A Researcher goes into the dark alleys of Geylang to report on sex trafficking in Singapore

Geylang red light district in Singapore

Conducting research on sex trafficking in Singapore is a difficult task. Among the many conclusions a researcher can result to, the confusing legislation that is used to “regulate” the sex industry and the blind eye society turns to the sex workers and their problems are probably the two significant ones.

Legislation on sex work in Singapore is confusing and therefore ineffective. Starting from the legality or not of it, one can say that sex work in Singapore is legal, only because he/she fails to find any kind of legislation that forbids it. Of course, there is current legislation on sex work related activities. For example, “owning a brothel”, “pimping” or “living from the earnings of a prostitute” are clearly illegal. Sex work per se is not.

Even if sex work and the law have an odd and confusing relationship, sex workers and the law have a very clear one. You can either be legal or illegal. To be a legal sex worker, one must work in the licensed brothels in the designated areas. All the other sex workers that one sees in the streets of the red lights districts are undocumented migrants and therefore illegal sex workers. The fact alone that there are licensed brothels, even if owning one is illegal by current legislation, is an indicator of the confusing characteristic of the law.

Singaporeans, including the authorities, tend to believe that sex work needs to be tolerated because if not, the low paid male migrants currently living in the country will “go around raping innocent Singaporean girls”. This myth, apart from the fact that it perpetuates the stereotype of the “good local and bad immigrant”, most importantly, is false. The majority of the clients in the biggest red lights district in Singapore, Geylang, are Singaporeans.
An ineffective legislation on sex work fails to protect victims of sex trafficking and deceives the public into believing that sex work is an underground dangerous activity, consisting of evil persons who are escaping the claws of the law and its enforcement. The truth is though that the sex industry in Singapore continues to thrive with the government’s blessings under a secret immunity agreement.

Sorting out the national legislation on sex work is of equal importance with the structural change that needs to take place in the mindset of the Singaporean society. Generalizations and stereotyping are wrong, especially when made for the sex workers. Women (and men) involved in sex work are not deceitful, mean persons, they do not “seek for trouble” and they deserve to be protected by abuses as much as the next person. To try to rationalize and justify the behavior of the average person towards sexual abuse in general in this article would be futile. We all know though what victim blaming is, and we all know that women need to prove twice as hard their argument when it comes to sex and abuses over it. If a woman is a sex worker on top of that, then the society will be against her, even if she is the victim. The public needs to get educated over sex trafficking and its implications to the victims; they need to know the financial, physical, emotional and psychological abuses sex workers have to face every single day; they need to understand that sex work many times is a conscious choice made due to poverty, patriarchy and lack of opportunities; but many times it is not a choice at all.

Sex trafficking is an extremely important issue and it is happening all around us. To maintain a blind eye towards it is pointless. One must always have in his/her mind that when walking in Geylang, there are women who were deceived into believing that they would be doing another type of work, but they are forced into sex work. This means they are raped every single day. There are women that came to Singapore for sex work, but under a different agreement, and now they are trapped in Geylang paying obscenely high debts to their traffickers unable to escape. There are women who voluntary do sex work due to lack of opportunities or poverty and still face abuses, and there are women who like sex work and do it for fun. If we treat such a diverse community with the same way, as the Singaporean government and society are doing at the moment, we ignore the sex trafficking victims, condemning them to months/years of imprisonment and abuse, but also we ignore the rights of the sex workers as a whole who are being repeatedly violated while the Singaporean government is watching.

Note n. 1: Singapore should be pushed from the civil society to ratify the Palermo Protocol, so that at least the victims of sex trafficking will not be treated as criminals violating immigration law, but as human beings deserving protection and validation of their human rights.
Note n. 2: The research taking place on the streets is inadequate. More time and resources should be invested into work on the field, so that the voices of sex workers will be heard exactly as expressed. Their voice holds the power for shifting our mindset from the word “prostitution” to the phrase “sex work”.

Dimitra Messini
Attorney at Law
Rotary Peace Fellow
Class XII, 2013-2015
ICU, Tokyo, Japan #stoptraffickingsg


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