Sherry Sherqueshaa hasn’t been able to work since the circuit breaker kicked in on April 7. For the past three months, the transgender sex worker managed to make just $100 to $200 each month, not from her main job, but from side hustles like reviewing products online and her activist role at non-profit group Project X

Photo Credit: Sherry Sherqueshaa

Challenges Brought By Covid-19

The livelihoods of sex workers are badly affected during the pandemic. While many disrupted businesses can move their products and services online during the circuit breaker, sex workers can’t do so as it is illegal to offer sexual services on a website or via any remote communication services in Singapore. 

“This has badly impacted everyone because there is zero chance of working,” says Ms Sherqueshaa. “Before Covid-19, no matter how bad business was, we still could go to work.”

The 29-year-old Singaporean added that many sex workers like herself were also anxious and confused due to the lack of a clear advisory for them at the start of circuit breaker. 

“[The Government] only said clubs, KTV, massage parlours etc. had to be closed. They didn’t mention brothels,” says Ms Sherqueshaa, adding that they had to figure out the new rules through word-of-mouth. 

Many of them also had to count on Project X, a non-profit organisation that provides social, emotional and health services to people in the sex industry, for financial assistance. Project X is funded by donations from the public. 

Added Phase 2 Precautions 

With brothels remaining closed even as Singapore relaxes movement control in phase 2, business is unlikely to pick up for Ms Sherqueshaa. To make matters worse, the intimate nature of the job has seen many of her clients hold off for fear of contracting Covid-19. 

As a street-based sex worker, Ms Sherqueshaa says wearing a face-mask is a huge deterrent for many customers as it gives off the impression that she might be sick.

“Putting on face masks on the street to work, clients are afraid of me and I’m afraid of clients. Both ways, we are afraid of transmitting [the virus],” she says.

However, taking precautions is still important. “I still need to make a living and customers still need to engage with us because of their personal needs. The best we can do is to wear masks, sanitise, and avoid getting too close.”

“No kissing,” she adds. 

Falling Through The Cracks

Many government schemes have been set up to support Singaporeans during this period. While Ms Sherqueshaa appreciates the schemes, she says sex workers aren’t able to benefit from such assistance. 

For example, even though sex workers are self-employed, they are unable to apply for the financial schemes provided for freelancers as they do not have the necessary documentation to prove their work.

“How do you expect sex workers to keep receipts of documents to show that “I’m self employed, these are my customers”?” 

Many non-Singaporean sex workers had to stay in Singapore during the circuit breaker as they couldn’t get a flight out of the country in time. Many of them are struggling even more as they work in Singapore under a permit which allows them to do sex work only, according to Ms Sherqueshaa. 

Facing Abusive Clients

In addition to the difficulties brought by Covid-19, sex workers also face other challenges. 

Despite being in the sex industry for nine years, Ms Sherqueshaa still occasionally suffers from verbal and physical abuse. 

Ms Sherqueshaa’s most recent brush happened just before the circuit breaker. A dissatisfied customer was shocked that she hasn’t done her gender reassignment surgery.

“In the midst of [the service], he was complaining that I wasn’t being open about what’s in between my legs,” she says.  

After the service, the customer ran away with her valuables while she was getting changed. When she gave chase, she ended up with a bad fall, leaving her with injuries on her arms and legs.

“He took everything away. He got away with about $300, my belongings, and [caused] me to be hospitalised,” she says.

According to Project X, one of the biggest issues faced by sex workers is abuse. Forms of abuse include “harassment, physical assault, and financial violence”. 

Ms Sherqueshaa has personally encountered violent customers who hit her, one even giving her a swollen eye. She shares that she’s still traumatised by these incidents. 

“I never thought that one day it would happen to me. I’m an activist, I’m an advocate for sex workers, but this caught me off guard.”

Having Relationships As A Sex Worker

For many sex workers like Ms Sherqueshaa, they also struggle with maintaining romantic relationships.

“Who would be comfortable with their partner working like this? As much as it is a form of employment, it will still come back to me being questioned,” she says.

“It’s a very contradicting area and it depends on how each individual wants to come to terms with it, be it as the girl doing sex work, or her partner.”

In fact, she stopped sex work for about three years when she entered a committed relationship. However, she felt that it “distanced” her from the sex workers she worked with.

“They looked at me as a staff, as someone who’s advocating for their rights. They don’t see me as a friend.” 

After breaking up with her partner, she decided to go back into the industry.

“I realised that both sex work and advocacy work will always be a part of me and I cannot leave either one of it behind,” she says.

Prejudice And Negative Portrayal

Many sex workers fear being outed to family members. As a transgender sex worker, Ms Sherqueshaa’s family wasn’t supportive of her in the beginning. However, this changed after they saw the career she built for herself.

Despite having experience in customer service and fine dining sectors, Ms Sherqueshaa started working in the sex industry as it was the “only available option” for her.

As a transgender woman, she says that “upon transitioning, it is usually hard to find formal employment due to your identity”. 

In the past, Ms Sherqueshaa would take notice of comments regarding her physical appearance as a woman. Now, she is proud of her identity as she feels that there is “nothing to hide about being a sex worker and a transgender woman”.

“Being a transgender woman and sex worker, I fall under both marginalised communities,” said Ms Sherqueshaa. “The impact is double and even stronger but it has built me up and even empowered me to be a stronger, better person.”

She feels that prejudice and negative media portrayal of sex workers exist due to the “lack of understanding and opportunity to talk to someone from the industry.”

“No one wants to be seen as promoting the idea of women getting into the sex work industry,” she adds.

To better understand and educate oneself about the sex industry, Ms Sherqueshaa suggests reading up on organisations like Project X and getting information from diverse news sources with an open mind. 

“Be an ally for the community and don’t add on to the already negative [narrative]. If you have nothing nice to say, just keep quiet.”

Edited by: Coen Sim
Proofread by: Hannah Fletcher