Sex work per se is not illegal. In February 2009, former Senior Minister of State Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee said that, “As members are aware, prostitution is not an offence in Singapore. We recognize that it is not possible to eradicate it and forcing it underground will lead to the greater likelihood of involvement by triads and organized crime, the trafficking of women, and public health risks.” However, that does not mean that sex work is legal. First and foremost, migrant sex workers are by definition “prohibited migrants” (Immigration Act, Art.8(3)(e)(f)). In addition, many sex work-related activities are criminalised. This includes:
- Soliciting in a public place for the purpose of prostitution (Misc Offences Act, Art.19)
- Pimping or living on the earnings of a prostitute (Women’s Charter, Art.146)
- Owning a brothel (Women’s Charter, Art.148)
Male and transgender sex workers may face additional charges such as:
- Public obscenity (Penal Code, Section 294)
- Gross indecency or homosexual sex (Penal Code, Section 377A)
In practice, the police regulates and monitors a limited number of brothels. In particular, the Anti-Vice Police department issues licenses to brothels and provides clearance for brothel sex workers to acquire a Work Permit. Sex workers in such establishments are required to undergo monthly health checks and are given the infamous “yellow card” (literally—it is a yellow coloured card). The State does not publicly acknowledge this, however, through our work, we managed to learn of some criterion for application of the yellow card:
- You have to be between 21 to 35 years of age
- You cannot be Malay or Muslim
- You cannot be Male on your identification card (this includes pre-operative transgender persons)
- You have to be from a list of approved countries (i.e. China, Malaysia, Thai, Vietnam and Singapore)
Most workers under the yellow card system are migrants. They will have to undergo an interview and sign a contract with the Anti-Vice police upon arrival. We understand that some workers were asked at this point if they have been coerced into this industry. Amongst other things, the agreement states that one will not break any local laws, and that once their contract ends, they will face a travel ban lasting between three years to a lifetime. Other terms and conditions include not soliciting outside one’s designated brothel, not loitering in public spaces, and not to have a Singaporean boyfriend.
Workers under the yellow card system work full time–up to 6 days a week and compensation has to be provided if more off-days are required. Workers are not entitled to medical leave or any form of medical benefits–all health tests are undertaken with their own money. Brothels are not legally obliged to ensure that safe sex happens on their premises–in fact, there have been reports of brothel owners allowing unsafe sex.
All other sex workers who are not on the yellow card system are considered “illegal”. They are subjected to constant and violent raids, harassment, intimidation, imprisonment and other forms of degrading treatment and criminalization. They also face entrapment which is where police officers pretend to be customers.
- Members of the public–especially teenagers and young adults often go to red light districts in groups for the sole purpose of harassing sex workers and laughing about it. We have documented numerous cases of verbal assault with the intention to humiliate sex workers. Some even go to the extent of throwing things at workers (including curry sauce, twigs, pebbles, spitting, poppers, etc.)
- Cases of sexual assault have been documented–where random strangers molest sex workers and then run away or taunt them. There was one case that was reported to police but the police refused to take the report and threatened to charge the worker with soliciting if she persisted.
- Rape and robbery cases have also been documented.
- Many clients often request for unsafe sex, some even resorting to violence to ensure that. Others exploit the financial vulnerability of some sex workers by offering a higher price for not using a condom.
- Some clients believe that since they are paying, they are allowed to disrespect a sex worker’s boundaries and the terms agreed upon. This is considered rape but is hardly ever reported due to the stigma against sex workers.
- We have also documented clients who use verbal assault in order to humiliate sex workers.
“It’s almost like when the police step into a red light district, they acquire an added sense of power, and they behave in ways that they would never behave when faced with a non-sex worker.” – Non-licensed sex worker
- Police officers often check the bags of sex workers and use the possession of condoms to threaten sex workers with arrest. Police officers have been known to destroy condoms and lubricants found in sex workers’ possession. As a result, many sex workers have been placed in a position where they have to negotiate the risk of being arrested or having unprotected sex.
- They may pretend to be clients in order to apprehend sex workers in a practice known as entrapment. In societies where human rights are coded into the law, entrapment is illegal. However in Singapore, this is perfectly fine.
- They resort to violence on occasion–we have documented countless workers who have had their hair pulled, where sticks and other weapons were used to threaten, where the property of workers have been destroyed in the process of arrest.
- Sex workers are often subjected to unfair and arbitrary identification checks and photographing by law enforcers.
To exacerbate the situation, most sex workers do not have access to justice. If they report any of these crimes against them, the run the risk of being charged for soliciting or immigration offences. We have documented instances where police officers blame the victim and engage in slut-shaming when sex workers report crimes.
Different people are brought up with different opportunities—meritocracy only works for the privileged. The fact is, for many sex workers, sex work is the best opportunity available. Every job (whether you are blue collar, white collar, or home based) has its set of risks, and every worker learns to negotiate those risks. It is not any different for sex workers.
Sex trafficking is a heinous crime and perpetuated by the rich and powerful over the less powerful. It is where women and men of all ages are forced or deceived into working in the sex industry. Singapore recently passed the “Prevention of Human Trafficking Act 2014” in order to tackle all forms of trafficking—labour, sex, and organ trafficking. To conflate consenting sex work with sex trafficking is to firstly, undermine and disrespect the consent of sex workers; secondly, to be looking in the wrong places for victims of trafficking. That said, we also do not believe that “human trafficking” frame is useful. People in the sex industry (and many other industries such as the domestic work and construction industry) face a range of exploitative conditions that results from a lack of rights. To merely tackle the most severe crime is tantamount to ignoring justice for others.
Does anyone truly enjoy their job? Don’t we all wish to be lying on a beach looking over at fine white sand, clear blue waters and fluffy clouds?
Sex workers are human beings too and like everyone else, have boundaries.
We use the term to recognize that sex work is work, and to respect the labour involved in the work. The word “prostitute” has also evolved into a word with negative connotations and is often used as a derogatory term.
It is hard to put a number on this as many are informal sex workers—they don’t do it for a living but they do it occasionally. There are about 800 to 1,000 licensed sex workers in Singapore at any one time. A large majority of them are migrant sex workers. In 2015, the police arrested over 5,000 unlicensed sex workers. Singaporean sex workers make up a minority here, although many choose to pursue this career overseas where it gives them a level of anonymity.
Unfortunately, this is one misconception that is so deeply ingrained in society’s collective minds that trans women often face unwanted solicitations for sex and sexual services that is tantamount to sexual harassment. While there are many trans women who are in the sex industry, many others are in other forms of employment.
Project X has been in operation since November 2008 and all this information is gathered from speaking to workers and various agencies.