We sit down with two sex workers in Singapore and get candid about Geylang, doxing, consent, and so much more.
International Sex Workers’ Day comes around every year on 2 June. In recognition of it, I dived into the hush-hush world of Singapore’s infamous red-light district that’s been around for decades. Few people know of the workings of this stigmatised industry in our squeaky clean country. Case in point: whenever I brought up the topic with well-meaning family and friends, their voices immediately lowered decibels and they asked me to do the same. With the hope of vocalising and raising awareness through open conversations, I sat down to talk to Amelia and Sherry, two sex workers from Project X who are in different phases of their lives in Singapore.
Founded in 2008, Project X is the only NGO in the city that fights for the welfare of sex workers and campaigns against exploitation. I enter their office to meet Sherry, who holds the position of human rights defender at the NGO. As I watch the tall, golden jumpsuit-clad transwoman strut in, I was struck by her presence, which she later accurately worded as “goddess energy”.
During my chat with Amelia, I was immediately put at ease because of how much she resembled my peers in university. In her early 20s, a student and an intern at Project X, she attributed her formal attire to a court hearing she’d attended for the organisation’s support to a sex worker in need. Due to a lack of support from her family, her desire to be free of student debt is her primary reason for taking up the profession. As I conversed with them both, I had my eyes opened to the reality of being a sex worker in Singapore.
Firstly, how legal is sex work in Singapore?
This is the first question anyone asks me when I bring up this topic. After all, it’s Singapore.
According to Sherry, it’s a grey area. “Prostitution is legal, but soliciting and soliciting using remote communication services isn’t. So it’s okay that someone is a sex worker, but you can’t go up to anyone and offer your services in exchange for money or any form of gift,” she says.
You also can’t live on the earnings of a sex worker or run an unrecognised brothel. She explains how there are regulated brothels at Geylang and Little India monitored by the anti-vice department. Those who work there have to go through interviews to ensure they’re not being trafficked, forced or coerced into doing sex work.
Sherry tells me sex workers come from four countries other than Singapore: Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and China. They’re provided with a yellow card and must undergo regular health check-ups. Now that that’s cleared up…
The life of a sex worker in this city
Amelia usually fixes her own price or generally goes by the “market price” or cheaper to get more customers. According to her, a sex worker can make anywhere from $50 to a couple of hundred dollars daily. But she’s currently focusing on her internship and doesn’t do a lot of sex work right now.
“Working hours for sex work is different in Geylang and other areas as the brothels are closed (due to the pandemic), so not too many people are actually working there,” she says, adding that it’s very much a nightlife industry.
Sherry details the reality exposed by the pandemic for anyone without any legal and financial support. For those whose survival isn’t dependent on the straightforward route, they lack the proper documentation of income through which they can prove the loss of their livelihood. She beams, explaining how Project X stepped up to help. With public donations, they were able to provide up to $800 to any Covid-affected sex worker.
She also gives me a sneak peek into her own experience and how she treads the line between work and her personal life. She previously quit her job as a sex worker for 3.5 years for a relationship. “When we broke up, I came back into the industry because I realised sex work has been a part of me.”
It was difficult for her to distinguish her personal life from sex work as men objectified her sexually. “For a transgender woman like me, it helps now that I know what is sex work. If I have no interest in you, and if the only thing that you want from me is sex, I might as well make a profit out of it.”
Having to open up about themselves, their identity and their occupation is part of why sex workers have troubled relationships, Sherry tells me.
The dark side of the job
It’s a dangerous industry to enter because of the lack of support and welfare for those who practise it, aside from predatory individuals. “A common struggle faced is not being able to solicit but still get clients. We need to be careful to make sure we don’t do anything illegal,” Amelia says.
“Doxing is an issue too,” she mentions. “I find ways to ensure my information isn’t out in the public, but I’ve seen the details of others posted.”
She is also passionate about setting the record straight when it comes to being stereotyped as unclean and promiscuous. “The popular misconception about being unclean is the worst thing to say to a sex worker; we’re aware that it’s not just about using condoms for pregnancy. It’s also for STI prevention and that’s why Project X provides free anonymous testing for sex workers. We hold mobile testing days for people to come in and test for HIV, syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhoea.”
Sherry wants people to think beyond the public portrayal of their community, as most of them are negative stereotypes that encourage disdain towards the workers.
“I ask that they look into other sides of the stories and understand why a woman comes to Singapore to do sex work. Is it because there’s no other option for them? What drives them?”
A lot more than just safe sex
The significance of consent is something yet to be understood by most patrons of the industry. Amelia explains the common act of stealthing. “While you’re having sex, unless you manoeuvre your body, you can’t see the person taking out the condom and sometimes they secretly take it out. Sometimes they also blindfold you. That’s sexual assault. Not a lot of people are aware of what falls under sexual assault.”
So how does someone stay safe? “We can never be 100% certain,” Amelia states matter-of-factly. She sends her location to those she trusts and tells them to call the police if she doesn’t respond within a time period.
Amelia has also faced the scary situation of being stalked. Sex workers often practice hiding their true location, she says. When transportation is booked for them, they always provide a location that’s about two streets away from the real one.
The punch of the pandemic and sex work’s evolution in the digital age
With the last two years being a rollercoaster for many, how have our Singaporean sex workers fared? Amelia’s answer is surprising: it hasn’t personally impacted her too much as she mostly “goes with the flow”. This, however, isn’t the reality for others.
In the post-pandemic world, there are still limitations in place and brothels are closed, so they move on to other forms of sex work. People are also finding customers differently these days. In the early years, ads in the newspapers offered “companionship”. Now, strategies have transcended online – it’s the new age of digital marketing.
But Sherry explains the difficulties of transitioning online, as most people are unaware of what’s legal and what’s not. Project X provides legal aid assistance or an explanation of the law to let them know what they could be charged with.
“What can they do if they ever fall into the rabbit hole or get themselves in any danger? That’s where they come to me or Project X for assistance.”
How can we affect change?
Amelia firmly believes in changing public perception. “Understand that sex work is still very much work,” she states. Her face lights up as she recounts an incident in her online university class where they discussed if sex work was work, and everyone replied yes.
Sherry, being one of the main forces behind the organisation, voices how donation and funding keep the NGO going. She urges the public to help spread their online content, explaining that when a member of society shares a Project X post, it makes a difference.
“When I, a sex worker, post, it might seem like I’m encouraging more people to enter the sex industry, which isn’t the case at all. People don’t want to share what we post because they think they might be misunderstood as encouraging it. But when a non-sex worker talks about such issues, it normalises it, which helps build more allies. Having the community speak is one thing, but having the public’s support is a very good feeling.”
My candid conversations with Sherry and Amelia left me with a lot to think about how we function as a society. Mistruths and stereotypical judgments may drive us to perceive people in prejudiced ways, but I’ve learnt that this needs to be uprooted for us to move forward. Fewer secrets and lesser stigma can go a long way.