“I have had to chase them out of the room,” Scarlet Bunnie says. “I tell them, ‘If you want to get HIV, go ahead, but I am not going to risk my health because I am in this industry.”

Scarlet Bunnie is 20, Singaporean and paying her own way through polytechnic studies, in the hope of soon entering a university. But she is no ordinary student.

She got started in the sex industry following “family” issues that left her needing to pay her own way for tertiary education. She responded to an “ambiguous” social media post, which she rightly interpreted as an advertisement for an escort agency.

“I just thought of it as a method to raise more funds in a shorter period of time, as compared to the conventional [way] of working in a full-time job for two to three years,” she says.

She has worked as a part-time escort for the past year.

“We have to be, firstly, like a therapist; we listen to our client’s problems and issues,” Scarlet Bunnie says of what the job entails. “Of course, there is the sex part; we have to satisfy our clients sexually.”

She is also speaking out for the rights of other workers in what she says is a “very misunderstood” industry. The perception that HIV/AIDS is spread by irresponsible practices on the part of sex workers is just one example, Scarlet Bunnie believes, where the Singaporean public and government has inaccurately placed blame.

“It is the clients who don’t give a damn about their own sexual health and our sexual health,” she says. “Singaporean men, in general, do not want to use condoms when they are visiting sex workers. They just don’t.”

In Singapore, “sex work per se is not illegal” but many sex work-related activities are criminalized, according to local advocacy group, Project X. For instance, the Woman’s Charter, which was amended last year, outlaws living on the earnings of a prostitute, owning a brothel, and running a website that facilitates sexual services for money. Soliciting in a public place for the purpose of prostitution is also illegal.

The Singaporean government introduced the new laws to help stop pimps, brothels and agencies profiteering off the workers. For Scarlet, who started in the industry working for an agency but now has her own “pool of clients,” the law unfairly puts sex workers at a higher risk of being criminalized.

“They don’t realize that the laws, the new amendments, are just pushing sex work more underground and making sex workers more unsafe,” she says. “It makes it very difficult for escorts, or sex workers in general, to report crimes of violence that clients inflict on them. Because [the worker] will most likely be charged for doing sex work – for advertising, for calling clients.”

Scarlet believes if workers were not so vulnerable to being charged themselves, they “would be more empowered to come forward to report any violence or any issues that they are facing.”

“Everyone is just being silenced,” she says.

Scarlet notes there is a “large disparity” in the rate of violence against prostitutes working on the street compared to escorts, who generally communicate privately with their clients online. Still, in addition to health concerns, escorts are frequently subjected to harassment, she says.

“We have a lot of time-wasters, a lot of trolls pretending to be clients. They make appointments and then just cancel the appointment at the last minute.”

Busting myths

Scarlet believes that given the widespread stigma in Singapore towards women in industry, the chances of the government taking a different stance on the issue is currently “not very realistic.”

“They are more concerned with making Singapore look clean; clean, as in there are no sex workers on the street, online, anywhere in sight,” she says.

Via Project X, where she volunteers, Scarlet has written about why sex workers should be considered service providers, like workers in any other service industry:

Sex workers also provide a listening ear for their clients’ problems much like a therapist, and some also provide quality massages as an add-on service. But more importantly, there are many other aspects of the work that many people overlook,” she wrote in a November 2016 post. “Sex workers are not different from employees or self-employed persons: for sex workers who work in a brothel, they are required to manage their contract with their bosses, maintain relationships with colleagues, and pay their boss’ commission for each client that they see. For independent sex workers who handle their businesses on their own terms, they need to manage their rental, advertising and branding costs, not unlike the responsibilities that other business owners have.”

She added that the many aspects of the service are often “overlooked” because of the prejudiced view that sex work is “quick and easy money with minimal effort.”

Scarlet believes that many such prejudices exist because most people have not had a “firsthand” contact with sex workers.

“We are very misunderstood,” she says. “The public does not see; the clients are actually the real issue.”

Trying to change the underlying negative perception towards the industry, Scarlet has started to speak out.

She recently curated an online forum to respond to questions about sex work in Singapore, which, she says, drew a “pretty incredible” response. While there were some people asking “trolling” questions – like how much she earns – many people showed genuine interest in what the working life of an escort was like, and the issues she faced.

“Having that firsthand interaction with a sex worker really, really helped,” she says. “It helped to humanize the image of a sex worker in their mind. So the tended to be more curious than malicious.”

A case of supply and demand

According to Project X, there are 800 to 1,000 licensed sex workers in Singapore at any one time. A large majority of workers are migrants. In 2015, police arrested more than 5,000 unlicensed sex workers.

Despite the government’s efforts and some claims by officials, the trade in Singapore has not slowed since the laws were amended last year, Scarlet says.

She warns that further attempts to suppress the industry may have serious consequences.

“If you remove the sex trade, there will be an increase in crimes of a sexual nature. People need an outlet,” she says. “In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it states that sex is one of the needs that a human has. If their wife is not giving them sex, their girlfriend is not giving them sex, they can’t get sexual partners; the next best outlet that they have is sex workers.”

In addition to paying for university, Scarlet Bunnie now has her sights on buying her own apartment. She also has no immediate plans to stop working as an escort.

“I will stop when the demand for my services stops. But as of now, let’s say the next five years, I still see myself doing sex work.”

Ultimately, while she may leave the trade one day, Scarlet does not expect to see the industry decline.

“If there was no demand, there wouldn’t be supply,” she says. “I think members of the public and the government have to understand that.”

Editor: Olivia Yang