News this week that Indonesia’s parliament has voted to ban all sex outside marriage as part of changes to its penal code has been met with disbelief from the international community, with commentators wondering what it could mean for the tourism industry. Under the new laws that should come into force in three years, adultery could be punished with up to one year in prison and cohabitation outside of marriage up to six months.
Unofficially referred to as the “Bali Bonk Ban” by some Antipodean news outlets, the law applies to anyone in the country, but prosecution can only take place after a parent, spouse or child files a complaint with the Indonesian police . This clause is expected to limit the number of holidaymakers who directly violate the legislation, but insiders fear a political move away from tolerance will mean hot spots like Bali (where tourism usually accounts for 80% of the economy and where pandemics restrictions have had a huge effect) will lose their appeal.
Lee Cobaj, writing on Southeast Asia for The Telegraph, said: “This really feels like a step backwards for Indonesia as it has tried to portray itself as a progressive, business-friendly and tourist-friendly destination. The mere possibility that any unmarried visitor could end up in jail for sleeping with their partner – or anyone else – will be hugely damaging to the country’s reputation and will certainly repel travellers.”
The Telegraph saw a message from Bali Tourism Promotion clarifying that “each province can apply its own laws under the code” but that “the new laws could become controversial in Bali given the island’s dependence on tourism”.
Meanwhile, an expert who has written extensively on the island told us: “As it is tourism that fuels Bali’s economy, I am confident that major players will work hard to ensure that the new law has limited impact on the island. . Over the years there have been announcements and rumors of various punitive laws in Indonesia that are noteworthy at first – for example a ban on alcohol in 2015 and a potential bikini ban around 2018 – but these dissipate and life , however in the Bali tourism industry, it continues as usual.”
But even if tourists remain largely unaffected, the law could impact the more than 100,000 expats who have made the island their home, and could have far-reaching implications for the LGBT community (gay marriage is not recognized in Indonesia, so all same-sex relationships will, in effect, be banned when it goes into effect).
In a statement, Amnesty International’s Executive Director for Indonesia, Usman Hamid, said: “Banning sex outside marriage is a violation of the right to privacy protected by international law. Such “morality” provisions could even potentially be misused to criminalize victims of sexual assault or to target members of the LGBT community. Consensual sexual intercourse should not be treated as a criminal offense or a violation of ‘morality’”.
Other code changes underscore a move towards a more conservative future. It will be illegal to insult the president, demonstrate without permission, or persuade someone to become a non-believer. Human Rights Watch called the changes “disastrous for rights” with its senior researcher in Indonesia Andres Harsano adding: “In one fell swoop, Indonesia’s human rights situation has deteriorated dramatically, with potentially millions of people in Indonesia subject to prosecution under this deeply flawed law.”
Four more places where adultery is illegal
Indonesia isn’t the only place where sex outside of marriage could land you in hot water. These other countries are among the few that have also legislated on relationships:
Sex outside of marriage is illegal in Morocco and adultery is punishable by up to two years in prison, but the law is generally only enforceable if a spouse files a police report. However, according to the Sexual Rights Database: “If one of the spouses is outside Morocco, the adulterous spouse (by common knowledge) can be automatically prosecuted on the initiative of the prosecutor.” Also, the country’s penal code lets spouses go free who beat or kill their other half after finding it red-handed.
The country’s laws impact tourists. The FCDO advises, “It’s not uncommon for hotels to ask couples to show proof of marriage at check-in, and if that proof isn’t available, insist on separate rooms.” Meanwhile, homosexuality is also a criminal offense with the FCDO warning that “complaints can lead to prosecution”.
United Arab Emirates
In 2016, a British woman vacationing in Dubai was accused of having extramarital sex after she reportedly had been raped by two men and prosecutors concluded the act was consensual (the charges were later dropped).
Recently, however, the Emirates decriminalized premarital sex and unmarried cohabitation. The FCDO’s advice states that “consensual sexual relations between a male and female outside marriage where both are over the age of 18, including extramarital sexual relations, are generally permitted under UAE law.” However, it adds that if a spouse, parent or guardian files a criminal complaint, adultery could still carry a minimum six-month prison sentence. Meanwhile, “all homosexual sex is illegal.”
Ahead of the World Cup, Qatar clarified its ban on sex between unmarried people, which is punishable by up to seven years in prison. Human Rights Watch says Muslims could also face caning if unmarried or the death penalty if married, and intimacy in public can also lead to arrest, according to the FCDO. Meanwhile, in November 2022, FIFA was widely reported to have sent a directive to the police stating that victims of rape and sexual assault should not be arrested during the tournament.
The United States
While the law is unenforced and perhaps even unconstitutional, adultery is still illegal in 16 US states, possibly due to apathy towards the efforts needed to change the legislation. In 2012, law professor Melissa Murray told The New York Times, “It’s an open question whether adultery continues to be viable as a criminal law… No one is going to jail for it. But it is used in divorce and custody cases and even some employment cases. In 2018, a North Carolina man was ordered to pay $8.8 million in damages to another man he and his wife had been having an affair with.