Tales from the Invisible Trade: One Brief Shining Moment
It’s been ten years since I wrote Invisible Trade 2: Secret Lives and Sexual Intrigue in Singapore (the sequel to the bestselling Invisible Trade: High-Class Sex for Sale in Singapore), and I have one particularly fond memory attached to it. After it was published, I was invited to present it at a reading/signing session in Bali, at the Ubud Writers Festival, and the evening event took place in a slightly rowdy bar where most of the patrons were too drunk to listen. But something did unexpectedly transpire to cheer me up after my initial annoyance.
Done with signing books, I indulged in light banter with those actually interested in my prose, and an attractive Australian woman who looked in her mid-30’s approached me. “I loved your reading!” she said with a cheerleader smile, sipping a gin and tonic in one well-manicured hand and brandishing a copy of my book in the other. “You and I need to talk!”
“We do?” I asked.
“Yes, we do!” she insisted. “You see, when I was younger, I worked as a fantasy phone sex operator, a stripper and a prostitute.”
I nodded approvingly, if slightly unsure that what I’d just heard was really what I’d heard. But she was serious. Admittedly, such things do happen to me simply because of the books I’d written and the work I’d done in and around the sex industry; people were drawn to the obvious fact that nothing they could ever say could shock me and they also knew I didn’t judge them, hence the unique and unusual conversations I’ve been fortunate enough to have over the years.
And this woman, whom I’ll call Gayle, had an interesting life story. In the course of the next week, she sent me a series of emails that documented her past immersion in sex work (and later confessed to me in person, when we met again in her hometown in Australia, that it was the third gin and tonic she’d quaffed that had bolstered her courage to blurt out that initial opening salvo in Ubud!).
Previously undisclosed to anyone else, here’s what Gayle told me:
“In my early 20s’s I had worked as a stripper and had been a nude model for art classes when I was at art school so I was unfazed by nudity – being an artists’ model was my first step in appreciating my own beauty, a way of overcoming my own insecurities about my body. I had always thought myself too short, too round and too pale-skinned for men to find me sexy, but I knew I could move well and had always loved dancing so stripping was a way for me to affirm my sense of self as a sexual person.
“I only lasted three months as a stripper, however, because of a jealous boyfriend at the time who didn’t like me disrobing for the scrutiny of strangers. I then did phone sex work when I needed a regular income, and ended up doing it for two years and loved it. It taught me so much about the range of sexual desires beyond what most people would even consider normal, and I found it fascinating to explore the fantasies of the callers and relished the chance to be creative, to make even the most banal ones spontaneous and rewarding.
“But that didn’t last either — I left when the boss became weird and delusional — and I then drifted into doing work as a vegetarian chef and caterer. Eventually, I found myself in my 30’s and in need of personal fulfilment, which I found when I started stripping again. And it was at this juncture that I began my brief stint in prostitution.
“I’d attended a girlfriend’s birthday party, where I picked up an attractive woman I had just met there and took her home with me. I then learned the next day that she was a sex worker. Unfortunately, she came with many personal issues that really challenged my compassion. I had picked up a bad habit of trying to ‘save’ people, from years of protecting my mother from my abusive father, and this woman had a severe case of ‘victim behaviour.’ It irked me that she wasn’t treating her sex work as a real job and had a self-inflicted sense of shame, which she used to proclaim her victim status to everyone. My own need to amoralize sexuality was certainly challenged by this but, somewhat against my own better judgement, I still thought I could help.
“And so, one fateful evening when she was sick, I persuaded her to let me ask if I could take her place. The upscale brothel she worked at agreed, and I did her shifts for one week. The nature of this place was interesting — we first introduced ourselves in an informal bar atmosphere and so I found that I could simply avoid any potential clients that I did not find appealing and select only men I would actually not mind having sex with. Not being obliged to kiss made it easier and I could be as available as I wished, since there were always plenty of other working girls around. I found the transactional nature of this kind of professional sex work much easier than the murky negotiations involved in casual sex and I particularly enjoyed the lack of argument over condom use.
“I actually found the sex itself no better or worse than when I had unpaid sex and also felt totally sexually uninhibited, for I could project the kind of personality the clients desired based on my own assumptions about their level of intelligence and how articulate they had appeared – no different to small talk when chatting up a potential date in real life. Having previously suffered from a thundering libido in monogamous relationships, I also found myself able to not only get my fill of sex but get nicely paid as well, and felt that I had finally found my niche.
“However, in my second week there, my bubble burst. The boyfriend of a gay male friend showed up in the lounge. He booked me ‘just to talk’ but the ensuing conversation was all about trying to swear me to secrecy so that his boyfriend wouldn’t know that he had been paying for sex with women! And he even gave me a lecture on how I ‘shouldn’t be doing this sort of work because too many people knew me and expected more of me,’ blah blah blah, and it was truly odd.
“The real clincher, however, was my last customer of that evening – a gorgeous young man, with whom I had so much instant chemistry it was scary. I even let him book me past my usual shift time and the intensity started to freak me out. We had nothing in common and nothing to talk about so it was purely a physical connection, and I was beside myself but it was all too much, too fast, too soon. Suddenly, I felt the need to get home. I told him I had to stop because I had to ask if we could continue to keep the room and then made a hasty exit after explaining the situation to the receptionist. I went to change and left, and later found out this young man became angry and violent when he found out I had departed the premises. I never did sex work again.
“The sad truth I learned from this is that sex is never uncomplicated because there is no way of gauging the reactions of people we happen to meet. But I find it very releasing to be able to share this now with you.”
Well, I thought, how true that was, and such is the reality of sex work, for you never know who you’re going to meet next. For that reason alone, I’ve always admired these women for having the courage of their convictions, to do what they do despite the inherent occupational hazards. And I’m pleased to have finally given Gayle her moment of release.
Gerrie Lim is the bestselling author of Invisible Trade and Invisible Trade II, In Lust We Trust, Singapore Rebel, Inside The Outsider and Idol to Icon. He holds an MA in Print Journalism from the University of Southern California and has written for Billboard, Details, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Playboy, Penthouse, The San Diego Union-Tribune, the South China Morning Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Asian Wall Street Journal. He divides his time between Hong Kong and Singapore.