The sex industry in Singapore is often misunderstood.
It is an industry plagued with stereotypes, even though the estimated thousands who earn their living this way form a much more diverse group.
And for transgender sex workers, their woes increase because of their gender. Some face discrimination from their clients, and those who try to leave the industry end up falling back in, unable to find jobs elsewhere.
Youth.SG spoke to 26-year-old sex worker Sherry Sherqueshaa and former social escort Nicole Hussin, 23, to find out what it is like for transgender women who work as sex workers in Singapore.
Both women were born men. Nicole underwent surgeries – including chest and hip implants – to transform her body when she was 18, while Sherry has been undergoing hormonal treatments for the past eight years.
1. Sex work is not easy money
The money might seem "high and promising" at first, but getting clients is not easy for transgender sex workers. Some clients may feel uneasy approaching them, as they have never tried "doing it" with them.
Sherry, who has been plying her trade for six years, said: "People might think that, 'Oh, half an hour for $50 is high, what if she gets 10 clients?'
"But I don't get 10 clients a day on the streets. The same goes for social escorts; you don't usually get two clients in a day."
Sherry entered the sex work industry when she was 20.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/GRACE NEO
On a good night, Sherry can take home $200 to $250 after working for four to six hours on the streets. But she spends on monthly check-ups for sexually transmitted infections (STI), which can cost up to $100 each time.
Sherry added matter-of-factly: "It's not just about me dressing up and providing my body to the clients."
2. "Business" has not been good for sex workers lately
Nicole, a former sex worker who was in the industry for 10 years, recalled the booming days of sex work in 2010 and 2011.
"Back in those days, when I first came out, there were at least 20 of us at the entrance of Orchard Towers. Now, there are just three of them," she said.
"Business is bad, lah. You can really make money two years ago," said Nicole.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/WAN MUNIRAH
Nicole shared how some sex workers are flying out of Singapore to become social escorts in other countries.
She said flatly: "Dubai is where the money is. They can pay for anything you want, as long as you **** them, darling. Recently, a friend of mine just came back, and she made S$100,000."
3. More sex workers are going online
Sherry, who is also a researcher from sex workers' rights group, Project X, noticed a handful of younger sex workers entering the industry recently – both on the streets and online. She has thus shifted outreach efforts to include supporting them online.
"We find them online and get our volunteers to contact them, and say 'Hi, we're Project X. We can provide legal advice and free condoms'," said Sherry.
Sherry usually receives two replies for every 10 messages sent to sex workers of all ages and nationalities.
POSED PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/YASMEEN FARHA
Also circulating online are reviews of sex workers – also called "field reports".
Nicole said candidly: "It's like when girls talk about makeup or beauty, and we review the products and stuff. For guys, it's the same lah.
"To some guys, we are a 'product'. We are nothing but just 'something' they use for pleasure and fun."
4. Things can get emotionally complicated with clients
Juggling work and friendship with a client takes an emotional toll as well.
"I used to have a client who [kept wanting] to meet me again…but I felt a bit uncomfortable talking to him as a friend. If I am being paid, it's like I'm betraying our friendship because we already became friends," recalled Sherry.
5. The difference between "sex workers" and "social escorts"
Unlike "prostitute", which has a lot of stigma and prejudice attached to it, "sex worker" is the preferred term to describe people in the sex work industry.
"For 'sex work', there's the word 'work' there. It's like you're being paid for the physical and mental [factors] involved in the work," said Sherry.
Brothels situated along the street in Geylang's red light district.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/WAN MUNIRAH
Unlike the average sex worker, social escorts offer more services than just sex.
Commonly found online, social escorts are also known as "girlfriend experience (GFE) providers", due to the specific, fetish-related services some can offer, such as BDSM (also known as bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism).
Sherry added that social escorts who also provide sexual services can charge up to $300, compared to the average $50 fees offered by sex workers on the streets.
"The fees are high because most sex workers do not have these skills [to provide the girlfriend experience]…If you're not experienced, you might hurt your clients," explained Sherry.
6. Many fall back into the sex industry because they are unable to find other jobs.
Most transgender sex workers tend to enter or return into the industry, especially after transitioning to their preferred gender.
Sherry explained: "Most, if not all, enter the industry because they transitioned at a young age. Some are dropouts from school, some fall into sex work because they observed their older transgender friends doing the same thing.
"In one way or another, many transgender youths go into sex work after they drop out of school."
Others enter the industry after being unable to find jobs, as some employers may not be comfortable hiring transgender people.
Despite having proper educational background and experience, they may get turned away as "the descriptions in their résumés do not match" their current identity.
"I feel that some employers don't want to associate a transgender with their staff," said Sherry.
WRITTEN BY GRACE NEO AND WAN MUNIRAH
TEASER AND BANNER PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/GRACE NEO
This is part one of a two-part series on transgender sex workers in Singapore. Also in this series:
When sex work is all a transgender woman has