Shedding “Red-Light” On The Lives Of Sex Workers – A Guest Article by Ethel Oh and Nathanael Khoo

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Barbie Dolls holding up signboards with various messages from “STIGMA KILLS” to “Sex Work is WORK”, advocating rights for sex workers.

“All I wanted to be was a normal girl, with a normal job, and graduate from school, just like a normal Singaporean dream,” shares Ashley, a sex worker in Singapore. 

How would you react if one of your friends were to tell you that he or she is doing sex work? How much do you really know about sex workers? How much of what you think you know is true? 

Not everyone is as fortunate as us – to have our parents support us financially for our school fees and living expenses, and to provide a roof over our head. Some people are forced to be independent at a young age and due to certain circumstances and restrictions, they are left to take on jobs that the majority of people in this society consider as “shameful” “disgusting”.

Work in the sex industry is one of the most easily misunderstood and easily ignored forms of work. Due to stigma surrounding sex work in Singapore, people who earn their bread and butter through this industry are often overlooked and are not given a proper voice. So, who can sex workers turn to? Project X. 

Project X fosters a community that is supportive and inclusive through workshops and events.

Project X is the only non-profit organisation in Singapore that provides social, emotional, and health services to people in the sex industry. They conduct online outreach alongside their regular physical outreach in multiple parts of Singapore. Project X provides counselling, practical advice, befriender services, and education for people in the sex industry. They educate them on what avenues of recourse are available for them in cases of abuse and encourage them to speak up when they are victims of abuse. Their outreach efforts and community centres functions to create closer ties with sex workers, and to show them that there is support out there for their various needs and concerns.

Pandemic Problem

Year 2020 has been a big hit to almost every industry in the world. The COVID-19 pandemic took the world by a storm and businesses from your chicken rice stall downstairs to huge monopolies have been affected by the virus. 

In Singapore, there are about 4200 female sex workers in Singapore at any one time. Of this number, there are only about 800 to 1,000 licensed sex workers in Singapore at any one time. A large majority of them are migrant sex workers. In 2014, the police arrested 4,886 sex workers and in 2016, 2,947. Singaporean sex workers make up a minority here all according to a study conducted by the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

Singapore’s sex industry was very much migrant dependent even in licensed brothels. Because of the pandemic, many people are unable to return to do sex work. Most of the industries in Singapore are either closed or have left. Now, there is a much smaller pool of sex workers and people are finding it difficult to go back to work since there is extra policing. People are struggling with finances and over the past 6 months Project X has been doing a lot of financial programmes to support these people. “If sex workers do not earn, a lot of their dependents suffer as a result. Trying to support the sex workers for us is also supporting their family,” says Venessa Ho, executive director of Project X.

Vanessa Ho, executive director of Project X, at her desk as she does her day to day work.

The “Equal, Unbiased” Scales Of Justice

The truth is, there is a need for organisations like Project X to support Singapore’s community of sex workers because one of their biggest problems, aside from COVID, is the system itself. Sex workers are caught in a very grey area when it comes to the legal system because they are operating within the lines of legality and illegality. Sex work is technically illegal in Singapore, yet the law does not do anything about Singapore’s red-light districts. However, for sex workers, when a crime is committed against them, it becomes a very tough situation.

On one hand, a crime was committed and it should be reported for due justice to be served, but because of the victim’s line of work, the victim also suffers since sex work is technically illegal in Singapore. For some, this may mean a complete loss of their source of income due to police investigations on top of the original crime that was committed upon them in the first place. When talking about this issue, Vanessa said: “If it is any other person, if it is a non-sex worker, there would have not been any repercussions on her. So why is it any different for sex workers?”

Flyers from Project X used for outreach to the sex worker community in Singapore.

Indeed, why is it any different for sex workers? Sex workers are providing a service much like a friendly waiter at a restaurant or your usual barber at the local barbershop. Yet when a waiter is abused by a customer, they know their work rights and will be able to make a police report safely with due justice served. However, when it comes to sex workers, the hammer of justice seems to strike twice, once on the abuser and once more on the victim.

Because of the fear of the possible consequences, sex workers have become very afraid of reporting cases of abuse. This has led to the notion that sex workers are “easy targets”, making them more susceptible to becoming victims of abuse.

According to a report conducted by Project X in 2019, a surge in the number of abuse and violence cases has been observed. Just last year, the number of reported cases received by Project X rose by 26.67% from 33 cases in 2018 to 45 cases in 2019. Among the 45 cases that were reported last year, only 14 were reported to the police, meaning almost three-quarters of the total number of abuse cases in a year go unreported. 

Drain On Mental Health

Ashley, 24, who only wants to be known by her first name, was only 19 years old when she started working at different places due to financial reasons. However, because of the hefty school fees in Singapore, she decided to try out escorting and has been doing it for more than two years now.

While she agrees that most of her clients are relatively polite and respectful, she shares that being in this industry can take a toll on one’s mental health as well. She has had clients calling her a “pig”, verbally humiliating her and taking out their stress and anger on her. She shares the difficulty in processing and absorbing the things people had to say about her, leaving her feeling overwhelmed by stress which resulted in her binge eating disorder. 

However, she counts herself a lot luckier than other sex workers because she is under an agency that filters out clients who tend to get physically abusive. As for those who do this freelance, they are more likely to meet clients that can be more verbally and physically abusive.

Aside from that, even her opinions in life have been affected by her line of work. She questions monogamy, marriage, the idea of “true love” and whether these things even exist. It is a result of her experiences with clients who have beautiful and lovely wives who still decide to turn to sex workers. It has made her more afraid of getting into relationships. Before she started sex work, all she wanted was to live the normal Singaporean dream – to own a BTO and have kids. But now, she doubts herself from time to time, whether that Singaporean dream was what she really wanted.

Shine Bright Like A Red Light

Mia Rita, 26, poses in the Project X office as she shares her experiences as a sex worker.

For others like Mia Rita, 26, the sex worker’s life is her “Singaporean Dream”. 12 years ago, it was just for fun. A young boy who would cross dress to make easy money, a boy who did not know who he was and then he decided to be a transgender woman.

Because of family problems, the then 16-year-old youth was forced to leave her family and support herself. However, because of her gender identity, it became hard for her to look for jobs. With no one else to turn to, she started doing sex work to pay for her rents and financially support herself.

Since then, her sex work has taken her past Singapore’s borders to places like America and London. Over the years she has amassed a vast amount of professional experience and has come to really enjoy what she does for a living, in-spite of the issues that come with being a sex worker. 

She managed to find a balance between her line of work and her own personal life. She said: “I think it is very healthy for me to not always do sex work. I need to have my own life such as going for a workout, dance class, and have some activities. It also shows people how sex workers are just like everybody else, we also go for spin class and gym and all that.”

She tries to be upfront with what she does for a living when she meets new people. This way, when people see how nice and “normal” she is, while also knowing she does sex work, it helps to normalise the sex industry amongst the general public. 

Looking forward, there is still much to do to change how sex workers are being treated in Singapore. Normalising topics surrounding sex workers, adjusting the laws to provide better rights for sex workers or even just simply supporting organisations who provide vital support to overlooked groups like sex workers are all steps toward a better future. All jobs deserve staff welfare, sex work is work too.

“Unfortunately, if the law remains the same, this will always be a concern and sex workers will not want to report it to the police. We hope that things will change in the future,” says Vanessa. 

Ethel Oh @iamnotethelohnooo and Nathanael Khoo @natkzt are Republic Polytechnic students who wrote this piece for their project work.

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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.