A Light That Never Goes Out
L'OFFICIEL Singapore|September 2021
Resistance, Bigotry, Long-held Conventions– there are many obstacles that our three personalities face in their personal and professional lives. But they’re not just working for themselves: They’re working for women, for sex workers, for LGBTQ+ people in Singapore – to push for change and to make things better for all
Hillary Kang

Vanessa Ho WANTS TO USE HER ANGER FOR GOOD

In the 10 years that Vanessa Ho has been with Project X – Singapore's only non-profit that assists the country's sex workers – she has seen first-hand how poorly they are treated, and how little aid, and sympathy, is extended to them.

There are the women who are locked up in their apartments by employers in the daytime, and who are released only to perform their hostess duties come evening. Women who come to Singapore believing they are here to be waitresses, and who end up being coerced into sex work through intimidation and peer pressure. And there are those who fall prey to abuse and exploitation – simply because they have no one else to turn to in a foreign land.

Whenever I heard those sorts of stories from sex workers, I'd be furious, says Ho. I'd be jumping up and down. I'd fly into these rages. And it was very easy for people to dismiss me because of that anger – I got a lot of comments like: 'She's just an angry woman.' Or, 'she's not rational.' Are people telling me my anger isn't valid? That made me even angrier.

These days, Ho understands that her passion for advocacy is better channeled through healthier means: I've gone to therapy, I've done self-help reading. I mean, that sort of anger burns yourself, too.

But her dedication to attaining equal rights for sex workers hasn't diminished in the least. That so many people can profit off these sex workers, and yet not extend the same human rights to them – it's this stark inequality that drives me.

After the KTV clusters emerged in July, there was a lot of vitriol directed at sex workers, especially Vietnamese women. What did you think about that?

The one-dimensional portrayal of Vietnamese women often erases the fact that some of them were exploited, to some extent, into sex work.

We don't see enough protection for the workers in KTVs. Many of the girls are heavily in debt when they come to Singapore. They would have paid some kind of broker somewhere to facilitate this. Just like foreign workers. The difference is that they are stigmatized, there is a taboo surrounding their work – so they don't dare to come forward, to tell people that they are suffering.

A lot of them are forced to work under conditions that are unideal. The thing we saw most commonly is that they're forced to drink copious amounts of alcohol. I've heard of stories where girls have had to drink an entire bottle of whiskey in a night – and then they black-out for two days. Because that's their quota, and every night they have to hit that quota.

Some of the girls that we've met in KTVs cannot hit that drinks quota – then they will just be pressured to provide sexual services. Many of them come here thinking it's just waitressing – they don't mind drinking with customers, but having to provide sexual services is clearly crossing a line.

But they don't tell people, because they know that to some extent, it's illegal. Their bosses tell them, Look, who can you go to?

I'm your support system. I have told these women, let's go to the police. But they'll say: No, no, no. I have debt. They know my family back home. They threatened to use black magic. That's all psychological coercion. We have to spend lot of energy just convincing them: Yes, let's go to the police.

Some women don't want to talk at all. They don't trust us, which is fair enough – I understand where they're coming from. It's a big leap of faith. But it goes to show how disempowered these women are – and that just means that people can get away with a lot of things.

You've been with Project X for almost a decade. What keeps you going?

I also feel like we are fighting for very logical things – human rights for sex workers. We're not out here trying to shoot a rocket into the moon, you know? I always thought that the customers of sex workers would be on our side. I don't know why I was so naive. [laughs] But no. Some of them are like: I won't even go on record saying that I'm a customer of a sex worker, because of the stigma. That so many people can profit offthese sex workers and yet not extend the same human rights to them – it's this stark inequality that drives me.

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