Project X’s Vanessa Ho Is Demystifying The Plight Of Sex Workers In Singapore. Here's How
As the executive director of Project X, an NGO that advocates for the rights of sex workers in Singapore, Vanessa Ho is fighting to debunk the misconceptions about this marginalised community
“More than just condoms”—the tagline of Project X, the non-profit organisation that Gen.T honouree Vanessa Ho has been running since 2011 sums up the wide-ranging work she does on a daily basis. It also describes the complexities of the sex industry as a whole, which Project X has to navigate as the only organisation of its kind supporting sex workers in Singapore.
Project X was founded in 2008 by social worker Wong Yock Leng, who saw a gap in the services available to sex workers. With a team of volunteers, she set out to walk the streets of the Geylang red-light district to find out more from the community itself and soon began to see how sex workers were vulnerable to many issues, including physical assault and the difficulty that comes with reporting it.
Today, the organisation offers social, emotional and health services to sex workers of all sexual orientation, gender identity and background, which ranges from distributing condoms and safe sex resources to counselling, legal services, educational talks and yoga classes. It also operates two community centres, which serve as safe spaces for the community, and organises outreach engagements with schools and offices to raise awareness about the sex industry.
When Ho met Wong through a mutual friend, she recounts admiring the latter’s work before she went on to “pester her for a [full-time] job” at the organisation. “I’ve always known that I wanted to work in the non-profit scene because it’s meaningful and I wanted to make a positive impact on society,” says Ho, who is executive director at Project X.
The awakening of an activist
Ho’s decision to enter the field was fuelled by her political awakening, which she said she experienced when she was 20 years old. “It was 2007 and I remember that the Singapore government was debating Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men,” she recounts. “I remember there were a lot of discussions about this in the newspapers and public forums online at the time, most of which were very toxic. People on both sides were being very mean to each other.”
“I also recall thinking: Why can’t we just let people live? Why should we chastise or criminalise someone for being different or believing differently from us?” Her anger and frustration towards unequal treatment of people that society deems different soon willed her to “want to help move the needle on this”.
Ho started to lap up information about social movements, the notion of differences, and how she could help make society a better place. “I became conscious of the fact that I’m a citizen of this world and I have a part to play in making people’s lives better.”
Now, she oversees three full-time staff at Project X and a pool of some 500 trained and untrained volunteers. Before this, Ho also volunteered at Home (Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics), a non-profit organisation that works with the nation’s migrant workers.
Breaking down harmful taboos and misconceptions
Sex work continues to be socially and politically stigmatised, which often leads to people having misinformed perceptions of sex workers. “Many people have this dual image of sex workers where on the one hand, they are seen as money-grabbing, gold-digging nymphomaniacs, while on the other hand, they must be victims of abuse, human trafficking or coercion,” says Ho.
This binary thinking of sex workers that permeates society is damaging of the truth, she adds, as it obscures the humanness in those it is describing. “The reality is almost always in the middle, somewhere between the two extremes,” says Ho.
“If you think they’re gold diggers, then you do not understand the real-life experiences that they have had. Some are doing this to give their children the best education that they can afford. One woman we work with is illiterate, but she’s managed to put her children through university thanks to the money she’s earned.”
“Similarly, if we think of sex workers as purely victims of exploitation, we’re denying the fact that a lot of them have tried ways to escape, get out of the system and so on. Such a one-dimensional perspective denies their personal agency. It’s instead more important for us to think about issues as being on a spectrum and seeing sex workers simply as human beings.”
Ho describes how sex work is also often generalised as being undesirable, even if sex workers themselves don’t think so. She recalls a conversation with several others about ways to recognise sex work as work, in order for sex workers to get access to governmental benefits such as the Covid-19 relief fund. Instead, the conversation steered towards the direction of helping sex workers transition out of the job.
“I know they mean well, but I think this decision isn’t ours to make,” she says. “If a sex worker is feeling trapped and wants to get out of the industry, then yes, we should help them make the transition. If not, we are being judgemental and this, to me, is discrimination based on differences in values and outlook on life.”
Due to Project X’s openness to working with a diverse community, Ho has come across many different stories from sex workers on why they do what they do. “For some of the sex workers, sex work is empowering. I’ve met a handful of women who were sexually abused as a children who said that sex work is their way of reclaiming their sexuality and asserting themselves. There are also others who do sex work as a skilled profession. As long as they’re not harming anyone, who are we to judge?”
A lack of social and judicial support
Singapore doesn’t completely outlaw prostitution and there are government-regulated brothels where sex workers can legally provide sexual services to customers, but it is illegal for sex workers to solicit customers in public places for the purpose of prostitution. Despite this, the lines remain blurred and sex workers are often uncertain of their rights and fearful of law enforcement.
“Often, when a customer commits a crime against a sex worker, the latter would not dare to lodge a police report because they are unsure of what might happen to them if they do. They often feel helpless and some customers take advantage of them, knowing their disadvantaged positions.”
As a result, Ho and her team work closely with a team of pro bono lawyers to keep sex workers abreast of the country’s latest laws. “Educating sex workers on their legal rights is our first line of defence, because it will help them identify a crime when it’s committed against them and negotiate their way out of the situation with the customer involved.”
Due to the covert nature of the industry, Ho believes Project X is only reaching out to about 40 percent of the sex worker community in Singapore. The organisation relies on social media and word-of-mouth to raise awareness, but even then it doesn’t always have the trust of every sex worker.
“I think the distrust stems from sex workers internalising the social stigma and laws that surround their work, so it isn’t easy for them to believe when an organisation says it wants to look out for their rights and needs,” says Ho. But she and her team bridge the trust gap by continuing the practice of walking around the red-light districts in Singapore to talk to sex workers and hear about their problems. After all, she believes listening is the most important skill a person in her role can have.
“Not listening is one of the most disempowering things that you can do to somebody else,” she says. “For those who aspire to do non-profit work, always listen in order to understand why people are in a certain place in life, their thoughts and opinions, because people who are discriminated against or are in less privileged positions often have one thing in common—not having anyone think that they or their opinions matter.”
Balancing mental wellness and social activism
In the decade that Ho has helmed Project X, she has experienced several ups and downs. The most memorable process she says has been her transformation from “angry activist to a diplomatic one, to someone in between”—and how all this has affected her mental health. When she first started out at the organisation, Ho admits to embodying the qualities of a passionate, hot-headed activist, who would “write sarcastic and ‘explosive’ posts on Facebook whenever I saw injustice”.
In turn, she received a lot of backlash for her actions and perspectives on the plight of sex workers. “I'm very familiar with cancel culture because I've been censored a thousand times and stonewalled by people, and I saw how the cause suffered the repercussions of my words. From the public to the government, people would say that we’re too fierce and avoid us. We had this reputation for quite a few years.”
Realising that her actions were to the detriment of Project X, she decided to take a different, nearly opposite approach in hopes of regaining public support. This, however, backfired as well, as Ho says the organisation came off as unauthentic, especially among its longtime supporters. “People got confused and we ran into trouble there as well, so we had to renavigate the tension to find a middle ground.”
In 2021, she hopes to find an equilibrium that works. “I’m trying to put myself in other people’s shoes more. It’s useful to be able to see a situation from different perspectives, but also we need to for the sustainability of Project X.”
A conversation with a friend recently made her realise that authenticity and compassion in her line of work was more important than anything. “The fact is that Project X is fighting for a taboo cause and we have to accept that we’re going to be hated by some people. What’s important is we are authentic and stand by what we believe in. It’s about finding the balance between staying true to who we are and finding our place in society. We’re still finding this balance, but I think we’re getting there.”
At the end of it all, Ho says that Project X’s cause is one for gender equality. “I’m of the position that if sex workers can’t feel safe in our society, then no women can feel safe because the issues that sex workers face often expose the deepest loopholes in our system.”
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