A Human Library of Sex Workers

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A “human library” is much like a normal library, except instead of books, you borrow people. In a human library, you come to know the story of another human being through open and frank conversation. On Saturday, 15 June, about 80 people crowded into the cosy, wood-panelled second floor of The Moon – a beautiful bookstore & café nestled in the heart of Chinatown – for a human library with four sex workers.

Mistress Eva, a professional dominatrix, spoke about her decision to leave a high-paying office job to take up dominatrix work. Sherry, a Malay-Muslim transgender sex worker and Project X’s human rights defender, explained how she stood up to abusive clients and also recently served as Asia Pacific’s representative to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) – to thunderous applause!

This human library was part of a fundraiser-book discussion, called “Sex Workers: The Original Feminists 2.0” presented by Project X, Books & Beer, and Bras Basah Open. Farhan Idris (Bras Basah Open) began the event by leading a discussion with our own Vanessa Ho (Project Director of Direct X) on Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, a book “about prostitution written by prostitutes.”

Farhan deftly led the audience through the book’s main arguments. For example, while Mac and Smith tear down the arguments of the anti-prostitution activist, they are also gently critical of the sex-positive moment. As they see it, it’s understandable that the pro-sex worker movement wants to focus on “empowerment” and the “intrinsic value” of sex work to counteract their opponents’ descriptions of sex work as inherently horrible and nasty. But the authors warn that it is important to acknowledge that selling sex can be and often is a horrible, dangerous, and nasty. But at the same time, it is when jobs are bad that workers most need workers’ rights. As the authors put it: “When sex workers assert that sex work is work, we are saying that we need rights. We are not saying that work is good or fun, or even harmless, nor that it has fundamental value… Sex workers should not have to defend the sex industry to argue that we deserve the ability to earn a living without punishment.”

Vanessa brought the book’s conversations to bear on the Singaporean context. She explained the problem of bearing a saviour complex towards sex workers, seeing them as people to be pitied and rescued, rather than actually listening to sex workers and assisting them with the problems they care about. She also re-affirmed Project X’s commitment to doing just that.

It was a great afternoon, full of laughter, insight, and delicious, ice-cold beer. In her closing remarks, Sherry said, “It makes me feel great to talk to all of you because it makes me feel beautiful and like a normal person.” Thanks to the generosity of our participants, Project X raised close to $1,400. This event would not have been possible without thoughtful questions, interest, and support offered by everyone present at The Moon on that Saturday afternoon.

If you are interested in the book, Revolting Prostitutes, you can purchase it at The Moon.

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Vanessa Ho

Executive Director | [email protected]

Executive Director
[email protected]

Vanessa has been full-time with Project X since 2011, and as a result, has had many opportunities to meet and connect with sex workers in Singapore and around the world. Under her leadership, the organisation has grown from a small group of volunteers to one where there are three paid staff and a team of over 60 volunteers. Correspondingly, she has increased the annual operating budget of the organization five times, and is now recognized as the leading organization that empowers and assists women in the sex industry.

Vanessa has written and spoken extensively about sex work, human trafficking, rape culture, and LGBTQ rights in Singapore. She believes that if people can speak about sex, gender and sexuality in open and in non-judgmental ways, society will become a safer place for everyone.

Vanessa holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of Warwick, and a Masters Degree in Gender, Society and Representation from University College London.