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Shape-shifting and strategic in/visibility: comparing sex work activism in Singapore and the Philippines

Parmanand, Sharmila ORCID: 0000-0003-2461-7470 (2024) Shape-shifting and strategic in/visibility: comparing sex work activism in Singapore and the Philippines. TRaNS: Trans-Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia. ISSN 2051-364X

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Identification Number: 10.1017/trn.2023.13


Research on public health, crime, and policing regularly discusses sex workers in Southeast Asia but rarely recognises them as agents of social and political activism. This paper shows that sex workers and their allies in Singapore and the Philippines have long and rich histories of challenging their criminalisation and stigmatisation through cultural activism, political advocacy, consciousness-raising, and the provision of direct services to fellow sex workers. Using feminist ethnography, including interviews and participant observation with Project X in Singapore and the Philippine Sex Workers Collective, this paper explores how sex work activists have strategically adapted to their political environments. In Singapore, they maintain resistance through ‘shape-shifting,’ working within state-sanctioned mechanisms, positioning themselves as public health service providers, and creating spaces for radical political advocacy. In the Philippines, where an anti-sex work position is more deeply entrenched within dominant social blocs, sex work activists aggressively criticise state policies on social media and in carefully vetted forums but remain strategically invisible to avoid exposure, harassment, misrepresentation, and prosecution. This paper looks at how sex work activists engage in claims-making — underscoring the differences in the political resonance of human rights in both countries — and interrogates how sex work activism challenges social hierarchies, especially concerning migrants and trans individuals. Overall, it contributes to a richer understanding of non-traditional forms of political activism in Southeast Asia and makes visible sex workers’ contributions to feminism and labour movements in the global south and non-Western contexts.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2024 The Author
Divisions: Gender Studies
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
H Social Sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labor
H Social Sciences
Date Deposited: 11 Jan 2024 16:24
Last Modified: 20 Mar 2024 12:30

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