“But that’s bullshit, if you don’t mind me saying so,” he told VICE. “There are definitely more than that.”
He’s right; the 2019 National University of Singapore study from which that number was derived has a margin of error between 1,600 and 10,000 — and that was before the coronavirus.
Rebecca*, an independent escort who uses the online moniker Risqué Rebecca, is one of those uncounted. She told VICE that the pandemic made an outsize impact on her goals this year.
“It really made me reconsider,” she said. “I think maybe I did feel the same amount of dread as I did when Backpage went down.”
When Backpage, an international advertising site used by sex workers, was closed by United States federal authorities in 2018, Rebecca lost 70 percent of her income and nearly quit the industry. However, this time she isn’t looking to leave. Seeing her regulars’ names pop up in her inbox still makes her happy. Balancing escorting with her full-time office job, she said, “I’ve been very lucky … I love everything that I do. I really, really take a lot of joy.”
Rebecca got her start in the sex industry as a sugar baby. Escorting, though, offered her more control.
“I can set my boundaries really, really clearly,” she said. “Per hour. And there’s no expectation to be a girlfriend to anyone beyond that certain amount of time.”
For her first three weeks as an escort, she worked at an agency that took half of her SG$1,200-per-hour rate ($900), before she left to set up shop on her own. She now gets three or four inquiries every week, and keeps the full fee she charges. Depending on the agency, escorts can find themselves parting with between 30 and 70 percent of their earnings in Singapore, according to the best guess of Richard*, an agent who runs SG VIP Escorts.
An agent like Richard screens for red flags and prank callers, markets his escorts, and arranges client rendezvous. Agencies like SG VIP Escorts can also register with Singapore’s Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority for a legitimate business license, as long as they only ever advertise carefully-worded companionship or girlfriend experiences. Still, some escorts prefer the ‘do-it-yourself’ method.
Zeynep is a Singaporean escort who has been sugaring and escorting independently for four years. Having never worked with an agency, protecting her identity has been a combination of instinct and trial and error. There’s now no overlap at all between Villanelle and what she calls her “civilian life,” where she’s a university student. She has two phones, keeps a smaller ‘real’ purse inside her Villanelle bag, and photoshops her tattoos out of her website’s photos.
Complicating matters is an internal hierarchy within the sex work community itself, where certain jobs and services are more stigmatized and disdained than others. Sometimes called the ‘whorearchy,’ sex workers separate themselves into tiers based on fees, how many languages they speak, how much sexual contact they have with their clients, or whether they charge based on time spent versus specific service performed. Of sex workers who charge per act, Villanelle said, “they call themselves escorts too. I guess my definition of ‘escort’ is different. I would consider that prostitution.”
The stigma and discrimination is the same, though, no matter what “tier” you occupy. Power is in the hands of everyone except the sex workers, Vanessa Ho, the executive director of advocacy group Project X, explained.
“People impose this hierarchy upon the industry. However, the reality is that sex workers across the spectrum lack access to justice because of criminalization, a vulnerability exploited by unscrupulous people. The fact is that if someone were to pick up the phone and call the police, anyone is susceptible to being arrested.”
Whether or not an arrest is made, escorts are subject to a unique kind of workplace scrutiny and harassment. From escorts who ‘host’ out of hotels, Project X has heard stories of maids going through trash, looking for used condoms, guards watching CCTV footage, counting the men who go in and out of the room, and clandestine raids by plainclothes officers bearing cameras.
At the most basic level, sex work in Singapore is legal. But the law is “confusing and oftentimes contradicts what happens in reality,” according to Ho. “It’s not like the police are deliberately trying to arrest the workers. It’s that their protocol says that if they are presented with a crime, they have to investigate it. And in their minds, sex workers, by performing their work, must have committed a crime.”
Most recently, a 2016 amendment to the Women’s Charter criminalized advertisements that “facilitate” sexual services online. In outlining 146A in 2019, then-Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sun Xueling explained that the amendment was intended to aid a crackdown on pimps working online. But Ho said that she knows several social escorts who have been increasingly worried about 146A recently. “These women are all independent workers. And our thinking is, well, if they’re arrested, are you saying that they’re pimping themselves?”
There’s no monolithic experience when it comes to being an escort in Singapore. But doing sex work, especially when you manage it all yourself, isn’t something anyone can just pick up and do. It’s only when you’re willing to potentially have sex with a stranger, develop the knack to hot-wire chemistry, and be mindful of your own safety at the same time, that you can turn a profit.