The Wisdom of Whores by Elizabeth Pisani

The Wisdom of Whores is a passionate, intensely honest and thankfully politically incorrect book that tells how sex and drugs have turned the global epidemic of HIV into a billion-dollar-a-year industry.

Elizabeth Pisani, who studied AIDS for 14 years, shows sides of Indonesia that we didn’t know existed and takes a no-holds-barred approach to finding out why 40 million people are living with HIV and 28 million have already died of AIDS when we have the knowledge, the money and the means to wipe out the disease in 90% of the world.

By the time President Reagan forced the words AIDS out of his mouth in late 1985, 12,689 Americans had died of the disease which had rampaged through gay men in rich  countries. In Indonesia, one of the main focuses of the author’s research, the HIV epidemic was like a water buffalo slowly pulling itself out of the mud to reveal it’s true size. The figures are appalling. Out of eight million men who buy sex regularly in 65 million sexual transactions yearly, less than one in ten uses a condom every time he goes to a hooker.

Indonesia is not a country that fits neatly into boxes. The country’s sexual landscapes are as varied as its islands, a vastpanoply of sexual types and orientations. Faud, for example, is an itinerant truck diver’s assistant who has a steady streetwalking girlfriend in Bandung but who gave blowjobs for money in Jakarta’s cruising parks in the shadow of the Finance Ministry. So here we have a self-proclaimed heterosexual guy who has unpaid sex with a woman who sells sex to other men, while himself also sells sex to other men buying it from transgendered sex workers. It’s complicated.

When AIDS first burst into the world’s consciousness in the early 1980’s, Pisani knew that it was the disease she wanted to study. When people asked her what she did for a living, she told them that she worked in sex and drugs. When pressed to be more specific, she explained that she was an epidemiologist who specialized in communicable sexual diseases.

Lucky for us, most of the qualitative and behavioral research she carried out was subsidized by NGOs and government organizations she worked for. Although she is able to do all the nerdy things that epidemiologists do, the skill that she had that was most in demand by her employers was her ability to write plain English “fast, to order and about more or less anything.”

Drugs make it harder for those who work in HIV prevention. A man might infect a man who infects a drug injector who infects a sex worker who infects a client who infects his wife. Drugs can make you so temporarily stupid that you use a filthy needle to inject a lethal virus straight into your bloodstream.

The harrowingly detailed chapter “Landscape of Desire” is about smack, the drug of choice among Indonesian addicts – what it costs ($34/gr), where it is sold, the habits of those who use it, its variable purities, long-term effects, detox  centers and just-say-no boot camps.

There is much practical advice and pointers on keeping safe. “Back to Basics” provides a succinct summary of all that we know about the causes and prevention of HIV to date as well as little known facts and reminders of what we perhaps already knew but forgot:

*HIV spreads much more slowly in cultures where most men are circumcised and spreads fastest in countries where some men have a lot of money and many women have none.

*The likelihood of HIV infection in oral sex is vanishingly small (with the unavoidable implication that blowjobs are safe). *Waria(lady boys) are up to 20 times more likely be infected with HIV than female sex workers.

*Over 60% of men who bought sex from waria are married and over 80% also buy sex from women.

*Among Jakarta’s 28,000 sex workers, there is virtually no high end in the city’s male prostitution scene. Sleazy discos, massage parlors cruising parks, cavernous dark interiors of old cinemas and the interiors of throbbing karaoke bars are all uniformly down market or as the French say claque. In one particular favorite, the masseuses are blind rent boys who steer customers into cubicles partitioned with cardboard and worn polyester curtains to feel their way to business.

*In spite of proof that widespread condom use drastically reduces the risk of HIV infection, the U.S. government spent more than US$1 billion exporting failed abstinence-until marriage programs around the world. But if you sell sex to earn your living, avoiding sex is also your best bet for  avoiding paying your rent, for going hungry and for not being able to buy medicine.

*One quarter of US-funded NGOs working on AIDS prevention in developing regions like Papua are faith-based.

*Peer educators are the most effective in stopping the spread of the AIDS virus in Indonesia. This is someone who persuades someone else just like them to use condoms, go for health screenings and not to share needles. They speak the same language, face the same problems and do not judge.

*Pisani explodes the “junkies don’t get laid” myth. Heavy drug users are definitely sexually active. Drugs and risky sex go together. Four percent of Indonesia’s female prostitutes inject heroine. Male prostitutes are even more likely to shoot up   and practice all the types of sex most likely to pass HIV on to non-injectors.

The author feels solidarity and empathy with the wretched of the earth, thus is able to draw out spontaneous and unguarded answers from her interview subjects. Pisani burrows into the life of the people who inhabit Jakarta’s  underbelly. Chameleon-like and able to adapt to her surroundings, she brazenly goes anywhere without fear, moves amongst all classes of society and is able to talk her way out of any situation. Pisani exhibits the same bravado and people skills that so distinguished her later magisterial work Indonesia, Etc. on contemporary Indonesia.

For this book, Pisani interviewed more than 4000 subjects in different parts of Indonesia. No data equals no problem, so this meant spending nights among sex workers soliciting client soldiers, sailors and civil servants on dark street corners, in slummy red-light districts, along railroad tracks and at remote transport terminals where junkies came to shoot up. In her tactile, vivid descriptions of decrepit whorehouses down the city’s back alleys and along fetid waterways you can almost feel the miasma and smell the stench.

The Wisdom of Whores is one of the most penetrating and eye opening studies of Indonesia’s socio-economic niche subcultures ever published. The book’s real life, face-to-face encounters with sex workers, johns, gay men, drug users and all their diverse sexual practices make the most compelling reading. It takes a lot of guts to write a book about the sex trade. Hail to the writer who explores these little known worlds with such wit, verve and compassion.

The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of Aids by Elizabeth Pisani, Granta Publications 2008, ISBN 978-1-84708-0769, 372 pages, notes, bibliography, index.


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