Commercial Sex in Singapore – HIV, STDs and other pitfalls
HIV and STDs in the Commercial Sex Scene in Singapore
Welcome to Singapore. For the uninitiated, commercial sex here is legal. Aside from the regulated commercial sex workers, there are also many unregulated working girls. This article is to give you an idea of the various risks involved if you decide to engage these services.
This article is not meant to encourage or discourage. I will endeavour to state the facts as best I can. As you might already have guessed, good data on this subject is hard to come by. Many of the points made here are based on my personal experience having run a sexual health clinic and having worked at the DSC (government sexual health clinic) and on unpublished data supplied to me during my interactions with the various health authorities.
This article is also not going to discuss the intricacies of how to go about obtaining such services in Singapore. For that, please read this great resource on The Singapore Commercial Sex Scene.
The Law on Commercial Sex in Singapore
The legal age of consent in Singapore is 16.
The legal age for being a commercial sex worker is 18.
In other words you can have mutually consenting sex with a girl above 16. However, if there is financial consideration, she must be above 18 years of age.
If you are above 21, it is no excuse in the eyes of the law to say that you did not know her age or was duped into believing she was older. You will still go to jail and serve a maximum of 7 years.
In 2012, close to 50 men were charged and jailed for procuring sex from a girl under 18 years of age from an online prostitution service. Ignorance was not a viable defence.
Wikipedia is a great resource for more details on the law on commercial sex in Singapore.
Geylang – HIV and STD risks
Geylang is currently the official red light district of Singapore.
The 2 extremes of risk are found here. The safest are the regulated sex workers working out of brothels or ‘houses’. The most dangerous are the freelance girls plying their trade by the side of the road, the so-called ‘streetwalkers’.
The regulated sex workers are required to undergo sexual health screening every month. They are screened for HIV, Syphilis, Chlamydia and Gonorrhea. They may also be screened for throat or rectal Gonorrhea if they have had oral or anal sex. Their licenses are revoked if they are infected with HIV or Syphilis. If they have Gonorrhea or Chlamydia, they are given treatment and allowed to continue working. The last case of HIV detected in these sex workers was many mnay years ago. Gonorrhea and Chlamydia cases are seen frequently.
What does this mean to you? Because of the HIV testing window period, there is still a risk of HIV albeit this risk is very small. This in no small part is also due to brothel owners enforcing rather strict (but not foolproof) condom usage.The chance of contracting Gonorrhea and Chlamydia is ever present even if you use a condom. These sex workers are not screened for other diseases like HPV or Herpes so you are still at a risk of contracting one of these.
Streetwalkers are sex workers who operate without a license. They are usually in Singpaore on a short term social visit pass. Some of them voluntarily attend sexual health screening at the government health centre (no; they are not arrested if they do) but most of them do not. There is obviously very little information we have in terms of HIV/STD prevalence in this group of sex workers. Based on data that is a few years old, we know that Vietnamese sex workers have the highest HIV prevalence rate (about 4%). The theory is that Vietnamese sex workers face a language barrier when trying to bargain for condom usage with their clients. So most of them end up not using condoms. Indonesian sex workers come in second in terms of risk. The theory is that they are usually on their way back to Indonesia from working in the sex industry in the Middle East. Diseases contracted when they were in the Middle East usually go undetected or untreated. Also taking into account the reported HIV prevalence rate amongst sex workers in Bali is actually 25%. Thai female sex workers are relatively low risk. However, Thai transexual sex workers are high risk. We do not know the exact numbers. But there was a study in Bangkok that estimated the HIV prevalence rate among Thai transexual sex workers to be approximately 49%. Mainland Chinese are relatively low risk. You hardly see Filipino streetwalkers in Geylang.
Because it is illegal to tout sexual services, the police (more than) occasionally organises a crackdown. There was a time it was rumoured the police were rounding up 100 streetwalkers EVERYDAY. You really do no want to be around when they are slapping these sex workers up in handcuffs.
All in all, stay away from streetwalkers.
Spas, Health Centres, Massage Parlours – a front for commercial sex – HIV/STD risks
It is an open secret that these places offer much more than just a massage. It is mostly tolerated by the authorities but occasionally there is a crackdown too. Just make sure that the details you write in the sign-in book at reception are accurate. Woe to he who writes fake details that the police cannot verify during the crackdown.
In terms of sexual health, the risk level is actually thought to be equivalent to the regulated sex workers in Geylang. In other words, rather low risk. In order to maintain a masseuse license in Singapore, the working girls have to undergo HIV, Syphilis, Gonorrhea and Chlamydia screening every 6 months. Yes this sounds like a long time but the fact is also on the average they receive less than half the number of clients compared to ‘full fledged’ sex workers. Because the screening program is still relatively new, we do not have good data to comment on.
Orchard Towers – ‘4 floors of whores’, HIV and STDs
No surprises that this is neither legal nor regulated. It is however tolerated and I have not personally heard of any police crackdowns at Orchard Towers. If you have please let me know in the comments section below.
The girls working there are quite a hodgepodge so it is difficult to generalize. We can however seperate them into 2 groups roughly. Those who are here on a short term visa and those who have a day job (most often as domestic workers).
The girls who are here on an employment pass and have a dayjob are required to undergo a Syphilis test every 6 months and a HIV test every 2 years. I know this does not offer much reassurance but it is better than the girls on short term visas where we do not know where thay have been or what risks they have taken prior to coming to work in Singapore.
Orchard Towers also poses another unique risk which I have seen a few cases of. Basically, some of these woprking girls are not looking for a quick buck but more of a way out. They would get their targets usually really drunk then go home with them. In the morning after, instead of asking for cash, they are planning to move in and establish a longer term relationship.
So called ‘online vice rings’, these sites received notoriety when close to 50 people were charged for having sex with an underage girl procured from one of these sites. (See article above).
As a member of one of these sites, you choose the sex worker based on pictures and descriptions provided by the person running the business. Services are then rendered usually in one of the short stay hotels dotted around Singapore. Of course this is neither legal or regulated. We can only hope that the person running the business would take some steps towards ensuring the cleanliness of his sex workers so as not to spoil his reputation and his business. This is purely speculation. I do not have or know of any reliable data. I personally have not seen anyone contract HIV from such online services yet.
The only way to be 100% sure of not catching HIV or any STDs is to stay in a mongamous relationship.
If you have any kind of contact with a commercial sex worker, you are at risk of contracting an STD or maybe even HIV. This is true even if you wear a condom.
Regulated sex workers are relatively safer.
To protect yourself and the people around you, go for regular screening.
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.
Need more advice?
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About Dr. Tan
Dr. Tan graduated from the National University of Singapore in 2001. His residency was in the two largest public hospitals in Singapore; Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Singapore General Hospital.