Ethnographic Sex Work Research in Singapore: Who gets to speak? > Lu Huiyi

Ethnographic Sex Work Research in Singapore: Who gets to speak?
Lu Huiyi


Perhaps one of the greatest draws of cultural ethnography is the thrill of venturing into fearful and taboo spaces. The red light districts of Geylang and the “Four Floors of Whores” at Orchard Towers have earned themselves a seedy reputation in Singapore. The significant concentration of the sex industry in these spaces sets them apart from other local districts. Furthermore, Singaporean conservative attitudes against prostitution mean that sexual spaces carry a certain stigma and are excluded from the socio-cultural imagination of more mainstream Singaporean spaces. In addition to this imagined distancing by locals, these spaces become especially distinct due to the fact that while Singaporeans and foreigners alike patronise Geylang and Orchard Towers, a significant proportion of the sex trade appears to be carried out by foreign sex workers.

The presence of a high concentration of foreign sex workers is especially important because there is a high ethnic consciousness within multicultural, globalising, Singapore. In fact, it may be argued that the Singaporean identity is an acutely racialised one in light of the state’s imposition of the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) categories. The centrality of ethnicity to identity construction in Singapore suggests that the diverse ethnicities of sex workers carry various meanings and differentiation in sex spaces like Orchard Towers and Geylang. After all, prostitution as a topic must not be studied in isolation.

Globalisation is key to contemporary studies of prostitution because it has been affected by global flows and movements, illegal or otherwise (Shah 2003:75). Similarly, Kempadoo (1998:17) notes that many women have had to work overseas to counteract the economic difficulties that globalisation has left them with, and may enter into prostitution overseas and become entrenched and ill-treated within the trade as a result. Furthermore, Kempadoo (2004:31) reflects how perceptions of sexuality and race are often conflated when she highlights how African sexuality was once portrayed by their colonial enslavers as depraved and barbaric. These two considerations are relevant to any study of sex work in Singapore, since the city-state’s sex trade is dominated by foreign workers. As such, the key ethnographic question that motivated my research in Orchard Towers and Geylang is whether or not foreign sex workers in Singapore are distinguished in the sex trade by their ethnicities.

Notes from the Sexual Space

Sex work in Orchard Towers can be categorised into massage parlors, bar workers and street walkers, while Geylang has more brothel workers and street walkers. Although these categories are often porous and overlapping, it would be interesting to note whether sex workers tend to be distributed into these sub-types according to their ethnicity. If certain ethnic groups prove more likely to work in categories where prices charged are higher, such as that of a call girl or escort, while others tend to be in lower-paying categories such as that of a streetwalker, it would point towards the presence of a certain hierarchy of ethnicities in local sex work.

In hopes of beginning a research project to identify the degree to which and how ethnicity has become commoditised and valorised in the heterosexual sex trade at Geylang and Orchard Towers, as well as compare ethnic distributions perceptions in Geylang, a more heartland area, and Orchard Towers, which is situated near the many major shopping malls and entertainment facilities on Orchard Road, I embarked on some initial observation field trips to Geylang and Orchard Towers, paying attention to the dress of sex workers from different ethnicities, the distribution of clients and sex workers of different ethnicities, and how the geography and packaging of sexualised sub-spaces reflect an attempt to assume or market ethnicities, et cetera. For example, a pub in Orchard Towers, “Ba Li Ba”, features Balinese-style décor, while another pub, “Top 5”, has a door sign touting its “Russian pole dancers”.

The high distribution of bars and clubs in Orchard Towers made it easier for me to enter into the nightlife scene of this particular red-light district – any researcher capable of navigating the age restrictions and entrance fees, if any, of the various pubs and nightclubs could gain access at least to the surface interior of the different establishments in the building. Even so, as a female researcher, I found it difficult to blend into the surroundings, or even to order a drink from the bartenders and waiters in a pub mostly composed of female wait-staff pandering to male patrons. The insular character of brothels in Geylang, and the watchful presence of male pimps on the streets, however, meant that it was more difficult for me to gain first-hand observation, let alone make contact, with sex workers going about their jobs. I was however able to observe the working procedures of streetwalkers of various nationalities, who generally lined the streets waiting for potential clients.

Sex work ethnography is a field of study with high barriers of entry. The highest barrier, however, might have been my own wariness towards these locations, which have often featured in the public imagination and local popular culture as a world apart, as a place of vice and even danger. What was particularly striking about my brief sojourn into Geylang and Orchard Towers, however, was my simultaneous attempt and failure to keep an academic distance from the patrons and sex workers in these two areas. These attempts and failures were intertwined in each other; the occurrence of the former necessitating the emergence of the latter.

In the various bars I visited at Orchard Towers, there seemed to be an implicit policy of watchful waiting, where free wait-staff kept a look-out for prospective customers while customers nursed drinks and waited for these female wait-staff to strike up a conversation. Such social interactions appeared to be undergirded by unspoken codes of conduct, where casual approaches took a while to slowly evolve into involved conversations – progress into even further intimacy from that point on was not a given. In addition, one particular street in Geylang, flanked by a double row of waiting sex workers, was being watched by a couple of men in a nearby apartment complex. Standing within the gates of the building, these men did not seem interested in actually engaging the chargeable services of the waiting ladies, but toted drinks as they watched, suggesting that they would be staying to watch for a prolonged period of time.

It occurred to me that my observation sessions bore a striking resemblance to that between the sex workers and the men around them in these two locations. My own acts of covert watching, tinged by my own apprehensions and pre-conceptions of Geylang and Orchard Towers, was too a form of voyeurism, but one bearing undercurrents of hypocrisy as it masqueraded under the guise of academia. My project was compromised even before it had begun, by my status as a non-sex worker attempting to speak for and about an industry of which I knew next to nothing about. The insular nature of the sex work industry, due to the social stigma and overt policing inflicted upon it, meant that outsiders with their occupational privilege would assume a position of vast irresponsibility and presumption if the methodology through which they attempt to penetrate the industry is ill-considered.

Methodology and Ethics of Research

Methodology and ethics seem like extremely wearisome aspects of academia to discuss when ethnographies of sex work in Singapore have the potential to divulge scintillating secrets from the seedy underbelly of red-light districts – or so we presume and assume. Yet discussions of methodology and ethics are perhaps the most important points of exploration from which one can begin on one’s study of sex work, because one’s attitudes and subjective anxieties and expectations can not only colour one’s findings, but impact participants of the sex work industry whom one comes into contact with, and perhaps even compromise one’s legitimacy as a ethnographer entering the sex work industry with a sociological perspective on hand. Researchers have sometimes displayed a certain degree of self reflexivity in their work, outlining considerations of what it means to study sex work. Phil Hubbard notes that his gender affected the implications of his research, and that he “had to consider whether [his] attempt to explore the exclusion of sex workers would be anything more than a masculinist attempt to appropriate the feminine ‘other’” (Hubbard 1999:231). Hubbard (1999:233) also discusses whether quantitative research, rather than qualitative research, would be a better means of inquiry for researchers of his demographic.

Sex work research by non-sex workers, however, often reflects and reinforces a perspective of sex work as being stranger and more exotic than other lines of work, to the point where the sexual nature of the job is emphasised at the expense of its occupational character. Weitzer (2009:214) notes that “sociologists have examined sex work as a form of deviant behavior, a type of gender relations, and as a distinct occupational sector”. In addition, the conception of sex work as being deviant and exploitative instead of being just legitimate work is further highlighted via the conflation of “drug use” with “a lifestyle that includes a great variety of illegal activities, from property offenses to confidence games to prostitution” (Hunt 1990:159).

Given my own reservations about field observation, it seems to me as though one slightly more appropriate route for an ethnographer to undertake sex work research could be via interviews and focus group discussions with sex workers and other participants in the sex work industry. This is due to one’s subject position within an industry as fraught with stigma, discrimination and legal complexity as the sex work industry – ethnographers with no exposure and experience in sex work risk misrepresentation and inaccuracy when entering into sex work research without proper methodological safeguards, and perhaps even allowing elements of whore-phobia to distort one’s findings and analysis. Of course, simply employing qualitative methods that allow sex worker voices to resonate through one’s research project is insufficient. Throughout one’s research process, one must also make sure that the valuable subjectivity of articulations are not lost in translation when filtered through the false objectivity of academic discourse, since such discourse is often the product of the academic’s voice and mental frameworks.


The realisation of my own incapacity to study sex work due to my personal inexperience and my exposure to biased modes of conceptualising sex work has, however, rendered me highly dubious of the authority of a non-sex worker to individually or independently prescribe practical or policy means to improve the welfare of sex workers. Unless extensive qualitative work has been performed to ensure that the voices of sex workers and sex industry participants are sufficient, ideas of the sex industry may be filtered through the lens of researchers’ misconceptions and preconceptions. Sex work researchers may run the risk of over-medicalising and infantilising sex workers despite the well-intentioned effort to advance their occupational welfare. Careful adopting of the framework of women’s studies may be a possible solution. As Hubbard (1999) notes, feminist researchers are interested in conducting their research alongside sex workers rather than viewing them as research subjects, seeking information that may alter their circumstances and job environment. When properly done, an inclusive women’s studies that incorporates extensive fieldwork and multidisciplinary techniques may be a possible means through which sex work can be studied academically and ethnographically without the presumption of speaking for or over sex workers.

If one of the most significant appeals of ethnographic research is to expose oneself to realms of social and cultural life that one has either never had a chance to explore, or that one finds strange, even exotic, then one of the most difficult tasks in ethnographic research is to set limits to one’s exposure. Age-old debates over the ethics of qualitative fieldwork are renewed in sex work research in Singapore as researchers negotiate the backdrop of stigma and taboo. If ethnography is motivated by a personal and academic interest in cultures unknown to oneself, then perhaps considerations of the self need to go beyond individual inclinations towards certain socio-cultural territories, and instead head towards an understanding of how the entrance of the self may affect vulnerable socio-cultural groups in certain ways. Academic integrity is best preserved when the ethnographer recognises his or her fundamental incompatibility with the field he or she seeks to understand, and thereby either withdraws his or her presence, or modifies his mental calculus before entering.

What I am trying to say, in a nutshell, is that unless a non-sex worker is able to act as nothing more than an unbiased vessel for the voices and opinions of sex workers, an ethnography of sex work by a non-sex worker can perhaps be best undertaken, if at all, through the angle of an ethnography of attitudes towards sex work.

Lu Huiyi is a final-year undergraduate from the National University of Singapore, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. This article is based on her experiences during a research mentorship at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, under the guidance of Dr. Terence Chong.


Hubbard, Phil. 1999. “Researching Female Sex Work: Reflections on Geographical Exclusion, Critical Methodologies and ‘Useful’ Knowledge”. Area 31(3): 229-237

Hunt, Dara E. 1990. “Drugs and Consensual Crimes: Drug Dealing and Prostitution”. Crime and Justice 13: 159-202.

Kamala Kempadoo. 1998. “Introduction: Globalizing Sex Workers’ Rights”. Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance, and Redefinition, ed. Kamala Kempadoo and Jo Doezema. New York: Routledge

Kamala Kempadoo. 2004. Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race and Sexual Labor. New York: Routledge

Shah, Svati P. 2012. “Sex Work in the Global Economy”. New Labor Forum 12(1): 74-81.

Weitzer, Ronald. 2009. “Sociology for Sex Work”. Annual Review of Sociology 35: 213-234

2 thoughts on “Ethnographic Sex Work Research in Singapore: Who gets to speak? > Lu Huiyi”

Comments are closed.