Graphic by Anastasiia Zubareva

Coming from Indonesia: Intimacy and Self-Discovery

Later on, I discovered that many bodily functions do not feel like memorized definitions from high school biology.

When I was in third grade, a friend confessed to me that she had kissed her boyfriend. I did not quite understand how kissing worked at the time, but I got swept into the frenzy anyway. About nine years later, a rumor that a couple was found kissing in my high school in Indonesia created turmoil in the community. This time, I was less interested in how that happened and more confused about how the people around me behaved when faced with relationships and intimacy.
Findings by the Indonesian National Family Planning Agency discovered that the average age at which Indonesian teenagers have sexual intercourse for the first time is 19 years — much younger than the average from, say, 20 years ago. At least 50 out of every 100 teenagers in major Indonesian cities claimed to have engaged in premarital sex. Despite the changing attitude among the younger urban generation, the country remains in a state of cultural conflict about intimate relationships, going as far as to push the idea of virginity as a measure of one’s value and morality.
Growing up with this idea made navigating the world of intimacy, romantic and sexual relationships and self-perception in the diverse NYU Abu Dhabi environment confusing for me. For some people, intimacy may just be another word in the book of their lives. For others, though, intimacy may represent a whole new chapter that they reserve for much later, when they deem themselves ready. The exposure to varying ideas of intimacy makes me wonder whether the way I perceive my body — and myself — in the context of romantic relationships is changing as a result. I ask myself if there are boundaries on my body that somebody else has set on my behalf without my agreement, which consequently affect my self-perception and self-worth.
In the middle of this self-discovery, one often learns something new about the human body that may be strange to experience at first, however natural such a biological phenomenon is. It is easy to feel lost without a strong support system. As far as I remember, I never received any proper sexual education in school. Sure, I learned how to pinpoint the names of human reproductive organs, what functions they served and the explanations for their respective biological processes. Later on, I discovered that many bodily functions do not feel like memorized definitions from high school biology.
Throughout this process of learning and exposure, I learned that there are several important principles to engage with in this conversation. First of all: consent, consent, consent. My feelings, concerns and boundaries are as valid as anybody else’s. All parties involved must give a yes before taking the process a step further. No means no at any and all times. Second, I learned that gaining intimacy is not a race to be won. There is no need to publicly display that I am, to put it in crude terms, getting some. There is no shame in waiting for the right moment, whatever the reason may be. At the same time, there is no guilt whatsoever in fulfilling my desire for intimacy that will make me feel like less of a person. Third, there are always people I can talk to, as well as resources and options available around me, even closer than I think. It is comforting to know that people around me care about a safe self-discovery process, both physically and emotionally.
Ultimately, I have the liberty to decide when and how I set my boundaries. I definitely learned something new as I got reintroduced to my own body in various ways. I try to be at peace with my personal decisions. I tell myself that my self-perception will continue to be positive, but it has not always been easy considering the environment I grew up in. My country has actively discriminated against women in the past by requiring the two-finger virginity test in military recruitment, as well as pitching the same concept as a requirement for high school graduation. I am thankful for the people I keep in my life and for those that keep me in theirs; they have provided immense support and compassion, which I am ready to share with others. Finally, to steal John Mayer’s song title, my body is my own wonderland first, before it becomes anyone else’s.
Khairunnisa Mentari Semesta is a contributing writer. Email her at
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