By Tiffany Gwee / Images by Vanessa Ho
I remember going to second-hand bookstores and finding books about the history of prostitution in Singapore. Being a not-so-knowledgeable teenage few years back, I started reading them out of sheer curiosity – but only to be intrigued by the nature of the industry in a conservative society like Singapore.
Sex is often a taboo topic in a society as orthodox and traditionalist like Singapore. Needless to say, not many would know much about sex workers residing here in places like Geylang and Chinatown. Even while I was growing up in Geylang, I heard many mentioning the phrase the “Red Light District” and how I should “stay away” from it but never knew what it meant until I got older.
Just as I thought the sex workers in Singapore do not receive much help, I found out about Project X and Empower Foundation through an art exhibition held earlier this month at The Substation somewhere in town.
Sex work is an Art
Organised by Empower Foundation (a registered Thai Foundation that aims to promote rights and opportunities for sex workers), sex workers of ASEAN have created an exhibition that “explores, expresses and celebrates” the art of being a sex worker in ASEAN. Entitled “Yet Still We Dance!”, it was actually initiated at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre in April last year and begun touring ASEAN soon after.
Despite the exhibition being smaller than many others I had seen before, it was one that was special yet impactful and very inspiring as well. Each ASEAN country had their own mini artwork exhibition done by the sex workers themselves – all of which were accompanied by captions written by them just beside the artworks for explanation.
Below are some of the displayed pieces in the exhibition itself.
Bridging the Gap
I managed to speak to Miss Vanessa Ho, a lively and motivated young lady who was the Project Coordinator for the exhibition. She also is core member of Project X, a local-based organisation working towards the rights of sex workers that also hopes to put an end to the constant discrimination and stigmatization of sex workers.
Vanessa told me that the art displayed in the exhibition is “used as a medium” to “bridge the gap” between the sex workers and everyone else in society. “They use art to express themselves,” she added.
Reflection of Oneself
Since each country had to submit artworks of their own, the sex workers in Singapore attended workshops to make their personal art pieces. They had to submit paintings done on mirrors – to literally reflect what they want others to view them as. Being the project coordinator, Vanessa got a chance to facilitate the workshops.
Vanessa described the process as “fascinating”, “interesting” and “amazing”.
“Some of them are illiterate so they never got to pick up a pen, let alone a brush. I remember one girl drawing herself as someone who is crying and she told me that “她里面是哭的”(chinese for ‘she is crying inside’). Some are more abstract so they draw flowers to represent beauty and freedom. Some used different colours. Some even drew money because it is the thing that drives a lot of people to work eventually.”
Project X: Fighting for the rights of sex workers
Project X has been ongoing for 3 years now and consists of about 5 dedicated volunteers who often do outreach programmes and walkabouts. They personally get to know the sex workers better and from there “find out issues they face” be it “violence, verbal abuse, bullying or cases of disrespect”. They will write reports to the Police or the United Nations when needed.
Vanessa tells me that the “financial vulnerability” of the sex workers here make them easy targets for “various forms of exploitation”. Customers might “bully” them and take advantage of them. “Sometimes, they don’t even treat them as human beings.”
“Anger is a common feeling you get while doing all these,” she laughs, “Quite often, members of the public or teenage boys will come in a group and verbally assault the sex workers. It is extremely terrible but tons of people are like that.”
Why she stayed on
Like many other people, Vanessa initially entered the foundation only because she “needed a job”. This, coupled with the fact that she has always been “interested in issues like sexuality and double standards”, made her choose to work at Project X.
When I asked her about why she stayed on, she answered, “They are my friends. We work together, share troubles with each other. I got to understand a different fragment of society altogether.”
Stereotyping Sex Workers
Like myself, Vanessa strongly believes there is a huge misconception about sex workers in Singapore. “There are two distinct camps of mindset of Singaporeans towards them. One is the people who pity them and the other are the ones that view them as ‘money hungry’.”
She firmly added that providing sexual services is a “skill” and is considered “sexual labour”. Similar to an office worker who has to work a whole day in his/her cubicle, a sex worker will “give time and energy to accomplish something”. “They do not want to be stereotyped.”
What the sex workers want is not pity but their “equal standing as a human being”. This is exactly the purpose of the exhibition and the cause that Vanessa is working towards – for sex workers to be treated as an equal and not be discriminated by the public.
Other than doing talks in universities like National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Management University (SMU), Vanessa has also recently acquired a community space where workers can choose to go there to unwind and relax.
“It will be like a safe place where they will not need to fear anything. A lot of them can go there to cook as well. I know quite a few who love to cook but do not have the chance to.”
I asked her if she has plans for more exhibitions or workshops in the near future. “A lot of people enjoyed the art exhibition and learnt more about sex workers from a new perspective this time so I am sure there will be many more to come. I am thinking of doing an exhibition using different mediums – maybe music or dance.”
“We sell sex, not art!”
Looking at Vanessa being so spurred on to continue working towards her goal inspired me a whole lot so I wondered about who she takes inspiration from.
“I am very inspired by local activists such as Rachel Zeng and Jennifer Teo. Since there are not many here, I look up to those who are brave enough to fight for their causes. The people at Empower also inspire me because they are all so genuine. ”
Of course, she also is greatly motivated by the sex workers themselves – especially “how they take life by the horns and ride it”.
Just as I was about to thank her for the short conversation, she suddenly remembered an immensely impactful quote for me to include in the report.
“When Empower asked the workers if they should sell the artworks after display or not, the women all refused. They said that they ‘sell sex, not art’. They had such a strong sense of ownership over their work. It was as if the artwork was a piece of them that they do not want to sell. It was such a powerful statement.”
Indeed, just like how an insurance agent sells insurance and a fruit seller sells fruits, sex workers sell sex and yearn to be treated with respect and equality – something that will only happen if people can understand them better. Holding this art exhibition is just one of many ways to do that.