Geylang, Singapore's red light district. (Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, http://bjornfree.com/galleries.html)

Project X highlights the depressing reality of sex workers in Singapore who face abuse on all fronts

December 17th was the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. In conjunction with that, community-based sex workers rights’ advocate group Project X shared a harrowing story about a Filipina sex worker being abused by a client.

The story is difficult to read but important to highlight. Project X says that this sex worker was sexually abused as consent was premised on payment, but the man took his money back after the act. On top of that, he was verbally and emotionally abusive.

However, the transgender sex worker, though hurt and humiliated, didn’t report this to the police as her friend was recently entangled with the authorities and has been struggling with the investigation process.

Unfortunately, this is only one of many similar stories that Project X has highlighted over the years. Sex workers experience abuse all the time from clients, the public, and even the law enforcement, which makes it even harder for them to make reports or take legal action against abusers.

Back in 2016, a Singaporean escort and part-time staff of Project X wrote a blog post asserting that the implications of not recognising sex work as work is far reaching. She added that much of the abuse faced by sex workers go largely unreported and undetected due to this legal grey area in Singapore where sex work is illegal but the government still allows them to operate within the Designated Red-Light Areas (DRA) which are regulated and monitored by the police. Unfortunately, cases of abuse go unreported as sex workers fear that the police will charge them for doing sex work even if they were a victim of a crime.

Beyond that, a report by Project X for the 69th Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) drew attention to the various human rights abuses and discrimination against sex workers in Singapore. One section focused particularly on the abuses sex workers face from law enforcement.

The report said, ‘Unlicensed sex workers are subject to constant raids and entrapment and face mistreatment by police, abuse from clients and members of the public, and lack access to justice.’

According to the Abuse Alert reports collected by Project X in 2016, 24% of the abusers reported to Project X were members of law enforcement, making them the second more frequent perpetrators of abuse against sex workers.

Police misconduct against sex workers can range from direct physical, verbal, and emotional abuse to unfair and discriminatory arrest practices such as profiling, entrapment, and denying access to counsel or translators.

One migrant transwoman, Bella, who is a sex worker based in Singapore shared her experiences which contributed to the CEDAW report. Bella said, ““The police treat us like terrorists, destroy our room during raids. We don’t like to be treated like that, like we are criminals. They come to disturb us, but don’t give us a license or provide jobs in Singapore.”

When even law enforcement officers treat you like you’re less than human, it’s no wonder why sex worker abuse remains primarily unreported. The people who are meant to protect them as a member of the public are also the ones who are hurting them either directly or indirectly.

In 2017, an article in The Pride highlighted how one sex worker tried to make a police report after she was beaten up by a client, but instead of a helping hand, the officer simply asked her if she knew that ‘solicitation was wrong’.

The reality for sex workers in Singapore is bleak. They are left with very little by way of support from administrative structures and law enforcement, which forces them to endure truly horrific abuses that no human being should. Regardless of their line of work, sex workers are humans too and they deserve to be treated with respect and should be afforded the protections that any other member of society receives.