Geylang, Singapore's red light district. (Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen,

Is it actually better to pay for sex?

By Zed Dee

There was a story published recently by the Straits Times that seems to disagree. The story has this to say about more teenage boys having paid sex with female sex workers:

This is a public health concern as sex workers are a major source of infection — and 30 per cent of the boys she polled between 2009 and 2014 who visited prostitutes said they did not use a condom each time they had paid sex.

A look at the original study however, states that 41.9% of those who have engaged in sex with female sex workers have been diagnosed with an STI compared to 49.7% who did not.

Those who did not pay for sex actually had a higher rate of STIs.

A closer look at the data reveals the reason why.


Teenage boys who have never paid for sex report using a condom less often for all kinds of sex. And even though they have less sexual partners on average than the teenage boys who have paid for sex, they still have a higher rate of STIs.

Let’s take another look at the data:


Teenagers engaging in street based sex work reported the highest inconsistent condom usage compared to brothel based sex work which reported the lowest. And based on data on condom usage above, it is oral sex which has the most inconsistent condom use, even with posters and programmes to promote 100% condom usage in brothels.

As for a reason why street based sex work has the highest inconsistent condom usage, perhaps it is because the possession of condoms is often used by the police to threaten street based sex workers with arrest.

The article also states that:

In earlier cohorts of boys who went to the Department of Sexually Transmitted Infections Control (DSC) Clinic between 2006 and 2009 and were interviewed, only 15 per cent said they had intercourse with prostitutes.

Now if we take a look at the graph provided by the Straits Times:

fewer teens

The number of infections from 2006–2009 is actually higher than 2009–2014. This is even despite the fact that in 2006–2009, only 15% of teenage boys paid for sex compared to 39% in 2009–2014. We also know that teenage boys who pay for sex use condoms more often than those who do not. Even though one of the reasons for the drop in infections is probably due to better sex education, the fact still remains that the number of STIs is going down even though the number of teenage boys paying for sex went up.

How then did both the authors of the study and the Straits Times reporter come to the conclusion that sex workers are a major source of STIs?

Perhaps more teenage boys paying for sex is actually better for public health.