Welcome to this little red dot, the sunny island of Singapore. For those who do not know, commercial sex is legal here. There are regulated commercial sex workers and many who are not regulated. We hope to shed some light on the risks involved if you decide to explore this scene in Singapore.
The aim of this article is neither to encourage nor discourage you to engage these services but to state the facts as clearly as possible and from a medical point of view offer a broad perspective from the data we have.
Many of these points are made based on the experiences of our medical team who have run the sexual health services at DTAP clinic since 2005. Furthermore, some of these data stem from wider experiences from our doctors who have worked at the DSC (government sexual health clinic) and also other previously unpublished data from our interactions with various health officials.
What this article will NOT do however is to discuss the specifics of engaging such services in Singapore and for this, you can explore this resource on The Singapore Commercial Sex Scene.
What the law says about Commercial Sex in Singapore
As most people have heard, Singapore is a “fine” city with notable punishments gaining worldwide notoriety such as the death penalty for drug trafficking and even canning for those who commit vandalism in Singapore.
But to set the record straight, the legal age of consent in Singapore is 16. The legal age for working as a commercial sex worker is 18. This means that one may have mutually consenting sex with a girl who is above the age of 16, however, if there are financial implications and exchange, she must be over the age of 18.
As on as you are above the age of 21 (legal adult age in Singapore), in the eyes of the law, you will not be accorded any leniency if you commit statutory rape (sex with a girl who is less than 16 years of age). Claiming ignorance about the other party’s age will not work and you will still be convicted in the court of law and serve a jail term of a maximum of 7 years.
If you need more information on this, a google search or Wikipedia would be a great resource.
Geylang – HIV and STD risks
The official red-light district in Singapore is Geylang. It is also a place where many good local foods can be found. In terms of the HIV and STD risks found in Geylang, interestingly they are at extreme ends of the risk profile.
Regulated Commercial Sex workers
The safest end of this risk spectrum would be the regulated sex workers. They are required to undertake sexual health checks without fail every month.
HIV and the other STDs such as Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea and Syphilis are checked for. These are usually done through vaginal swabs. Sometimes throat and rectal swabs are also performed if they have engaged in oral or anal sex. If HIV or Syphilis is found, they would lose their commercial sex worker license. If it was Chlamydia or Gonorrhoea, they would then get treated and can continue working. There has not been any reported case of HIV detected in sex workers in recent years, whereas Chlamydia and Gonorrhoea are seen often.
What this then means is that because of the HIV testing window period, there is still a small risk of HIV transmission if the HIV test was done, for all exposures 30 days and more, but engaged the services of the sex worker within D0-28, i.e outside of the testing window. To further reduce this risk, the brothel owners also enforce a strict condom usage policy. However, the chances of picking up Chlamydia and Gonorrhoea are still present even with the use of a condom. Furthermore, these sex workers are not screened for diseases such as HSV (herpes) or HPV and one is still at risk of contracting these diseases.
Freelance Illegal Sex Workers
On the other end of the risk spectrum is the danger which comes with freelance sex workers who operate without a license. They usually enter Singapore as a tourist or even a short term social visit pass. Because they are here working illegally, there is very little information available in terms of the HIV/STD numbers existing in this group.
From preliminary data 5-6 years ago, we do know that illegal sex workers from Vietnam carry the highest HIV rates (about 4%). The hypothesis behind this prevalence is due to the language barrier faced, and the difficulty of getting their clients to use condoms. This has resulted in many episodes of unsafe sex.
Sex workers from Indonesia form the next group carrying the second-highest HIV prevalence rate. The hypothesis again for this is due to the fact that many ply the sex trade in the Middle East and stopover in Singapore before returning to their home country. During this stopover, diseases contracted when they were in the Middle East often go unnoticed and untreated. We also note that the HIV prevalence amongst sex workers in Bali is about 25%.
Thai female sex workers are found to be a lower risk but this is not the case for Thai transexual sex workers who are at high risk. There are no exact numbers on the Thai sex workers but a study in Bangkok estimates the HIV prevalence amongst the transsexual sex workers to be at 49%. This is almost 1 in 2 ! Mainland Chinese sex workers are also relatively low risk. There are also hardly any Filipino streetwalkers in Geylang.
Lastly, it is illegal to tout sexual services, whether online or in person. The police carry out crackdowns regularly and there was a time when it was rumoured, 100 illegal sex workers were rounded up daily. It would not be a pleasant sight to be caught up in one of these police stings if you inadvertently engaged the services of an illegal sex worker.
All in all, stay away from streetwalkers.
Massage Parlours, Spas – casual stress relieving massage or a false front for commercial sex?
More and more massage parlours and health spas are springing up around Singapore.
As of 1st March 2018, the government of Singapore passed new laws regarding massage parlours:
“Massage parlours with CaseTrust accreditation or which conduct their services in plain view will have their operating hours restricted from 7am to 10.30pm.
But those without the accreditation have to abide by even shorter hours – from 10am to 10.30pm.
Only CaseTrust-accredited parlours in designated areas such as Orchard Road or Changi Airport, or those which do not require a massage establishment licence – like fish spas or nail salons – can continue to operate round the clock”
Whilst some of them are clean and do not offer extra services, there are many unlicensed ones which offer under the table extra services from a handjob, oral sex to even sex. Most massage parlours require guests to sign in at the front counter.
For sexual health, risk levels are thought to be generally the same as the regulated sex workers. These masseuses are made to undergo an HIV and Syphilis test whenever their work permits are renewed and also an HIV, Syphilis, Chlamydia and Gonorrhoea test every 6 months to maintain their masseuse licenses. Although this sounds like a long time for a check in 6 months, we also take into account that they receive less than half the number of clients than compared with the regulated sex workers. This screening programme is relatively new and we do not have data to currently comment upon.
Orchard Towers – ‘4 Floors of Whores’
It is an open secret that the sex trade at Orchard towers has persisted over the last decade. It is not legal nor is it regulated. It has been tolerated and I have also not read much about police crackdowns at Orchard Towers.
Even a 2018 article by the South China Morning Post has picked up on the situation there and elegantly describes the conundrum of this trade existing between a veneer of branded “capitalist” goods and shopping. You can have more of a read here at this link.
From what we understand about the working girls at Orchard towers, they can be separated into 2 groups: those on a short term visa/tourist entry or those who have a day job (most often as domestic workers or blue-collar service workers at pubs, restaurants).
Those who are here on an employment pass and have a day job are required by the Ministry of Manpower to undergo a Syphilis (VDRL) test every 6 months and an HIV test once in 2 years. Although they are made to undergo tests before approval of their employment pass, it does not serve as a reassurance because we do not know where these ladies have been, what risks they have taken prior to working in Singapore.
Another interesting risk our sources have shared with us is that whilst some girls are there to make a quick buck, there are also some who deliberately get their targets very drunk, go home with them and plot to move in with their targets ultimately to establish a longer-term relationship so that they can get out of their present circumstances.
With the age of the internet, online “pimping” has evolved to websites offering sexual services: from “innocent” massages to full-blown services. These online vice rings provide a website for these working girls to advertise their services and “customers” would review their pictures and descriptions on these sites before contacting them to engage them for their services.
These sex workers are usually here on a short term visit pass, tourist pass or even an employment pass holding a day job, possibly in the F&B or service industry.
These online vice rings also provide a facility for these transactions to take place, usually in a massage parlour, short-stay hotel or private apartment.
Again this is illegal and the police often carry out raids on these establishments and crackdown on them:
- See https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/10-arrested-for-vice-activities-in-joint-police-and-cnb-operation
- See https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/police-nab-162-people-in-23-day-operation-targeting-online-vice-syndicates
From a sexual health risk perspective, we can only hope that the owners of these vice rings take steps to ensure the health of the girls in his ring so as to maintain his “business’” reputation.
Of course, this is just a speculation and we do not have any direct data of HIV and STD transmission from these online services.
BARS, NIGHTCLUBS, PUBS
There are many bars, nightclubs and pubs in Singapore. The more notorious ones are around Clark Quay, Upper Circular road.
These bars usually hire girls from overseas to work as waitresses or hostesses – mostly the Philippines as the ladies speak good English. These waitresses or hostesses then offer extra services to those who visit these places. For guests who wish to “engage” the services of these ladies, they then have to pay the bar, nightclub a small fee as well to go out on a “date” with them. What happens after that is usually mutually consenting and the money exchange happens behind closed doors.
Just as what we discussed about the modus operandi at Orchard Towers, whilst some of these ladies are out to earn a quick buck, there are also those hoping to enter into a long term relationship, albeit to get out of their situation as well.
The only certainty 100% to prevent the contraction of HIV or any other STDs is to stay in a monogamous, exclusive relationship. The truth is that any sexual contact with a sex worker would pose a risk for contracting STDs or even HIV. There is still risk even if a condom is used. Regulated sex workers are always relatively safer and protecting yourself with knowledge, regular screenings and what to do in an accident is ultimately is the most important thing you can do.
Read this for more information on STD screening.
If you have had a high-risk HIV exposure within the last 72 hours, find out more about HIV Post-Exposure Prophylaxis.
Be Safe. Be Nice.