TW: Mention of R*pe, Molest, Substance Use
The annual celebration of Mother’s Day honours the contributions mothers make in the name of motherhood. In Project X, we have observed many sex workers who are also mothers. As with any working parent, sex workers must balance their professional and parenting duties. This profession faces unique challenges such as fear of disclosure and being misunderstood and rejected by their loved ones due to the stigma surrounding it.
For our Mother’s Day feature, Sherry Sherqueshaa, Head of Project X’s Community and Relations Engagement speaks to Zoe, a 44-year-old single mother, currently working as a masseuse. Zoe is a mother to a 19-year-old son. She started sex work in the midst of the divorce of her second marriage through a recommendation of a friend.
Sherry: Shall we start with an introduction of yourself?
Zoe: Hi I’m Zoe. I’m 44. Local Indian. I’ve been doing this since I was 27, I think.
Sherry: 27…How many years has it been? 17 years?
Zoe: Plus minus. Come and go.
Sherry: Were you already a mother when you started sex work?
Zoe: I was both married and already a mother. At the age of 24, I was a mother to a boy. After birth, I was doing breastfeeding. Sex was a no-no. My husband was visiting sex workers at massage parlours. I joined shortly after I divorced him.
Sherry: How was that like for you?
Zoe: I didn’t take it very personal lah. Of course lah, I think any woman will be sad. We were childhood lovers. After my divorce, I was renting my friend’s room. She happened to also be a sex worker. She asked me to join. I thought why not?
Sherry: At that age, how did you feel about sex work?
Zoe: I think it’s okay lah. You’re not stealing. You’re not robbing people. You’re getting paid for what the clients want.
Sherry: How was it like being a mother and a sex worker then?
Zoe: It was hard. I had to pay a lot of money. I was going through a divorce while having to rent a room. I had to juggle with babysitting. While I was married, I was not working and did not have any savings. Whatever money I had, it went into the private eye to check on my husband. I was also taking care of my mum who was blind. I just wanted to settle everything. Didn’t have the time to think about other things, you know. I just went to work.
Sherry: So you single-handedly raised your kid?
Zoe: When he was four years old, I gave my son back to his father. My son had ADHD and it was very difficult. Every day at work, I would receive a call in the afternoon from his school. He would have beaten somebody. Not just beat up. Bleeding, you know? When my babysitter was unwell, I placed him under my sister’s care. He beat my sister’s daughter. Not say I couldn’t afford to look after him…But looking after would mean not working lah.
I told his father to take over him. He had a high-end job and was doing well. He also had a domestic worker and his mum was there to keep an eye on our son. I would take my son over during the weekends.
At 15, he went to Boys’ Home. He has been in Boys’ Home, then RTC (Reformative Training Centre) for the past four years.
Sherry: How old is your son now?
Zoe: He’s turning 19.
Sherry: Do you feel that sex work affected your duties as a mother?
Zoe: Definitely. I was working from morning until night and eventually, I did 24-hour shifts. I also had to get a helper for my mum and dad.
A lot of single mothers were working in this line as well while raising their kids. Their children have gone to University. Hats off to them. These women also didn’t have support from family. Their kids were being left alone with siblings. But my son didn’t have a sibling so he was lonely. He was missing my physical presence.
There were days I would take two to three days off. I would go out with him to Sentosa or wherever he wanted. After that, he’d ask me to take another day’s leave. And I’ve done that you know. I even prolonged my leave to a month. Afterwards, he’ll be emotionally down. This didn’t happen with his father, but it did with me.
Sherry: I would say that’s one setback you experienced. There were some things you had to lose being a mother and a sex worker. What would you say is a benefit you experienced?
Zoe: Money. I could settle everything there and then. I didn’t have to depend on anybody.
Sherry: Does your son know about the work you do?
Zoe: He doesn’t know.
Sherry: If your son asks, what would you say?
Zoe: He was asking me the other day. I was telling him I was babysitting. The father knows. He ever came to my spa before.
Sherry: He didn’t know you were working there?
Zoe: He didn’t know. He used to frequent this one place. My boss called him. My boss didn’t know better. My ex-husband was already in the room waiting with his towel. At that point of time, we weren’t divorced yet. We were fighting for the child custody. My baby was less than 1 year old. I knew I will eventually catch my husband. He was in denial. Mati mati say no. I didn’t want to throw the photo evidence at him. I didn’t want to shame him. But you know what? God is good. When he was there he was like…Oops. Singapore is very small.
Sherry: You were the one to serve him that day?
Zoe: Yes. I told him I won’t serve him. I said I will get another girl.
Sherry: Was that role part of your plan or did you pecah lobang already that you worked there?
Zoe: Yeah lor…pecah lobang. But he didn’t use that against me to fight for custody.
Sherry: Who else knows about your occupation?
Zoe: One of my colleagues, she used to help me a lot back then. Over the weekends she would help take my son to the zoo. She would bring him out. Of course, I gave her money. She would bring her kids along so he’ll have companions. There were a lot of nice ladies used to work with.
Sherry: Would you say all the years of experience have allowed you to hide it very well?
Zoe: Actually, I only came back to this job last week. I didn’t work for a year as my dad had a fall. I had to stop working to take care of him. My son’s father knows that I’m doing this work again. He just came out of prison and didn’t have a place to stay. My son wrote to me and asked to help his Papa. We haven’t talked for years. I wrote back to him and said to come and stay with me.
Yesterday, he bought me flowers for Mother’s Day gift. He came here to my workplace. He asked if I’d quit eventually since our son is coming out. I told him not yet. Every time I said I’d quit, I came back. If you ask people like us to go and do normal jobs, it’s very tough.
Sherry: Technically, you are currently in control. You are working and have an income. You also have a house. Would you say this was made possible due to sex work?
Sherry: Would you choose another job?
Zoe: I was working another job last year. I stopped when my father had a fall.
Sherry: What is one thing you wish people would understand better about sex workers who are also mothers?
Zoe: It’s very hard to educate the world. Trust me. I think you know better. It’s very difficult, especially with those very educated people out there. Like girls, they would say no and think that we are actually desperate for sex that’s why we become sex workers. Actually, it’s not. It’s hard to talk this about topic lah. It’s actually very tiring for ladies with children to have sex. When I sit down and talk with my bosses, it’s the same thing. Three kids. How to have sex?
So the men go out. It’s very difficult for men to control their sex desires. They can’t just eat Briyani every day. They want to eat Nasi Padang. Some men have psychological issues. If sex workers don’t do our work, there will be more rape and molest cases. There are also boys molesting and filming girls in the toilets. I’d rather welcome them here. Go to the proper place.
Sherry: Does any of your clients know that you have a son? Has anyone ever threatened to expose you?
Zoe: A client of mine even brought us out for a meal on my son’s birthday. Bought him presents and drove around. He was a businessman. He would come every week to support me. That was when my son was very small. There was a point in time when I was not working, he would transfer me $3000 every month. He would come and visit us. I was able to take care of my family comfortably and got to relax my mind, body and soul.
I’ve always told my clients that I’m a single mum.
Sherry: Do you think people might mistake that you’re proudly saying that you have a son while being a sex worker?
Zoe: It’s okay. Nobody has said such a thing. Instead, I’ve always heard It must be hard on you. I think the more I tell my clients I have a child, the more they will tip me. They’ll tell me this is for your son.
Sherry: You know how people share things on forums? Were you ever scared that you’d be identified?
Zoe: I’ve had friends see me in Orchard Towers. They know. But they won’t say anything. There’s nothing for them to say. We will even club together. They will ask me – Was it a hard day? That’s it.
Sherry: They’ve normalised and never made it like it’s too sensitive. Or try to play pretend they don’t know? That’s good!
Zoe: My very close ex-schoolmate told me she wanted to come and try what I did. She came to the other massage parlour but didn’t do any sex service. She passed the service to the other girls. She just did massage for three clients and went home with a very heavy heart. The next day she went drinking. She said wah jialat leh. Not easy ah.
It’s not easy to educate the world but at least I had one person who really came into my workplace and experienced it personally. She’s married today also and she will share about this to her husband who’s also my ex-schoolmate. Not the world but just one person. So I am happy. And people like you, it’s very nice and sweet of y’all to do this.
Sherry: I also work in Geylang and I see many single mums. It struck me how it was like to carry on like that with a fear of being identified. The fear of you know, someone might expose you but I think you are really courageous.
Zoe: I only fear rough sex. From the customers. Like really…really…You be good to me for what you pay. Don’t make me go on mc for 2-3 days, you know. That’s all.
Sherry: How long more do you think you’ll be in this industry?
Zoe: Like I said, I wouldn’t want to say I’m gonna quit.
Sherry: What would your goal be now that your son is coming out? What’s your plan like? As a mother and also woman who’s caring for her ex-husband.
Zoe: I think we’ll have more fun. We are going to stay under the same roof after so many years. I think the three of us deserve this. I just pray that both of them finish their tagging in February next year. My son is going to work also. I’ll cook for them lah. So they’ll have at least one meal at home, then the rest they can eat out. Then off day, don’t make me cook we all go out and eat together lah.
People like us, we cannot dream like others. Sometimes always rojak. Then always stress for what? Take one day at a time. I used to dream very far. When toppled, I really became very depressed and took drugs. Went in and out of prison three times. I asked myself why want to stress myself. You shouldn’t be doing all this you know.
Just two weeks ago, one of my friends passed away. She went to the Us, came back and she was not well. Coughing. She died at the hospital. She was only 50+ and she didn’t look her age. You never know what’s gonna happen tomorrow. Don’t think so much and so far. Must be contented also.
Sherry: What would your advice be to any mum dealing with these two things: being a sex worker, and knowing that one day your child would know?
Zoe: I mean the cat will be out of the bag one day. You need to mentally prepare yourself. We can only pray that the child won’t be aggressive when he finds out. Being aggressive is not going to hurt me, it’s going to hurt yourself. One fine day, I will be gone and you will be sitting here thinking about this, or hating all the women on this Earth. All the women are gonna be like Mama! I know there’ve been cases like that.
You need to keep your own mental wellness. Then I think everything will go smoothly.
Zoe may have gone through plenty of twists and turns in the past but speaking to her, her energy is both calm and steadfast. Zoe’s candid statements about the need for the sex industry point to a larger conversation in the way society has facilitated power dynamics in sex. There is still so much stigma surrounding sex as a form of labour despite its ability to support livelihoods and the people we care for. Having spoken with many sex workers at Project X, many fear the inevitable day that they may be found out. Zoe seems to have made peace knowing that she was simply doing her best to take care of herself as well as the people she was responsible for. She remains optimistic and determined.