I am Yingshu, a Mandarin teacher at a university in Singapore. I have been volunteering for Project X for over six months.
Last year, I decided that since my work and life are relatively stable, it is finally time to step up and help others. I initially considered working with children, but then, came across a photo exhibition by Project X on Facebook, that featured a number of sex workers telling their stories. For the first time, I got to know individuals from this community. It was eye-opening. I was deeply touched by the tenderness, pain, and strength of humanity shown in the photos. I realized there are much fewer volunteers who help sex workers than volunteers who help children, and my work may be more needed here. So I decided to join Project X, the only non-profit organization in Singapore that advocates for the rights of sex workers.
Before signing up, I read through Project X’s annual reports to find out what work is done. I liked Project X’s on-the-ground approach, providing direct and practical support for sex workers. I also made sure that I was ready for a long-term volunteering commitment. I wanted to understand this community, but did not want to use them to achieve any of my goals, nor to think of them as muses for my creative work. I wanted to be a volunteer unmotivated by personal gain.
In the course of volunteering, I’ve met a woman who was drugged in a hotel, and had her hard-earned money stolen. She didn’t go to the police as she was afraid that her family would find out about her work. I’ve seen violent abusers deliberately picking sex workers as their targets, believing that they are completely vulnerable, without sympathy or support. I’ve witnessed sex workers being harshly treated or verbally abused by customers, law enforcement officers, and the general public. I know of customers who have refused to pay after receiving sexual services, who do not see what they’re doing as sexual assault or rape. I’ve gotten to know people who are wives and mothers, working hard to support their families.
Do sex workers deserve abuse and discrimination, just because their profession is not respected by society? I cannot agree. To quote the Project X website, “Don’t judge people’s choices when you don’t know their lives. For many sex workers, sex work is the best opportunity available.”
At Project X, we don’t often use the word “help”, and we don’t “save” anyone. We stand with sex workers and respect them as equals. We provide legal aid to let the perpetrators know that they cannot mistreat sex workers at will. We also provide emotional support to let sex workers know that they should not be treated badly. Abuse is not their fault. They deserve to have the same rights as everyone else.
I found myself surprised by the relationships between sex workers and clients. A former sex worker told me a story about an Indian customer who only asked her to dress up as an Indian woman and cook for him. He cried while eating her food. He said that he missed his wife in India greatly, but couldn’t bring her to Singapore. Another sex worker told me that a customer showed her a picture of his wife and child and said that he loved them very much, but there were many problems in their relationship that could not be communicated and could not be resolved. The sex worker told him that if he loved his wife, he should not visit red-light districts. She said that she treated all women as her friends, and she didn’t want to hurt them.
Sometimes I can’t help but cry when I listen to these stories. I never gone through any real hardship, and it is not easy for me to walk into the “darker” side of life, and face heartbreaking realities. I have had an easier life, and I am more fortunate; fortunate enough to meet societal standards. But these moral standards could be simplistic and unjust.
I’ve also met a lot of transgender women, who account for a large portion of the sex worker community. While sex workers are already the minority group, being transgender sex workers adds another layer of marginalisation, to the point that they are almost invisible. The transgender sex workers I know are so beautiful, so gentle and friendly; and so strong for facing so much prejudice and malice. I asked myself if I could be as brave if I were in their shoes. I do not know.
Now, I volunteer at least three times a month, working with my colleagues to distribute free condoms and lubricants to sex workers, and to promote the importance of sexual health and safety. I learnt to conduct free STI (chlamydia and gonorrhoea) tests, and help out during the free HIV testing Project X conducts every month. During outreach, I chat with sex workers, and record cases of abuse in our Abuser Alert system. I also use my mastery in the Mandarin language to better reach Mandarin-speaking sex workers, and to translate Abuser Alerts into Chinese. This year I hope to better utilize my language skills and other strengths to contribute in more ways.
I am particularly grateful for my experiences in Project X. In sharing my experience, I hope that more people will understand the sex worker community, and the work that Project X does. I still encounter challenges, and I don’t know if I can persist, but I feel alive every time I try to communicate with others and understand more about their worlds.