In Singapore, what happened made the headlines because of its gruesomeness. In January 2010, a 21-year-old seven month pregnant Sri Lankan – Radika Devi Thayagarajah – was found dead after she was strangled, and then stuffed under a bed in a hotel room. And – get this – her murderer, a 21-year-old Indian national, actually had sex with another woman on that same bed, and while the victim was under it. As reported, a squabble happened between the two when the woman – a sex worker – asked for more money when the client asked for more sex than was initially agreed upon. The client was sentenced to jail for 17 years.
The thing is, Thayagarajah’s story isn’t exactly rare, with similar stories continuing to pile, and with some of them affecting Filipinos in Singapore. In 2010, for instance, a Filipina – 30-year-old Roselyn Reyes Pascua – was found lying in a pool of blood at Peony Mansion in Bencoolen Street. She was stabbed 16 times, including 10 times in her chest and abdomen, once in her neck, and twice in her vagina.
And these are only cases that were reported, with others remaining unreported so that only people in the sex industry know of them. An advocacy group for sex workers’ rights in Singapore tells the story of two transpinays, for instance, who – allegedly after rendering sex services to police enforcers – were harassed by the very clients they served. While they initially complained, they eventually chose to just let things be so as not to make things worse for them.
Recognizing the intersectionalities of the issues affecting those in the sex industry with the issues faced by many members of the LGBT community is what led to the establishment of Project X in Singapore.
Project X was established in 2008, though at that time, it was but an arm of another (mother) organization. In 2014, it gained autonomy, though – as program coordinator Vanessa Ho said – only after a lot of sanitizing (for instance, there’s the preference to still use “prostitution” as opposed to “sex work”) and visits to a local politician.
“Sex work is the hidden part/secret of the LGBT community,” Ho said. “It is not exactly family-friendly, and many think (that by merely existing) we’re just promoting immorality.”
But Ho said that it is exactly because sex work is under the radar that it needs to be highlighted.
Seemingly highlighting the need for such an organization as Project X, “we now have 114 ‘members’,” Ho said, adding that “I also have approximately 80 numbers in our database (of people in need of our services).” And yes, there are Filipinos in the sex industry in Singapore. And yes, too, there are members of the LGBT community who are in the sex industry in Singapore.
These people are being served by five regular staff members (three of them sex workers; and two of the five of transgender experience).
Project X’s services are numerous. For one, it partnered with Action for AIDS to provide HIV antibody testing to sex workers. Second, “we go online (e.g. Craigslist) to provide information about sex work in Singapore to those who need them,” Ho said. Third, members of its staff also visit “offline districts” to hand out condoms and lubricants. Fourth, “we partnered with the Law Society Pro Bono Services Office to offer legal clinics,” Ho said. Fifth, it has the “abuser alert”, wherein “we highlight the abuses encountered by sex workers, whether these are done by clients or by community members,” Ho said. Sixth, it “provides self-empowerment – be it in providing interview skills for employment, writing of CVs, et cetera.” And lastly, Project X reaches out to friends and/or families of those in the sex industry (“So long as you are comfortable asking for our help, we try to help,” Ho said).
While Ho lamented that “what we do is not a popular cause as, say, serving homeless LGBT people,” Ho said. Because of the this, “support of what we do is hard to come by.”
However, “we know we are filling a gap,” Ho said.
Ho is also somewhat flummoxed and somewhat disappointed that so many sex workers choose to remain quiet. “We understand that they are just trying to make a living, that they just want to earn and so they don’t want to come out and fight the discrimination (they experience),” Ho said. But this is what causes the piling up of “lots of institutional problems.”
Surprisingly, even with the hardships encountered by the LGBT community, so many LGBT people are also among the ones discriminating sex workers. In Singapore in particular, “it took the LGBT community a long time to accept the validity of what we’re doing,” Ho said. There were times when Project X was invited to participate in LGBT-related gatherings, “and yet we couldn’t even mention sex work.”
Ho added: “As a queer woman, I saw the intersectionalities of our issues (the sex industry vis-à-vis the LGBT community). The links highlight the issues that we should tackle.”
The continuing non-acceptance of sex workers may have to do with traditional concepts about sex work. “There’s that belief, that sentiment that you are in the industry because you were forced. There’s also that belief that as a person in the sex industry, you don’t know the harm you are doing – whether to yourself, or to the community,” Ho said. As such, there’s the notion that sex work is not ‘productive’.”
For Ho, people forget that there are people in the sex industry who see what they do as “just work, period.”
As per Ho, prostitution per se is not illegal in Singapore. “You can’t be jailed if you say: ‘I am a sex worker’,” she said. However, soliciting, pimping, owning a brothel, and recruiting women are illegal activities in Singapore.
Interestingly, there’s a “legal part of the sex industry, (maybe because the government saw the need to monitor it),” Ho said. As such, there are brothels with licenses in Singapore; law enforcers can not raid these brothels.
Project X estimates that “around 800 to 1,000 workers are in these brothels at any one time.”
To be able to work in these brothels, “there are also very strict requirements,” Ho said. These include: only cisgender women can work in brothels; they must only be of certain age; they must only come from certain countries; no Muslim women are allowed; and they work fixed hours.
Because of the stringent requirements, “many just opt to do freelance sex work,” Ho said.
Not incidentally, based on these same requirements, “gay men, as well as non- or pre-op transgender people do not qualify,” Ho said.
Freelance sex work in Singapore is not necessarily lucrative. Rendering oral sex, for instance, can only earn a sex worker $30, and “sometimes, some even charge as low as $20 for a blowjob.” The more “usual” rate, however, start from $50 for half an hour of whatever service. There are specializations, of course, and those who do them can demand for more amount.
If one is caught doing sex work, punishments vary. For Singaporeans, “you will be forced to admit that you solicited.” For non-Singaporeans, “you are sent home and/or deported; and you will be banned from entering Singapore for three years.”
It is worth noting that “for many law enforcers in Singapore, gay men are (largely) not seen as sex workers,” Ho said. If you are a gay man who solicits sex, therefore, you will not necessarily be charged for sex work; instead, you will be penalized under Section 377A of the Penal Code of Singapore, which criminalizes sex between mutually consenting adult men.
For Ho, there are related issues worth noting. Law enforcers, for instance, “know about Grindr. And when they access your gadgets, they know to look for it.” Also, “law enforcers of certain ranks can access your gadgets; they – in fact – have the right to do so even without a warrant.”
“You see in American TV shows, how law enforcers need to cite the Miranda warning before they can arrest you? Well, in Singapore, that just doesn’t work; perhaps just as it is in many other Asian countries,” Ho said. “For us, if you don’t say anything, or if you don’t let (law enforcers) see what’s in your belonging, then the more guilty you’d look…”
Particularly affecting transwomen is profiling. “There’s the assumption that because you’re trans, you’re immediately a sex worker,” Ho said. As such, there are areas in Singapore than actually ban transpeople. For instance, venues in Clarke Quay have been known to openly discriminate against transwomen with no sanctions.
“We know of (law enforcers) who just approach transwomen and tell them ‘Don’t do anything crazy’; or ‘Please leave’,” Ho said. “This is obviously discriminatory, particularly since they don’t do the same to cisgender people, even to (suspected) cisgender sex workers.”
Worth noting is that Singapore actually allows the changing of sex markers in the National ID (though not the birth certificate) as long as a person has had a “complete” gender confirmation surgery (GCS). In the case of transwomen in particular (and as an example), this obviously plays with the notion of needing to be a “complete” woman before one can change one’s sex marker, but “there’s still the lack of understanding that what’s between your legs does not necessarily have anything to do with how you self-identify,” Ho said.
There are, by the way, no anti-discrimination policies in Singapore.
The number of people in Singapore who are said to have HIV “reach approximately 6,000.” Aside from the number, though, “the breakdown is not as widely known.” As such, the number of those infected in the sex industry is also not known.
Also, in confronting the issue of HIV, Ho is wary about the continuing inclusion of transwomen in the umbrella term “men who have sex with men (MSM)”. In Singapore, they continue to have problems documenting just how prevalent HIV infection is among transwomen because “we continue not to have segregated data”. As such, “we are unable to offer trans-specific services.”
Ho is first to admit that much remains to be done to help better the lives of those in the sex industry. The LGBT community, for one, “needs to be more embracing of other minorities,” she said.
But she also believes that those in the industry can take steps to help alleviate their situation.
“Don’t stay silent. Speak out. We’ll support you. It’s not going to be easy; in fact, it will be hard (doing so). But we’re here, we’re with you every step of the way,” Ho ended.