Economics of prostitution in Geylang

THE typical freelance 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 researcher Leong Kaiwen, an assistant professor in economics at NTU. “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 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 at $44, because they are seen as less wealthy.

Some prostitutes also prefer not to have Indian and Bangladeshi clients.

“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 behind the study, Huailu Li, assistant professor at Fudan University in China.

The unusual work has been presented at economic conferences in Singapore, China and the United States. It is scheduled to be presented in France later this month.

It has even piqued the interest of the authorities here. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Health Promotion Board (HPB) have asked for the paper and given their views. When contacted, MHA confirmed that it had asked for a copy of the report but did not give further details. HPB could not respond by press time.

“Discrimination is a very important aspect of labour economics and has been extensively studied by economists,” said Dr Leong.

“Many prominent economists, like Steve Levitt from the University of Chicago, have worked with data on prostitutes in the US to analyse issues.”

Professor Levitt’s best-selling book, Freakonomics, applied economic principles to unconventional topics such as cheating in schools and drug dealing.

The study shows the “survival strategies used by sex workers” in Geylang, said Vanessa Ho, 26, an advocate for sex workers’ rights, who was 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.

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