This article was first published on Sept 4, 2014
The typical streetwalker in Geylang is 26 years old, services four clients a day for $70 each on average and earns about $3,200 a month after deducting rent and other expenses.
Almost all are foreigners from China, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, said a study by three universities which has, for the first time, shed some light on the veiled world of freelance prostitutes in Geylang.
The findings are based on face-to-face interviews with 177 prostitutes over the last two years by three academics from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Boston University and Fudan University.
The study is "an important contribution to the field of labour economics in general", said NTU assistant professor in economics Leong Kaiwen, one of the researchers. "To the best of our knowledge, our work is the first of its kind because such data is rare."
The freelancers are not based in brothels. Many come to Singapore as tourists; others moonlight while holding other jobs here.
Prostitution in itself is not an offence in Singapore, but it is against the law to solicit in public or for pimps to live off the earnings of prostitutes.
One of the study's key findings is that prostitutes pick and choose their clients, charging some more and others less. For instance, Caucasians are typically asked to pay $81 because they are perceived to be more willing and able to pay. Chinese are charged $69, while Bangladeshis pay the lowest amount of $44 because they are seen as less wealthy.
Some prostitutes also prefer not to have Indian and Bangladeshi clients because of the negative associations that may come with darker skin tones.
"This data gives us a broader understanding of how discrimination operates and policymakers can use it to tackle discrimination in other markets and contexts," said another researcher, Assistant Professor Li Huailu of Fudan University in China.
The work has been presented at conferences in countries such as China and the United States. It will be presented in France soon.
It has even piqued the interest of the local authorities. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Health Promotion Board (HPB) have asked for the paper. When contacted, the MHA confirmed that it had asked for a copy of the report but did not give further details. HPB declined comment.
"Discrimination is a very important aspect of labour economics and has been extensively studied by economists," said Dr Leong.
"Many prominent economists, like Professor Steve Levitt from the University of Chicago, have worked with data on prostitutes in the US to analyse issues."
Prof Levitt's best-selling book, Freakonomics, applied economic principles to topics such as cheating in schools and drug dealing.
The study shows the "survival strategies used by sex workers" in Geylang, said Ms Vanessa Ho, 26, an advocate for sex workers' rights and recently named Young Activist of the Year by gender equality advocacy group Aware.
But she added: "I do not find that the research helps us in solving issues such as sex trafficking or general labour exploitation in the industry."
Dr Leong said the study did not ask the women if they were forced to work as sex workers as it was deemed too sensitive.
On tourist visa, but Jiangsu woman not here to sightsee
Jiangsu native Gina has a dark secret. The 25-year-old arrived in Singapore from China two weeks ago as a tourist, but she has not visited attractions like Sentosa or tried local dishes like laksa.
Instead, she has been working as a freelance prostitute in a walk-up apartment in Geylang.
The fair and slender 1.7m-tall dance and music teacher has spent about $2,000 getting to Singapore and starting work.
The breakdown: $700 in airfare, $700 a week to rent a bedroom with an attached toilet and $580 to a Singapore agent who picked her up at the airport, arranged the apartment, took her photos and advertised her services online.
She said, through a source, that she also had sex with the agent for free "so that he can describe and rate my services online".
She charges her clients, who are all locals, $80 an hour. But she declined to reveal how much she has earned or the number of clients she has served.
Her clients responded to the online advertisement, but she does not rule out streetwalking.
"But I will try not to, because I am scared of getting caught by the police," she said.
She came to work as a freelance prostitute after friends who were here said it was lucrative and introduced her to the local agent.
"The agent was helpful, even helping me buy towels, mouthwash and condoms," she said.