Sex work has always been a taboo subject in our conservative society, more so in Singapore whereby sex workers are muted and kept away from sight. The lack of dialogue about sex work not only serves to silence sex workers but also keeps their confidants silent. This makes the people that sex workers confide in unable to reach out to others to share their feelings, out of fear that they will be judged or misunderstood.
Melinda first approached me during my Twitter curation week with hellofrmsg. She mentioned that she was glad that I was doing the curation because she found it easier and more comfortable to confide in a sex worker, as I would most likely find the content relatable. She had always wondered about her mother’s hostility towards her grandmother that always seemed easily triggered by trivial matters and questioned about the cause of her mother’s unhappiness with her grandmother. It was only after knowing that her grandmother formerly worked as a sex worker to support her family that she was able to answer her own questions and piece the missing puzzle pieces together.
Listening to her sharing her story was an eye opener for me, given that I belong to the majority of sex workers who do not disclose their chosen occupation with their family members. Thus, I was elated to know that Melinda was open to being interviewed, to allow myself and others to gain insights into her feelings and thoughts about knowing her family member’s past as a sex worker. Her willingness to have an open conversation would enable us to understand why the majority of sex workers choose to keep their occupation from their families.
When I saw Melinda, my first impression of her was that her description of herself looking like an “Avril Lavigne rip-off”, with her blonde highlights and rebel-looking jacket, was indeed accurate. Melinda gave off the vibe of an art student with her quirky and dark fashion sense.
My first question to her was about how she managed to find out that her grandmother was a sex worker. Hesitating a little so that she was able to recall, she replied that her grand aunt told her about it on her 21st Chinese New Year, when she ran off to see her grand aunt after an argument with her mother.
My grand aunt said that since I was old enough now, I should have the right to know this”, she explained, “my mother is aware of it too, perhaps that’s why my grand aunt told me”.
When I expressed my surprise that she found out over Chinese New Year, she laughed it off and joked that given her Peranakan heritage, Chinese New Year is one of the best times for drama to unfold. She shifted in her seat and took on a slightly more serious tone before sharing with me more about how her grandmother’s former occupation as a sex worker has impacted her family ties.
There had always been negative tension between her mother and her mother’s side of the family. Melinda and her mother tend to fight often because of major differences in perspectives and the way that they prefer to go about doing things. She feels that her mother’s knowledge about her grandmother’s occupation as a former sex worker has negatively affected the way that her mother sees herself, causing her to overcompensate. Her mother’s method of overcompensating for the fact that her mother was a former sex worker, is to adopt a moral high ground perspective and assert her family hierarchy authority when disagreements take place.
My grandmother lives alone. Since I was young, it was known that she was an independent and strong woman. But my grand aunt told me that my grandmother changed after marrying my grandfather.
Melinda’s grandfather was an emotionally abusive womanizer, whom her grandmother was eventually forced to divorce him for her own safety and welfare.
Thereon, Melinda’s grandmother was on her own, with minimal support from her family. Back in their generation, sons have a higher weight age as compared to daughters. When her aunt showed potential to further her tertiary studies, her family was not willing to part with their money to allow her to attain higher education. It was Melinda’s grandmother, who then bravely decided to undertake the path of a sex worker to support her sister through university.
Although it was easy for many to say that “there are so many other jobs out there, why must sex work?”, we all know that things are not always white and black in actual reality.
From my understanding of my interview with Melinda, it was extremely difficult for Melinda’s mother to accept her grandmother’s past. Because of the stigma of sex work, many former or current sex workers would not tell their families that there were or are doing sex work.
While it is still considered to be morally ‘wrong’ in the eyes of many, sex work remains to be a viable occupation for the financially troubled. I could deeply relate to Melinda’s grandmother as I entered the sex industry because I did not want to take years off just to work to continue my studies. In reality, there is no definite black and white for survival. If more would realize sex work is a choice, it will enable more dialogue on sex work and allow people to understand why a majority of sex workers are not able to speak up about their chosen form of labor.