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On sex work: what it's like to have a boyfriend

By Hoe I Yune, Nov 14, 2019

Everywhere in the world, sex work is stigmatised as taboo, immoral, and dangerous. It forces people — mostly women — in the profession to go underground and be exempted from healthcare and legal protection. 

That sparked a thought amongst us at Dayre to explore the little-discussed aspects of sex work in Singapore. We wanted to dig deep and explore the subject on a more personal level. This is why we got in touch with Project X, a non-profit organisation in Singapore that provides social, emotional and health services to people in the sex industry. We went down to Geylang to meet women and spoke to individuals in the sex industry on what it’s really like to pursue sex work. 

Due to the sheer breadth of issues that sex work covers, we chose to explore the subject in more than one series. This first series that we’re publishing focuses on how sex work gives options — for one, financial independence; for another, personal fulfilment; for a client, it satisfies a sexual need. As a continuation to the series, we also have plans to explore issues such as human trafficking and mistreatment in 2020.

To kick off this first series, we spoke with Jane*. A transgender sex worker, although it was a path chosen to make ends meet, she sees it as a job that she enjoys and not one that she was forced to do. And it is a job, which is why the term “sex work” is preferred instead of “prostitute”. The former recognises it as work, unlike the latter that has connotations of criminality and immorality. 

Being a sex worker crosses the line from the professional to the personal more so than any other job, but Jane shares why she does it despite having a boyfriend. 

* * * *

Hi, my name is Jane. I’m 24 years old.

I’m originally from the Philippines, but got a job in Bangkok two years ago after graduation.

For a while, I was intrigued by the idea of sex work because I knew others who pursued the career path. Being single and living alone with ample free time, I thought, why not? I was not against looking for men online to have fun and earn money. 

So I signed up on websites that enable sex work. It felt exciting to me. Within eight months of working at the factory, I realised that I was making more money through sex work than through my day job. I could get what I used to earn in one month within two days. So I gave up my day job, and pursued sex work full time. 

I’m quite shy, so I discreetly connect with clients online instead of waiting at street corners.

I usually accept offers from white men — not just because I’m attracted to them, but because they’re less likely to be undercover policemen. 

I also want to be comfortable if I meet someone. I want to be physically attracted to him because I cannot fake my feelings when I’m with someone. I don’t just provide sex, but I offer the “girlfriend experience”. I’m really nice, and I think that’s what keeps my clients coming back. I’ve worked in sales years ago, so I know how to build rapport and I am funny and easygoing. I also try to be honest in sharing my life stories and experiences, because I want them to think of me as sincere.

Sex work is not merely about using your body as a tool. Looking good is part of the job, and I like how getting dressed up makes me feel like a celebrity on my way to a taping or a shoot. It’s rewarding when I see my clients’ reactions whenever we meet. “Wow, you’re pretty” or “Gorgeous!” aren’t words that you hear every day. More than my looks, how I communicate and make my clients feel comfortable is also a skill that I’m proud of. 

There would be men who ask me to go out with them as their girlfriend and not someone for hire. They’d ask “Why don’t you just go out with me on a normal date? Don’t work this time — just be nice, just be a normal girl” or “I’m young and good looking, why don’t you let me take you out to dinner?”

But I’m not interested in being their girlfriends. Before going out, I need to dress up either way. The difference is whether or not I go home with money.

I wasn’t financially-stable when I started out, so making money was my main goal. To me, so what if I have a boyfriend? Without money, I’ll starve and not have anything to send back to my family.

My mum is undergoing chemotherapy for stage four cancer, so I help pay for her medical bills. 

Sex work kept me problem-free. I could go shopping without worrying about having no money.

My parents don’t know what I do for a living. I come from a very religious family, and our name is pretty well established in my hometown. My brother is an engineer and my sister is a nun, so it’s a bit crazy that I’m a sex worker. I hope that people would be more open-minded and see sex work as regular work, but I’m afraid that they won’t and that my family would freak out, so I remain mum about it. 

One day, a friend noticed how serious I’d been about my job and pointed out that by rejecting all interested men with my business-minded ways, I was also rejecting someone who could become a serious partner. This made me rethink my priorities. 

I was two months into sex work in Bangkok when I met Bryan*, an Australian older man with a high-flying job based in Singapore.

He invited me to join him for dinner at a fine dining restaurant. I had never been asked to such a fancy place before and he was such a sweet talker, calling it “a place where a man takes his woman”.  

In the taxi, he said he wanted to be honest that he had a wife and son in Australia. “I see no problem with that,” I said. It made no difference to me, since I only planned to be with him for a short period of time. I reassured him that I wouldn’t do anything to make her suspicious, and was just there to provide a service.  

During dinner, conversations flowed naturally. He was nice and I felt very comfortable. It felt like something I’d needed for a long time. I also managed to enjoy myself because I knew I was getting paid for the extra hours, to give him the “girlfriend experience” that he wanted. 

When we got back to his room, he pulled up a karaoke song on his laptop. We goofed around, but nothing sexual happened that night. When I woke up the next morning, I was very bothered that I had spent the night. I have a couple of rules when it comes to sex work and one of it being that I never spend the night at a client’s place after sex, because I don’t want to risk growing attached to a client. 

I needed to protect myself. What’s gonna happen if I sleep with someone and fall in love with him the next morning, only for him to be interested in nothing more than sex?

Bryan noticed me scrambling but said not to panic. “Do you want to have sex with me?” I blurted out. I felt guilty for not completing the experience that I was charging him for, but he said we didn’t need to do it.

We cuddled and kissed, then he asked me to spend the weekend with him. I had no plans, and it was a nice hotel with a pool and I could eat good food, so I said okay. 

The weekend with him turned out to be memorable. We watched Crazy Rich Asians at Terminal 21, then shopped at a weekend market where we shared a yummy coconut ice-cream under the hot sun. I felt really comfortable with him, and it was as if we were a normal couple. I sometimes find my clients intimidating, but with him, I didn’t feel worried at all. 

Before he flew back to Singapore on Sunday, he handed me SGD700, telling me to spend it when I visit him someday. 

We kept in touch over FaceTime and the next morning, he suggested that I fly over to Singapore. I was so worried it was a scam, or that something could go wrong. Having quit my job at the factory, I knew that my work visa had expired and was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to re-enter the country after leaving. But he reassured me saying that he’d accompany me back to Bangkok so that he could vouch for me as his girlfriend, and we’d both fly business class for preferential treatment. 

I was tempted, but first, I asked how much I would be paid. We decided on SGD1,000 for four days and to stay in his three-bedroom apartment with a built-in home theatre inside. I knew that he was good to me so I didn’t want to overcharge, and the movie we watched made me even more excited to come to Singapore.

Since I wasn’t his girlfriend, I seized the opportunity to meet clients in Singapore. Bryan and I would be apart during office hours, and that was when I’d take on sex work. I always went to their hotels, and made sure not to let him know. We weren’t exclusive, but he probably wouldn’t have been fond of the idea of me working. 

Sessions with clients could be as short as 20 minutes and I tripled my rate with the stronger Singapore currency, doubling the amount of money that I earned from him. 

Going back into Thailand, I wasn’t stopped at immigration so it really felt like I made the right decision to go on the trip. It seemed like fate. After that, we continued to talk on the phone all the time and he invited me to Singapore and KL. 

One night, I was awoken by a woman shouting over the phone. I felt nervous. He was on the phone and it didn’t take me long to put two and two together — his wife knew about us. 

She came across the flight itinerary he emailed me, which raised her suspicions. Then she called the hotel we were staying at to confirm that two adults were checked in under his name. The hotel staff really shouldn’t have disclosed the information, but they did. 

My Instagram’s set to public so I quickly grabbed my phone but the messages from his wife were already there waiting for me. She called me names — a “homewrecker”, a “prostitute”. I deactivated my account right away. 

I told Bryan he needed to fix this with his family, because family is something I cannot give him. I’m a working girl, and I have no intention of being in a relationship. 

I felt very bad, because I never thought I would break apart someone’s family. 

I was back in Bangkok when he told me that it was over between him and his wife. He said he wasn’t into her anymore, and didn’t want to live the rest of his years in a lie because he no longer loved her. Even before meeting me, he had been sleeping with different girls whom he paid for. 

He asked me to move in with him in Singapore, saying that he was drawn towards not just the way I look but how I could talk to him with a maturity beyond my years. When I told him I needed to support my family back home, he said my responsibilities would be his responsibilities. I hesitated, sharing that I had plans for myself to study interior design at university, but he qualmed my worries by offering to cover my school fees. He said once I graduated, it would be up to me to leave, or not. He said he wouldn’t stop me.

It made me feel like he was serious. This man didn’t sound like he was playing here. What did I have to lose? 

I moved in with him almost a year ago, and adjusting to life as a stay-at-home girlfriend has proven to be more difficult than I thought. 

As a sex worker, I felt like a strong independent woman with a well-paid job. Since moving in with him, I’d take care of the domestic chores or go shopping with his credit card while waiting for him to come home. If I want to travel anywhere, I just need to ask for permission and a flight ticket. 

It didn’t take long before I realised that something was missing. I missed that feeling of accomplishment, that sense of satisfaction after a productive day at work. I felt productive when I could earn my own keep. I missed being a sex worker. 

Half a year ago, I began using my spare phone to go on WeChat and Tinder to look for clients without telling Bryan. On the apps, I don’t show my face and only send a picture when we converse. To be honest, one of the reasons why I decided to start working again was because I’ve noticed him struggling when it comes to finances. He earns a lot of money, but he’s also accustomed to a certain kind of lifestyle and has to support not just the two of us but his wife and son back home too (their divorce has yet to be finalised, because they’re waiting for his son to graduate from high school before telling him that they want to split up).

Sometimes he gets suspicious about where I get my money from, but I still have my savings account in Thailand. One day he asked if I signed up for a particular site on which men look for female travel companions. He said someone sent him my profile, but I knew he was lying. 

I told him if he keeps digging for dirt, he’ll really find something because I’ve been everywhere before. That shut him up. 

My love for Bryan is genuine, but I’m still working because I want to feel more secure about the future. I want to shop with my own money and help ease Bryan’s financial burden. 

I earn about SGD1,500 a month now and have four regular clients. I know they won’t cause me any trouble because these men have families too, so they’re less likely to be clingy or want to continue texting afterwards. They just want to spend time with me when they are stressed out at work. 

If Bryan were ever to find out about what I’m doing and doesn’t leave me right away, I’ll probably have to choose — either I give up sex work as a side gig, or my relationship. The two just don’t go hand-in-hand. If I ask my sex worker friends, they’ll say to give up the relationship because money is what we need. Your man can wake up one day, cheat on you, and reject you. You never know how a person might change. Then what would happen? I would have no savings.

I’m scared of leaving him, to be honest. It’s easy to find a man for a quick fuck, but someone who goes above and beyond for you? Now that’s rare. 

Once I spent the night in Changi Airport because I was afraid of going through immigration too many times within a short timeframe. We just flew into Singapore and were going to fly out of the country again the following day, so I said I’d sleep in the business lounge. He didn’t want to leave me alone, and wound up sleeping on the floor just to stay with me. He’s not the kind who would normally do this! He doesn’t even fly economy. Yet he knew how concerned I was about immigration issues, and kept me company. 

He always thanked me for taking care of him, washing his clothes, and cleaning our home. If he’s visiting his son overseas, he would call me and say he doesn’t feel at home because home is where we’re together. I would have mixed emotions, hearing that. I don’t know what will happen in the long run. Whenever we fight, I think it’s not going to work and that I made a mistake, but when we’re not, I see a future with him. 

The lifestyle that I lead with him is one that I won’t be able to afford if I leave the relationship. 

Right now, I can sleep in a nice bed without wondering who my clients will be the next day. I can sleep soundly and be cuddled by a man who reassures me that life is good and that I’m safe with him.

For now, my plan is to get a visa and not have to go in and out of the country every month, worrying about immigration. I also still want to enroll into university (there were some complications in Singapore and he’s likely to relocate, so I’ll probably study where we go to next). 

Flying back and forth between Bangkok and Singapore to be with him is challenging. An immigration officer once pointed out that I’m flying in too often, and should visit every other month instead of every month because I don’t have a long-term pass. To get around this, we’ve been making trips around Asia, stopping over in places like Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia where he sometimes has business to attend to. 

I’ve learned that yellow card** for sex workers is available in Singapore, but that’s something I don’t want to take advantage of as I keep my work discreet.

My big dream is to build a career in interior design. I recently tried to enrol in Singapore university but my application was rejected. I’d like to try again though, perhaps in a country that is less resistant to transgenders and sex workers. 

*Name has been changed. 

** The yellow card can be found on so called “legal” sex workers in Singapore. It mandates that they can go for regular medical checkups and provides them immunity against the police. According to Project X, the application and selection process of the yellow card system remains opaque but it would appear that the vast majority of yellow card holders are foreigners and work in brothels. There are a number of sex workers who would rather not hold a yellow card as it would mean a loss of freedom on where and when to work, and the brothel owners get a cut from their income.

Writer’s note: If you’re interested in hearing more on the writers’ perspectives while working on this series, check out @i_yune and @clarahow on the Dayre app. 

The second part of the series will focus on the perspective of a male client, and will be posted tomorrow. 

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