questionnaire for the first time. “Section D is about paid sex with another waria. Question 1: In the last month, have you given money to another waria for anal or oral sex? Easy. Question 2: . . .”

Resty interrupted me. “What if it wasn’t me that paid?” she asked. Unpaid comes later, I said. “No, it was paid, just not by me.” Sorry? “Well, you know, when a client pays two waria to have sex together and pretends we’re lesbians.”

Hmm. A straight man pays two men dressed as women to have sex together so that he can fulfil his gay girl fantasies. Variety is the spice of life, they say. It’s no coincidence that Indonesia is home to the Spice Islands.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Elizabeth Pisani is the author of “The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of Aids” (Granta Books, £17.99). She writes about sex and science at

…plus other vulnerable communities

Kayans (also known as Padaungs), Thailand

Many Kayans, forced to flee Burma in the 1990s, live as refugees in Thailand. The brass rings worn by “long-neck” Kayan women make them a huge tourist attraction. As a result, the Thai authorities are now refusing to let some of the Kayans leave

Hmongs, Laos

The Hmong hill-tribe faces persecution for helping the CIA in the 1960s and 1970s against the Communists, who are now in power. Hmongs are Laos’s largest opium producers. Narcotourism makes them even more unpopular with the government and also spreads addiction among locals

Residents of Ifugao Province, Philippines

The influx of tourists to Ifugao’s Banaue Rice Terraces, a Unesco World Heritage Site, has encouraged the people to abandon subsistence farming for tourism-related work. However, inflated prices have left them poorer. Hotels consume so much water that farmers suffer shortages, and many people have been forced to migrate

Rural children, Cambodia

Cambodia has become known for its child sex tourism as Thailand cracks down on paedophile activity. Children from remote villages are often tricked into working as prostitutes in tourist areas, and so play a big part in the spread of HIV/Aids

Balinese, Indonesia

By 2002, 80 per cent of Bali’s economy depended on tourism. After the 2002 and 2005 bombings, replacing infrastructure for the people was neglected in favour of rebuilding luxury hotels

Alyssa McDonald

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action