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★★★★☆ Book Review: Scarlet Harlot – My Double Life by Ashley Chan and Gerrie Lim

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Revealing the life of a Singaporean sex worker in this tell-all memoir. 

It’s 2020, and high time we acknowledge that sex work is, well, work. And with an entire industry founded upon it, it’s perhaps surprising that we have yet to really hear about the life of someone who’s built their entire career on it, not least because of how popular culture and our conservative families have led most of society to continue shunning it as taboo and unsavoury.

But this year, that’s about to change, with the release of Scarlet Harlot: My Double Life, a tell-all memoir co-written by local escort Ashley Chan (a pseudonym) and veteran pop-culture writer Gerrie Lim (best known for his publications relating to the sex industry). A final year university student by day, Ashley juggles her studies with her secret double life, paying for her tuition and lifestyle through her escort services by night. While on the surface, it seems to be working out pretty well for her, the escort business has its fair share of problems, just like an other job, as Ashley reveals over the course of her memoirs.

As a narrator, the then-24 year old Ashley Chan is decidedly different from the stereotypically shy, docile Asian girl. Even though she’s a self-proclaimed introvert, there’s a fierce confidence and unabashed fire to her confessions, taking us through her difficult childhood born out of wedlock and brought up by her grandmother, to her astute observations on how sex work is still better than being a mistress.

Scarlet Harlot will offer some degree of shock value for conservative readers, with Ashely’s frank, matter-of-fact commentary on how she prefers anal to vaginal sex, to her experiences with fetishes such as tamakiri. For those who find such discussions vanilla, it’s refreshing just to read about someone who speaks of such matters with ease.

As an in-depth, personal dive into the sex trade, Ashley and Gerrie’s writing elevates it from job to subculture, analysing and observing both the clients and service providers within the industry and the little ironies or behaviour traits they come with. Whether it’s Ashley’s thoughts on the difference between local and foreign clients, the concept of the G.F.E. (girlfriend experience), or the difficulty of befriending others in such a competitive market, Scarlet Harlot not only acts as a tell-all, but also a mirror by which to reflect on our own stigmas, prejudices and hang-ups about sex and intimacy.

Beyond the saucy accounts, Scarlet Harlot is at its best when Ashley allows herself to let go and reveal her struggles and more emotional side. Throughout the book, there is the sense that there’s a flipside to her exotic lifestyle, where she seems burnt out, emotionally drained and hardened by her work, and more often than not, feels an immense sense of loneliness. Leading a life of solitude, she explains how she could never reveal her work to her coursemates, and how difficult it can be to form long-term relationships (and the pain she’s encountered in trying to be in one).

Scarlet Harlot comes to a climax when Ashley speaks about her suicide attempt and temporary break from the job, and uses the break in between to think about her future, reflecting on modern womanhood, and how long more she can maintain this full-time while keeping her mental health intact (though she insists she isn’t suffering from depression). While we are left without any clear answers as to what lies ahead for her, Scarlet Harlot as a whole offers up an unexpectedly revealing memoir of what it’s like to be a woman in modern day Singapore, and the struggles one goes through as someone leading life on the fringe of society.

Recommended for: Readers interested in finding out more about the local sex worker scene through a firsthand account, and how it’s neither as glamorous nor debilitating as people make it out to be. 

Scarlet Harlot: My Double Life is published by Epigram and available here

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