‘Tinder tourists’: Indonesian sex workers turn to online dating apps

Dewi’s phone is constantly buzzing. “Another Tinder match,” she says, waving her phone, giggling. Like most people in her twenties, Dewi is no stranger to dating apps.

“I have five dating apps on my phone. Tinder, Badoo, WeChat, Michat, Bigo. But my favourite is Tinder,” says the 22-year-old.

Unlike other users, however, she is not there to look for a partner. Not even for a casual hookup. Living on the holiday island of Bali, Dewi means business when she swipes right on the app, trawling for “Tinder tourists“.

Dating apps have increasingly become an essential part of the travelling experience, connecting solo travellers seeking casual holiday flings. The demand is such that Tinder has a dedicated feature called “Tinder Passport”, which allows travellers to conveniently scout for dates in their chosen holiday destination before they even land in the country.

With over 5 million international tourists visiting Bali every year, dating apps like Tinder bring good business right to Dewi and other sex workers‘ fingertips.

“I swipe right on everyone,” she shrugs. “In the last week alone, I have had 18 clients, all through Tinder,” says Dewi. “I charge differently for every client, but typically, it’s between 1.5 million to 3 million rupiah (S$150 to S$300) for a short session.”

Dewi began moving her business online two years ago, and has not looked back. Before Tinder, she mainly worked out of the island’s many nightclubs and bars. But, she says, working conditions were rough.

“Every night, I had to bribe so many people just so that I could wait for potential customers in those nightclubs: the bouncers, security guards, even the people from the villages,” she says. “Back then I used to have a pimp, and I had to pay him, too. At the end of the day, I did not get to keep much. But it’s not even about the money. I was always scared that the police would catch me on the street and throw me in jail.”

In Indonesia, prostitution is deemed illegal, though not specifically addressed in the law. Selling and paying for sex can fall under “crimes against decency and morality”, which may carry up to 1 year and 4 months in prison, though this typically applies to procurers.

Since 2013, law enforcement has been actively raiding and closing large brothels – lokalisasi, in the local lingo – and incarcerating sex workers. To date, there have been 122 brothels closed across the country, some of them were found in Bali.

For Dewi, dating apps like Tinder allow her a certain level of anonymity and to some extent, security.

“It just feels safer than being out there, at bars or on the street. At least here there are no police watching me. I also get to choose my own clients, and I can ask as many questions as I like before I take the job. I can do it from anywhere,” she says.

And it seems like many in her trade would agree. Scrolling through Tinder profiles in Bali, it is not hard to spot the ones that are there specifically to solicit sex.

Some not-so-subtle “codes” are used in their Tinder “bio” section. Some use sweat droplet emojis – in a sexual context, it is used to depict bodily fluids – while some attach their Instagram accounts, where they keep more sexually provocative photos and their phone number to contact.

In locations that are known for their vibrant nightlife such as Kuta or Seminyak, these profiles tend to show up more regularly.

Ben, 34, has been coming to Bali every summer for the last three years. He started using Tinder in 2015, and in 2018 bought a Tinder Plus subscription. This, he says, is mainly because of the “Passport” feature.

“I start swiping for girls once my ticket to Bali is booked. I guess you can call it … wanderlust,” says the German native, laughing.

“I’m there looking for dates, holiday romance, other travellers. But occasionally I do stumble upon escorts on Tinder. The app makes sex transactions really straightforward.”

To Ben, hiding behind the phone screen removes the social awkwardness that might arise from initiating sexual transactions in person.

“I don’t think I would ever actively look to pay for sex when I’m in a nightclub or whatever. That is just strange,” he says. “But you’re on your phone, talking to this beautiful woman who matched with you, and it suddenly does not feel so weird when she mentions her rate. And if you’re OK with it, then you just go along with it. It just feels like a normal conversation.”

Indonesia has yet to have any regulations specific to online prostitution, though the country has been seeing many crackdowns in recent years. In early 2019, Indonesian police uncovered one of the country’s biggest online prostitution rings, involving hundr of models and public figures.

According to Indonesia‘s bill on electronic information and transaction, distributing and advertising pornographic materials in any online form is punishable with a maximum 6 years sentence and up to a 1 billion rupiah fine.

Ben admits that he was not aware that such activity is illegal in Bali. “It’s not as if people are out there in public places making sexual transactions. I think because it’s online, and everyone else is doing it, people are turning a blind eye,” he says.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.