Talking about sex and orgasms in Indonesia’s Muslim society is taboo. But this is exactly what Firliana Purwanti, a human rights activist and development practitioner, is doing. Not only is she talking about orgasms, she also wrote a book about them, The O Project.
You have a career in human rights. Did something specific happen that made you choose this path?
My turning point started when the big riots took place in 1998. You might be aware that in 1998 we had a change of president. So basically, in that year we toppled down the authoritarian leader, Suharto, of that time. And during that riot when we were toppling down the dictator, there was a massive rape against Chinese women in Indonesia. They are Indonesian with Chinese ethnicity. At that point I was wondering, “Why was it only Chinese women who are being attacked?” There were no significant measures from the state to resolve the case until now. They recognize the rape but we still have not caught the perpetrators. At that moment I was still in law school and I realized that crimes against women are more than just crimes. They are human rights violations as well. Women’s bodies were being used in order to topple power. Since 1998 I always use women’s issue as my subject of research. I have been in this women’s movement for more than 10 years now.
You wrote the book The O Project about the experience of the female orgasm. Why did you write this book? What did you want to achieve with this book?
I think the way we do campaigns is very conservative and very boring. We have a public workshop on domestic violence. We examine laws. We show videos documenting women and wives who are being beaten. For some groups that is ok, but with that traditional way of campaigning you cannot really reach out to the general public. I want to do an innovative campaign.
In 1998 I started to read a lot of books on feminism and sexuality. And that is how I found out about orgasm as well, by reading and understanding that we can have orgasm and that we have the right to orgasms. Statistically, women who experience orgasms make up only 30 percent and men who experience orgasms are 70 percent. I wanted to know why only 30 percent of women have orgasms. That question brought me to the hypothesis that women probably always prioritize the men, which also implicates their sexual life in that they also prioritize their partners to have orgasms first and they don’t really think of themselves. At that point my hypothesis was that orgasms become a political indicator. If you do not have equal relations there is the possibility that you cannot enjoy your sex. So I decided to have a personal project, that I called the O Project, the Orgasm Project. What I did was, I interviewed 16 different Indonesian women: married, single, sex workers, women who are HIV positive, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender women, overweight women, second wife women, and women who have been circumcised. The only question was, “Tell me about your orgasm.” Based on their orgasm stories, I can confirm that my hypothesis was correct because almost all these women experience orgasms, and I can tell you the reason why they can have orgasms is because none of them are in a violent relationship and they can communicate what they like about sex. Communication in this situation can only happen when you have equal relationships. During my speaking tour talking about orgasms, it was not just women who came to the event; sometimes more men come to my bookspeaking event. The problem with our campaign discussing women’s issues is that it usually only attracts women. And we are frustrated about that. We have to involve men as well.
How hard was it to find women who would be open to talk about their orgasms and sexuality?
Before the interviews started I thought, “Ok, it’s going to be difficult, we are going to talk about something very personal, and with our repressed culture on sex, people would probably be reluctant to talk about it.” But what happened was the other way round. When I asked women about their orgasms, their stories came like water out of their mouths. Sometimes it was difficult to stop them from talking! It shows how much our sexuality is being repressed because of the social pressure that women should be good women, and good women do not talk about sex. So when somebody asks you about your orgasm, it is a very exciting moment, it’s a release of stories that we hold in so much. For instance, when I ask people, “How is your orgasm?” they would say, “You know what? I have had orgasms since elementary school. I did it myself by masturbating.” These stories came out just like that! Finally we are being honest about our sexuality and we need that to have better quality of sex education for instance. Women finally have the room to speak about their sexuality.