Is sex work legal in Singapore?
Sex work per se is not illegal. In February 2009, former Senior Minister of State Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee said that, “As members are aware, prostitution is not an offence in Singapore. We recognize that it is not possible to eradicate it and forcing it underground will lead to the greater likelihood of involvement by triads and organized crime, the trafficking of women, and public health risks.” However, that does not mean that sex work is legal. First and foremost, migrant sex workers are by definition “prohibited migrants” (Immigration Act, Art.8(3)(e)(f)). In addition, many sex work-related activities are criminalised. This includes:
- Soliciting in a public place for the purpose of prostitution (Misc Offences Act, Art.19)
- Pimping or living on the earnings of a prostitute (Women’s Charter, Art.146)
- Owning a brothel (Women’s Charter, Art.148)
Male and transgender sex workers may face additional charges such as “gross indecency” (Penal Code, Section 377A)
If owning a brothel is illegal, how come there are so many in Geylang?
In practice, the police regulates and monitors a limited number of brothels. In particular, the Specialised Crime Branch of the Singapore Police Force issues licenses to brothels and provides clearance for brothel sex workers to acquire a Work Permit. Sex workers in such establishments are required to undergo monthly health checks and are given the infamous “yellow card” (literally—it is a yellow coloured card). The State does not publicly acknowledge this, however, through our work, we managed to learn of some criterion for application of the yellow card:
- You have to be between 21 to 35 years of age
- You cannot be Malay or Muslim
- You cannot be Male on your identification card (this includes pre-operative transgender persons)
- You have to be from a list of approved countries (i.e. China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore)
Most workers under the yellow card system are migrants. They will have to undergo an interview and sign a contract with the police upon arrival. We understand that some workers were asked at this point if they have been coerced into this industry. Amongst other things, the agreement states that one will not break any local laws, and that once their contract ends, they will face a travel ban lasting between three years to a lifetime. Other terms and conditions include not soliciting outside one’s designated brothel, not loitering in public spaces, and not to have a Singaporean boyfriend.
Workers under the yellow card system work full time–up to 6 days a week and compensation has to be provided if more off-days are required. Brothels are to comply with a 100% condom use policy, however, there have been reports of unsafe sexual practices within these brothels.
All other sex workers who are not on the yellow card system are considered “illegal”. They are often more vulnerable because they fear being arrested.
What issues do sex workers face?
Sex workers face many issues. In 2018, the top 3 forms of abuse we witnessed were harassment, physical assault, and financial violence (e.g. extortion, robbery, non-payment of service). One client preyed on multiple sex workers by serially raping and assaulting them. He was jailed for 8 months but upon release, started to prey on workers again. In another instance, a sex worker was attacked by her agent when asking for money to support her 14-year-old daughter, and had to get ten stitches. In the same year, three youths conspired to rob sex workers at knife point by preying on their “vulnerabilities and insecurities,” due to the illicit nature of their work.
These are only a few examples of the many instances of violence that are regularly documented. Unfortunately, there are likely many more cases that go undocumented as well, as women in the sex industry often do not receive the necessary support and resources to speak up against abuse and may face repercussions if they do speak up.
Read more in detail in our annual reports
Types Of Cases we have seen in 2018:
Why do sex workers choose this line?
Different people are brought up with different opportunities. More often than not, women enter the sex industry because sex work is the best opportunity available. We see many instances where these women are the main providers for their families, and have to support their parents, partners, and children.
Like any other job (whether blue collar, white collar, or home-based), sex work presents a set of risks which workers must negotiate. Unfortunately, because sex work is so marginalized and sex workers so often discriminated against, the risks that women in the sex industry face are compounded. Many do not feel that they can speak out as they fear being exposed as sex workers.
We hear some people say to sex workers that they are harming themselves, disrespecting themselves, by doing sex work, and as such, they should try to quit to regain dignity. These comments are extremely insensitive and often do more to quash the dignity and self-esteem that sex workers have of themselves. Project X aims to empower and respect the dignity of women in the sex industry. This does not mean that we ignore the dangers and risks that they face. Rather, we aim to centre the needs of women in the sex industry, rather than persecute or judge them for their choices, and support them with the necessary resources and advice so that they can better navigate the challenges they face in life.
Are all sex workers trafficked – i.e. engage in sex work because they are forced to?
Article 3, paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines Trafficking in Persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.
On the basis of the definition given in the Trafficking in Persons Protocol, trafficking in persons has three constituent elements:
To ascertain whether a particular circumstance constitutes trafficking in persons, consider the definition of trafficking in the Trafficking in Persons Protocol and the constituent elements of the offense, as defined by relevant domestic legislation.
Trafficking is a serious crime. In reflection of this, Singapore passed the “Prevention of Human Trafficking Act 2014” in order to tackle all forms of trafficking—labour, sex, and organ trafficking. Project X similarly condemns trafficking and we do all we can to assist victims of trafficking.
However, from our many years working with the sex industry, we have observed that under current legal definitions — which set a very high bar for what is considered trafficking — only a handful of individuals would be classified as trafficked. Only four cases have been prosecuted to date. We also caution against the conflation of human trafficking with sex work. Not all sex workers are trafficked, but the belief that they are tends to undermine and disrespect the consent of sex workers. Further, trafficking occurs across a range of industries, including domestic work and construction, not just the sex industry.
People in the sex industry can face a range of exploitative conditions which are seldom fully captured by the “human trafficking” framework. Many women in the sex industry choose this work because it is the best option available for them and do not want or need to be “rescued” or “saved.” We extend our services to all sex workers and believe that all sex workers — whether trafficked or not — deserve support and just treatment.
Do sex workers truly enjoy their job?
We refer to Juno Mac’s and Molly Smith’s article: “People often think that selling sex must be a horrible job, and many sex workers would agree. However, these sex workers may locate the problem not in sex but in work.” Like any other job, some sex workers like their job, and some do not. Whether or not sex work is enjoyable or fulfilling is less important than the question of whether sex workers work under non-exploitative and fair conditions, where their autonomy and safety is protected.
Sex Workers cannot be raped, they must be lying
Sex workers are human beings too and like everyone else, have boundaries.
Why do you use the term “sex worker” instead of “prostitute”?
We use the term to recognize that sex work is work, and to respect the labour involved in the work. The word “prostitute” has also evolved into a word with negative connotations and is often used as a derogatory term used to hurt or humiliate someone.
How many sex workers are there in Singapore? Are they all from overseas?
It is hard to put a number on this as many are informal and indirect sex workers. According to a study conducted by the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, there are about 4200 female sex workers in Singapore at any one time. Of this number, there are 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. According to Vanessa Ho, the executive director of Project X, “stigma, discrimination, criminalisation” all work to drive sex workers underground and thus make them “reluctant to accessing healthcare services” due to the fear of being identified by local authorities. As such, while we can roughly estimate the number of informal sex workers, we cannot put a number on the exact population of informal sex workers in Singapore.
What kind of people do sex work?
People who do sex work come from all walks of life. There is no single ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, or sexual orientation which determines whether someone is a sex worker or not. We work with both cis and trans, female and male sex workers. Gender non-conforming sex workers tend to face unique difficulties such as aggravated social discrimination and difficulty finding other employment.
Where did you get all this information?
Project X has been in operation since November 2008 and all this information is gathered from speaking to workers and various agencies.