This commentary was also published in Karyawan, A Magazine by the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), April 2018, Volume 13, Issue 2.
When it comes to careers, there are dream jobs and there are those that only serve to pay the bills and put food on the table. Then, there are ones that go against what may be considered respectable or acceptable by society. One profession in particular often faces discrimination, violence and abuse. A highly stigmatised, taboo job that people would rather not hear details about: sex work.
There is an acute lack of accurate statistics on sex workers around the world, and the numbers will remain vague because the work is largely illegal and often underground. Sex workers are also less keen to be studied due to the nature of the job so it will always be a challenge to compile their numbers as compared to other occupations.
Whilst public solicitation, living on the earnings of a prostitute and maintaining a brothel are illegal, it is a known fact that prostitution in Singapore still exists but restricted to what has been coined as red-light areas, such as certain parts in the Geylang and Desker Road areas and the ‘four floors’ of a mall along Orchard Road. However, sex work outside these areas is also extensive and growing. Sex workers also utilize methods such as street solicitation, call-girl system, massage parlours and lounges, and online advertisements. Those in this sub-sector are the ones that are harder to monitor and control due to its ‘invisibility’.
The Karyawan team is fortunate enough to get in touch with a few ladies who were willing to share their stories.
One of them goes by the name of Nina (not her real name), currently an active sex worker who has been in the industry for over ten years and who first started in 2007 when she was in her early 20s. Nina is now a 38-year-old divorcee with two children, and receiving no financial support.
When asked why she chose this route, she claimed that she needed a flexible job that pays immediately and daily, and earns her enough cash for her and her kids.
“We cannot work at 7-11 anymore. The pay there cannot support us. My target per day is to have at least 4 customers and I charge $50 for every half an hour on top of another $10 for the room. While there are days that I reach my target, there are also days that I just get one customer and some days, none. Nowadays, the market is very bad due to the alcohol regulation. Before this, customers are usually drunk or prefer to drink before they meet us,” she explained.
The bad job market coupled with her lack of academic qualifications led Nina to conclude that sex work is the only option for her.
While Nina made a choice to be in the trade, another lady that Karyawan got in touch with, was forced into the sex trade by her ex-husband to pay off his debt incurred due to his addiction to drugs. Ruby (not her real name) was sold off to the trade when she was 34 years old.
“I was given a choice, it was either me or my daughter, who was then only six years old,” Ruby said.
Ruby was pinned to the trade for nearly six years and was forced to serve a minimum of five clients per day. All the earnings went to a particular ‘Mummy Rose’ who controlled the vice back then.
“When I became too sickly and my skin full of lesions, I was told to leave the ‘organisation’. By then, I had nowhere to go, my home was seized by the bank due to non-payment,” she explained.
When asked if she ever went to seek help, Ruby answered, “Yes, I did. I went to friends and family. I even approached a mosque but I was turned away as I wasn’t dressed ‘appropriately’ because I had no scarf on, and my dress was dirty. In desperation, I went to a church to seek help. I was welcomed by a pastor who gave me some money for food. I was invited to come again, but I never went back.”
According to the ladies, there is actually a large number of Malay women who are in the sex trade industry, as well as those who are social escorts and hostesses in lounges. While not a formal job scope, Nina believes that the hostesses and social escorts’ job fall under the same sex-work umbrella since it also involves entertaining customers who pay for companionship, including sex services.
Indeed, there are young Malay women who have turned to this trade, however, evidence of this is hard to come by, usually only as a coincidence, like the article by The Straits Times last October which had reported about a scuffle between two Malay hostesses in a KTV club in Jalan Sultan. While the report had been about the crime and the aftermath (one of the women was blinded in one eye after she was kicked with a stiletto), it had shown the existence of Malays in the trade. There is also a list of websites that advertises Malay hostesses offering their services in lounges and pubs in Singapore.
The issue of sex workers among the Malay/Muslim community is a paradox that we often overlook. As prostitution is condemned and impermissible in Islam, and these women, to an extent, are marginalised and invisible in our community, many of us are not cognizant of the magnitude and realities of this issue. Most of us do not consider them as a cause worth battling for as we do for the betterment of the poverty-stricken. To make matters worse, misinformation is widespread and the voices of sex-workers are systematically silenced.
A majority of us may have the idea that prostitution is a choice and the women enjoy what they do. What has informed these scripts and where has this message come from? Have we drawn conclusions from real lives and have we listened to them? Or have we allowed stereotypes to become our authority? Instead of simply criminalising or victimising the people who walk this unconventional track, a deeper look should be taken to understand their situation.
Indeed, some do in fact choose sex work, but this is not to say that their decisions were easy or without challenges. While there are stories that paint the picture of the well-informed woman choosing sex work to supplement their comfortable income, the reality is quite the contrary for a vast majority of them. In fact, on many occasions, vulnerability, trauma and economic insecurity often drive them into the sex trade.
Our research finds that these women are often single mothers making ends meet for their children, victims of desperate husbands or partners in debt, and manipulated homeless teenagers. Poverty, lack of skills and low educational qualification are some of the key factors propelling many from the low-income to this trade, with hopes of a better life. Growing consumerism, the desire to acquire branded items, and the attitude that it’s okay to do whatever it takes to get money, also fuel its attraction to young girls to become escorts.
While some may ostracise them for destroying families, living in adultery, and spreading diseases, we fail to see the other spectrum of the consequences of prostitution. The ramifications are not only severe to the society, but also to the sex worker herself as a person.
For instance, according to Project X, which is a sex workers’ rights group, women in the sex trade report high rates of abuse. They are at risk of being exploited by ‘pimps’ and sustaining injuries from repeated violence. In addition, street-based sex workers often find themselves targeted by the police because various prostitution-related activities such as public soliciting are prohibited. This makes it difficult for the ‘streetwalkers’ to report any violence they experience on the job.
Sex workers are also at risk of developing mental and physical health problems and/or experiencing emotional and psychological consequences related to being stigmatised or feeling forced to keep their involvement in sex work a secret. It reduces the options for them to turn to any source of support, including healthcare and protection from violence. They are vulnerable to many health problems especially sexually transmitted diseases, not to mention their risk of unwanted pregnancies, which often leads to a lack of prenatal care or unsafe abortions. With all these problems, sex workers are also prone to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and may resort to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.
According to the ladies we spoke to, drug use is intrinsically linked to prostitution. While there are a number who turn to sex work to finance their existing drug addiction, there are also sex workers who use drugs to numb themselves into a life which they resent and to withstand the emotional and physical stress that comes with it. When they get arrested, and released later, most sex workers usually find themselves lurking down the same route again because to them, they have nowhere else to go.
Ostracised by family and society, and with no Malay/Muslim welfare shelters that can house them, these women usually have no other option but to stay at hotels. And what other way to pay for their hotel stay? Sex work.
‘Sex workers stigma’ is the biggest barrier for sex workers to leave the industry. According to the ladies we interviewed, there are many cases of ex-sex workers who encountered degrading treatment when they attempted to leave sex work for new occupations or find alternative ways to earn. The stigma of prostitution remains firmly on the women, not the men who engage their services. No matter the realities of their experiences, sex workers are often considered a danger to society, unfit for serious public service, and worst of all, the stigma of: “once a sex worker, always a sex worker”.
It is about time the community provide the necessary welfare for these women. Intervention strategies could be including them in income-generating programmes which would decrease the chances of them going back to prostitution. In addition, they should be able to access a holistic healthcare programme that encompasses individual counselling and other supportive measures. Funds could also be raised to help enable their children to attend and stay in school because education plays a vital role in breaking free from the poverty trap and prevent them from entering prostitution.
In areas where prostitution remain legal, it may be easier to reach out to them because they are identifiable. But what happens to the rest who suffer silently because of how society treats them?
Lucky for Ruby, she remarried and is out of the trade. Together with her supportive husband, they now run a shelter in Johor Bahru to help women like her. The shelter does not receive any funding from the government so they are open to any form of help from the society.
We are not here to condone or condemn the occupation, or the women who are in the profession, be it by choice or force. What we should do is to keep an open mind and help those who want to be out of prostitution. These women need to be assured that the community have not neglected them.
As Ruby puts it, “If we don’t do anything to break the cycle, it will just go on and on for years. Stop judging them and reach out to them. Each of them has their own story to tell.”
Nabilah Mohammad is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Specialist Diploma in Statistics and Data Mining.
Photo Credit: Karyawan