Alden Boon

Human Rights Defender Sherry Sherqueshaa on Crimes Against Sex Workers, Love, and Her Muslim Faith


Sherry Sherqueshaa is running. Her screams rouse many onlookers, but no one helps her. Her hand hovers over her exposed breasts, a feeble attempt at protecting the last remnant of her modesty. She cares not about any broken shards of glass lying in wait or her pride. While on a job, her awareness is usually keen, but this time she had let her guard down. The client had been surly and curt to her right from the get-go. After the act, wanting to avert eye contact and avoid small talk, she busied herself with her phone. And that was when he took off with her bag, in which contained her identification card and a night of earnings. Apoplectic, she gives chase. Now gaining on him, she makes a final leap, a judgement of terrible error, as she instead trips and scrapes herself against the floor. The robber, by a stroke of incredible luck, swings open the door of a passing taxi and hops onboard. As she makes her slow march back to the hotel room, Sherry harangues the bystanders for their apathy.

More often than not, sex workers who find themselves in similar plights do not report the crimes for fear of repercussion: they can be charged for solicitation. But Sherry, at this juncture in her career, knew the law and her rights. She would not be exploited. ‘I didn’t care about what would happen to me. I just knew I shouldn’t let him get away scot-free.’ If the robbery opened a wound, then the ensuing encounter with the police officers rubbed salt on it. Their nonchalance signalled to Sherry that they were brushing her case off as just another disturbance in the red-light district; another case of drunk men going overboard with sex workers. ‘They didn’t even bother taking down my statement. I had the full name of the client and his bank account number. CCTV footage would back me up on my claims. I had a good case. But the investigating officer didn’t pursue the matter. For days I awaited his call. I made repeated visits to the station. But nothing came out of it. The incident slipped my mind, until a year later when I had to replace the loss of my identification card. I had to pay a fee to renew it. But why should I have to pay for it? I didn’t lose my card due to carelessness: I was robbed. I wasn’t drunk (and so deserved it); he had every intention of robbing me.’ As disappointing as it was, this encounter didn’t shake her faith in the justice system: Sherry attributed it to the nonchalance of one lone police officer. ‘I get it, though. I understand why he didn’t do anything about it.’

This would be her second incident of abuse in an eleven-year journey of sex work. The first incident happened when she was still a greenhorn roaming the parks. Her insistence on using protection for fellatio, as well as rejection of her client’s advances to kiss her, riled the latter. ‘He kept on pushing his luck. It’s an unwritten rule that in the park we had to be quick and discreet, but he kept changing positions. That annoyed me.’ When his requests were not acceded to, the client started to get violent. He pushed her. Despite the stark size difference, Sherry retaliated. That was when he punched her in the eye. Before Sherry could compose herself and regain her bearings, he fled the scene. Sherry was not paid for her service. The scuffle also cost her a broken watch.

‘I spent the next few hours venting to my friend. At this point, I’d been a sex worker for months, and while I’ve heard stories like this, I didn’t think it would happen to me.’ As for her black eye, Sherry made no attempt to cover it up. ‘I used it as a way to get attention, to gain sympathy with my clients. I was like a damsel in distress, appealing to my clients’ masculine urge to protect me,’ she quips.

Not a bed of roses

Sex work was not Sherry’s first choice of work. She dropped out of school when she was fifteen, after daily taunts from her classmates took a toll. For four years, she worked at a fast-food restaurant before enlisting in the army. After completing her national service, she — then still a pre-transition transgender woman — worked at a semi-fine dining restaurant as the hostess, sitting guests and recommending chef’s specialities. ‘I enjoyed the interaction with people, I enjoyed very much being the front person who connected with patrons.’ However, when the desire to express herself as a woman far eclipsed her need to hide her true self, she began dolling herself up. Her then colleagues began alienating her and became more distant. And without warning came her termination: her superiors cited a poor work performance and tardiness as reasons.

Shunned and stigmatised by society, for many transgender women in the early aughts, sex work was one of the few livelihoods they could turn to. It was a personal friend of Sherry who roped her into the industry. At first her family disparaged her outfit choices ad nauseum, but eventually that turned into indifference. ‘My family didn’t probe about my work, but it doesn’t take a genius to know that I was moonlighting: I’d doll myself up, head out of the house late in the afternoon and only come home past midnight. I didn’t have a day job, yet I could pay for what I wanted. I was lucky in that I didn’t get abused by my own family members, as is the lived experience of many transgender women.’

Sex work, like all other jobs, is work. ‘“Tough” was not knowing what’s going to happen. Every night, while my mind was set on making a few hundred dollars, I wasn’t sure of the type of men I’d meet.’ Thrust suddenly into an uncertain world, Sherry had to learn the ropes, first by identifying potential clients. A car circling the vicinity of the park several times. Sheepish eye contact. In hindsight, there were many close shaves with the police. While sex work is not illegal in Singapore, soliciting is, and therein is where the line is blurred. ‘I didn’t feel scared until my sex worker sisters told me to be wary of undercover and uniformed cops. Just imagine: a woman with a bagful of contraceptives — it’s not hard to suspect vice-related activity. They taught me to quickly walk away and avoid being questioned.’

While her would-be clients were discreet, hecklers, many of whom were her age, were rambunctious. ‘Faggot’ some would berate her. Others would ask her for the price or harass her with faux kissing noises. Eyes followed her every move, even if she didn’t ask for the attention. Kids would stare, out of curiosity, when she was in a coffee shop, her short skirt and skimpy dress incongruous. ‘Whenever I was in a coffee shop, I’d tone myself down and not be flamboyant or loud. Some men would try their luck and ask me for my price. That’s not very nice: if indeed you really wanted to engage my services, you’d know where to find me. I just needed somewhere to eat, to have my meal. I was not there to solicit business. I understand that the way we dress can cause discomfort, but sex workers have every right to have a meal in peace. And then we’ll leave without causing any trouble.’

The first time she completed a transaction, Sherry says feelings of disgust gnawed at her. ‘I felt dirty. Had I a choice, I would want to be intimate with someone I had a connection with. But I was doing this for money.’

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.