SINGAPORE — “Ashley Chan” (not her real name) is only 24 and still in school but had led enough of a secret life to write a book about it.
Her recently released memoir, Scarlet Harlot: My Double Life, recounts her experiences as a “mid-tier” escort in Singapore as well as the struggles she faces in juggling sex work with her “civilian” life.
Ghostwritten by seasoned journalist Gerrie Lim, the book openly addresses a range of issues, from Chan’s entry into the sex trade at the age of 19 to fund her education, her dysfunctional family relations to her suicide attempt at 23.
In an e-mail interview with Yahoo News Singapore, she shared her motivations for writing the book, what she learnt from working with Lim and her plans for the future.
Started as a blog
Chan and Lim first met some years ago at a party organised by a sex worker rights group. Lim, who has covered the sex industry in both the US and Singapore, later convinced Chan to document her experiences as an escort and a student. These writings were first published in January 2017 as the Scarlet Harlot blog on the Adult Industry Press website.
“We decided transform it into a book when opur publisher, Epigram, agreed it could be a book after we expanded it. Gerrie got the deal on 22 July 2019 and it was good, because we felt that a book had a greater sense of permanency,” said Chan.
“Plus it also paid money, frankly, since the blogs were done without remuneration. We just did it to see if we could work together, in telling the story of my ‘double life’ and fortunately it actually did,” she added, noting that the blog has since been removed from the site.
In the process of collaborating, Chan said she learnt a lot about other aspects of the sex industry from Lim, whose past works include Invisible Trade: High-Class Sex For Sale In Singapore, In Lust We Trust: Adventures In Adult Cinema, and Singapore Rebel: Searching For Annabel Chong.
In the book, Chan also details her fractured family relationships, especially her father, whom she partly blames for her decision to start doing escort work.
Asked if she thought such broken family situations were typical of women in the sex trade, Chan said, “I don’t want to generalise... I don’t know that much about escorts or sex workers to actually make this comment. I would say the main driving factor is definitely money, though, for wanting a more luxurious life.”
Chan does drop some hints of her real identity in the book, such as revealing the motto of her secondary school. She said she has a backup plan if her secret career ever comes to light.
“Deny, deny, deny! To be honest, people are so finicky about whether I reveal my real identity or not, so I leave some clues about what my real life is like and for people to find out,” she said.
Life of a ‘mid-tier’ escort
In her responses, Chan also described what she meant by calling herself a “mid-tier” escort in the book.
“I’m comfortable calling myself “mid-tier” because I’m like the girl next door. When you’re a ‘top-tier’ girl, there’s a certain layer of pretentiousness. You need to be more hypocritical and be a lot more greedy and pursue more materialistic stuff,” she said.
“You also have to commit more if you are ‘top-tier’ and you have to be more skilled – it’s not just ‘boudoir’ skills. You need to know other things like wine appreciation, knowing your food, maybe even playing the piano or playing golf. It’s a very different world,” added Chan.
Being a person who is “naturally more adventurous” has led her to work in more than one area of Singapore’s sex industry – from massage parlours to high-end KTV lounges.
“I worked in a high-end tier of the KTV scene and for that to happen, you need to have connections. So unless you’re connected to some parts of the sex work industry, it’s very closed off,” she said. Chan added that It is more common for foreign women – such as Vietnamese and Chinese nationals – to cover multiple aspects of the industry.
On what being an escort has taught her about being a woman, Chan said that she believed in “neutral gender equality” but would not call herself a “feminist”.
“Feminism is a word that’s been thrown around too loosely and it has very negative connotations, especially recently. I believe in neutral gender equality – it has to go both ways so I wouldn’t use the word ‘feminism’, she said.
As for her stance on whether sex work is empowering or demeaning for women, Chan said, “I would say you need to meet in the middle, just understand that women are still human and just treat the person as such.
“Some women like to be treated as sex objects, right? But not all the time. So you just have to meet halfway. As long as it’s neutral and consensual, I don’t really see it as a problem.”
Staying safe, looking ahead
While sex work has also been journey of self-discovery for Chan, she acknowledges its impact on her physical and mental health in the book. Women entering the industry would do well to have a long-term plan, according to Chan.
“Stay focused on your goals... and self-care. Don’t forget to take care of yourself and, also, don’t be greedy. I feel when you’re not greedy and stay focused, you will not go unhinged so fast,” she said.
Chan also pointed to the need for public policy changes to better protect sex workers in Singapore.
“I think that all women should be protected, regardless of their job. You shouldn’t let someone get away with a crime because we are sex workers,” she said, adding that she’s had her share of threatening clients.
“It’s not safe, and you have clients boasting that ‘If I hit you now or rape you, you can’t go to the police’. At that point, you have to ask them to leave. That is enough. I have colleagues who have been injured by clients,” said Chan.
With half a decade of experience in the sex trade under her belt, Chan said she is looking to settle into a normal relationship once she quits the industry.
“Realistically speaking, from my experience, people expect me to be very jaded. But I just want a man who prioritises me and takes care of me and the family, and who understands his role in the relationship, and we can both get along,” she said.
“And hopefully, by the time I quit sex work, we will both be financially stable and be partners that can afford a family. To be frank, that’s all I ask for, the understanding of priorities and roles. It’s actually quite your stereotypical Singaporean dream.”
As she looks to transition out of escorting, Chan is currently working a “sales-related civilian job” while completing her final year of university as a part-time student.
“Other people would say I could have found a normal retail job, but hey, it’s my life. Everybody’s journey to a destination is very different and this is mine.
“I have decided what I am willing to sacrifice, and that includes doing things that people might find filthy. Some girls find sex work filthy, that’s a fact, but in the end we all make our own decisions,” said Chan.
Scarlet Harlot: My Double Life is available at bookstores and online.
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