She was a sex worker who was afraid, unsure and didn’t know what she could do or who she could turn to. By a stroke of luck, the organisation she approached directed her to Project X for assistance.
That was how 27-year-old Ivie got involved with Project X and eventually joined the initiative as an associate programme coordinator.
Project X is an outfit which informs and provides sex workers with access to legal services.
Wanting to be known only as Ivie because of her history in the sex trade, she said: “Vanessa (Ho, project director) helped me to find a few lawyers and I managed to secure a consultation with one. After that, I decided to ask if there were any vacancies for me.”
Project X was founded in November 2008 by Singaporean social worker, Wong Yock Leng. She had lived in Hong Kong where there was a strong culture of advocating for the rights of sex workers and realised that there wasn’t any rights-based organisation in Singapore for a similar cause.
Along with a group of volunteers, Wong would head to the streets of Geylang and conduct their outreach programme. The initiative sees volunteers taking to the streets to speak to the sex workers and distribute condoms in an effort to protect them by enabling safe sexual practices.
“As a trained social worker, her philosophy was more oriented towards social work. So it’s really about linking people up with legal and social welfare services,” Ho added.
Ho, 29, joined the organisation in 2011 as an understudy to Wong for six months and when the latter left to take a break, Ho took over her duties.
While access to legal services is just one of the few services rendered by Project X, it is a key aspect of the organisation’s purpose. Ivie revealed that she had once been beaten up by a client and found it difficult to approach the police for help.
When she went to make a police report, the officer’s response was to ask if she knew that “solicitation was wrong”. This not only made her feel rejected, but also fearful of being charged with solicitation.
A common misconception is that being a sex worker is illegal. However, according to Ho, “sex work in and of itself is not criminalised” and neither is it unlawful to “provide sexual services”. Instead, activities such as owning a brothel, pimping, soliciting on streets and advertising services online – which are related to sex work – are illegal.
Due to the nature of their work and a lack of awareness of their rights, many sex workers fear prosecution which, in turn, makes them reluctant to go to the police to seek redress for their grievances, even in serious cases where they have been abused.
Ho feels that the work of the police can make these sex workers even more unwilling to turn to them for any sort of help. For example, Singaporean sex workers have to put up with the stress of being informants in police cases brought against migrant sex workers, many of whom are their friends. Furthermore, sex workers are often subjected to random but frequent identity checks by the authorities.
Ho is quick to acknowledge that they have met “amazing and angelic (police officers) in the force”, but the sex workers’ own unpleasant experiences with the authorities have made them unwilling to even lodge police reports.
Project X helps sex workers by educating them on their rights, advocating for them, and providing access to legal advice and representation. They also seek to build communities by providing “safe spaces” for people to come and “hang out, chill out, talk to each other, learn from each other and be free to express who they are” – things that those outside of the sex trade “take for granted”.
As an organisation that aids sex workers, Project X also faces its own pressure: There are those who want them to be an organisation whose focus is to “rescue and rehabilitate” sex workers or “abolish the sex industry”.
“That is what funders and the general public want to see before they support us monetarily and morally,” Ho explained. “But we’re not that organisation. I find it very arrogant to ask a sex worker to quit the industry just because I think it’s not good for her.”
“It comes from a place of privilege. Don’t assume you know what someone has gone through and what choices they have had to make.”
The hard work of those involved with Project X have brought hope to many of the sex workers they encounter. Ivie said that she has a “big dream” of wanting to unite all sex workers regardless of language barriers but faced difficulty in achieving it because the women are “afraid to voice up”.
Therein lies Project X’s other purpose – to serve as a platform for these women, providing a voice for those who are afraid to be heard and representation for those who are invisible or overlooked. Acknowledging that money is essential to sustain the organisation so they can continue to provide aid to sex workers, Project X has launched their own fundraiser.
“I know people always like to donate items and perishables, which is great. But what we really need is money to support our staff, three of whom are sex workers. It helps if people can show their support and love and that they want such an organisation in Singapore by donating money,” Ho said.
Ho hopes that one day, society will be more respectful towards sex workers and “things will be easier” but that time is not now. And until it happens, she knows she will have to “keep fighting for that day where people are kinder to sex workers”.
Project X is a community based organisation which provide aid for sex workers where they are hired as staff and directly involved in the planning and execution of programmes. To learn more about their annual fundraiser, please visit this page.