Inside the Sex Work Industry in Lebanon

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While researching for this article, I ran into many different definitions of sex workers. I tried to put together a “neutral” definition to avoid all elements that made a moral judgment or biased attributions to this profession.

A “sex worker” is anyone who earns their living by providing sexual services. The term is used to refer to all workers in the sex industry including prostitutes, erotic actors and nude models for pornography, striptease dancers and performers in peep shows, wait-staff in sexually-oriented businesses, live sex show workers, professional dominants, providers of erotic massages and phone sex workers.

Although many articles have been written lately in Lebanon on the subject, the figures of the phenomena are still difficult to define. What emerged clearly from the latest research is that the sex industry in Lebanon is flourishing: prostitution and human trafficking have become the second most lucrative black market business after drugs.

Prostitution has been legal in Lebanon since 1931. Women in prostitution must be registered and must undergo medical examinations; they cannot be virgins, and they must be older than 21. The law stipulates also that they can only practice prostitution inside brothels thus prohibiting streetwalkers and “secret prostitutes”. In 1998, then President Emile Lahoude passed a law forbidding brothels. However, to bypass this law, brothels changed their official status to “Super Night Club”, where women, legally registered in the country as “artists”, are picked up and taken to other locations to offer their sexual services.

The sex market in Lebanon is structured in a very particular hierarchy depending on many factors that determine the price of each service.

First on the sex market ladder are East European and Moroccan women. Maameltein, a neighborhood in Jounieh, a couple of kilometers north of Beirut, is the oldest and most famous red-light district in Lebanon. All in all, there are approximately 127 Super Night Clubs scattered around the country. About 4,000 women (mainly in their late teens or early 20s) yearly work in this industry. At their arrival, the passports of “the artists” are taken away by the General Security and are then given to a sponsor, as is the case with housemaids. To guard their investment, club owners keep their female employees’ passports.

Super Nights Clubs offer daily two stage dance performances and a varied number of girls in the lounge. In order to speak with one of the girls, a customer must order “Champagne” and select the woman he wants at his table. The Champagne has little to do with the bottle of alcohol that arrives; it is just the pretext to have the woman available at the table for an hour and a half. Champagne usually costs about $60 to $80. Kissing and light petting is permitted during this time but law strictly prohibits anything beyond that, and most clubs won’t allow it.

With the purchase of the Champagne, a customer also purchases the right to make a “date” with the woman, supposedly with her consent, anywhere from the next day until seven days after the visit. The “date” is often a code for sex. A night out with one of the dancers can cost up to $1,000.

The date can be set for any day between 1pm and 8pm, when the girls have “free time.” Lebanese regulations say the women must be in the Super Night Clubs between 8pm and 5am. Between 5am and 1pm, they must be in their hotels. It’s regular practice for owners to lock the doors of the hotel between 5am and 1pm. This allows the police to keep the industry tightly regulated. It also allows the club owners to dominate women’s lives and restrict their movement.

In Lebanon, it is illegal for a migrant sex worker to be pregnant. If a woman gets pregnant, she will automatically be deported. When a woman first arrives, she must be tested for pregnancy and diseases and she must repeat the tests every 3 months. When the woman’s tests come out clean, she signs a new contract, otherwise she is deported.

Clubs are not allowed to employ women from Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese, or any other Arab nationality. These women come next in the sex workers ladder, and many of them are working in cheaper places such as the older bars of Hamra.

In Hamra clubs, men can pay $33 to $37 for sex with older women. For sex with younger, more attractive women, freelance pimps whisper tips into the ears of rich-looking foreigners. If the girls are virgins, they can be sold by their pimps for $1,000; if they are experienced, then it’s between $400 and $500. Lebanese women are sold only to foreign men in order to prevent their family or their community from knowing about their job. The profile of the local sex worker in Lebanon is generally a poor, abused woman often without education. Many of them work on the highways or in brothels where they are often abused.

As one descends the ladder of the sex business, the value of the human body drops radically, refugees or migrants offer bodies as young as 14 for the equivalent of $6.5-$20. A very fragile and invisible group occupies the lowest rung: female workers from Africa and Asia illegally in the country; domestic workers who lost their job end up offering sexual services in Ouzaii, Khaldeh, and Dora for as little as $6.5.

Although not a widespread phenomenon in Lebanese society, child prostitution does exist. The majority of children in the trade are Lebanese, but there are also Palestinian, Syrian and Jordanian prostitutes. Most of the children come from broken homes or very poor, underprivileged backgrounds. They start as young as nine years old, when they are most easily influenced. Many of them are forced into prostitution by family members that already abused them or by an economical situation in the family. Frequently, they end up offering sex for food or shelter. Some of the children confess they are also doing it because they want to feel that someone cares about them, even if for a short while.

This picture clearly shows the huge diversity inside the Lebanese sex industry. Sex workers are facing completely different situations depending on their nationality, their legal status and their social-economical background. In some cases, they cannot even be defined as workers and they end up being exploited slaves.

What I would like to point out when dealing with sex work issues is the importance of freedom of decision in entering such an industry. The sex market is ruled and determined by many coercive-abusive factors that make it difficult to understand the real level of freedom of choice/consensus a sex worker can exert in her profession.

First of all, not all sex workers have chosen consciously to enter this industry. At all levels of the ladder, we find women who were forced into prostitution by violence and threat or trickery. Many foreigners arrive at the border with the promise of a regular job and end up being sold to criminal networks.

There are then many key factors that play into the choice of prostitution, such as lack of equal opportunity, social-economic conditions, and issues of geo-political security. Poverty remains the main reason for prostitution. The necessity to meet primary needs like housing and food coupled with the lack of other working possibilities force women and girls into the sex industry.

Finally, even when the original choice is made consciously and with a certain level of freedom, sex workers face the daily impossibility to negotiate their condition due to the absence of any possibility to report to authorities. If a sex worker reports an abuse to the authorities, a foreign “artist” will be deported and a Lebanese worker will be imprisoned. Sex workers are therefore regularly abused, beaten or forced to have unprotected sex. They have very little possibility to choose whether to accept or to refuse a client and they have no possibility to freely negotiate the price for their services. They do not have real ownership of their body because selling prices are fixed by the Night Club management or by their pimp and the profit does not directly go into the workers’ pockets – sex workers normally make just 10-20% of the price paid by the client.

All this happens under the eyes of Lebanese authorities who regulate and control with visas, blood tests, licenses and permits, the legal part of Super Night Clubs’ activities, pretending not to know what their real business is and pretending to ignore all the lower levels of the sex business ladder. In fact, the regulation of the legal part of the business restricts sex workers’ freedom by imposing forced residence for hours in the hotel and deportations. And the absence of regulation in the hidden part of the business leaves sex workers without any tools to ask for their basic human rights and to protect them from any type of abuse.

The social stigma that affects prostitution justifies the authorities’ blindness, encourages their exploitation and leaves sex workers without any kind of protection or guarantee, thus cutting them off from social networks that could protect them.

– Contributed by Camilla

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