Melike Arzu Şakiroğlu wanted job security. Like other sex workers in Istanbul, she often encountered disturbed men, was subjected to abuse and had no social insurance.
Even though sex work is legal, Istanbul has only one legal brothel, in the Karaköy district near the Galata tower. This has left women vulnerable to violence and exploitation on the streets, consigned to plying their trade in the rougher neighbourhoods of this city.
When Şakiroğlu applied to work at the Karaköy brothel, therefore, she felt it was a matter of survival. When her application was rejected, she sued the provincial health department and won a landmark legal case to be allowed to work there.
“I claimed my right because we don’t know what can happen to us while we are working on the streets,” said Şakiroğlu, who is now the secretary-general of the Association of Social Policies, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies, a Turkish NGO.
“Either we work through an escort website or the streets, or work in a bordello,” she continued. “If you work at an escort website, when someone calls you either you go to his place or he comes to your place. He could be a psycho or a serial killer. We experienced this. We had real-life examples. Many of our friends lost their lives.”
The status of sex workers is a controversial matter in Turkey, where conservative values and public piety clash with the secular principles on which the republic was founded. There are about 40 legal brothels in Turkey, but most of those working in the industry exist in a grey area. Besides the Karaköy brothel in Istanbul, the city is thought to host many others that are illegal.
The paucity of legal brothels exposes vulnerable sex workers to myriad abuses and physical violence, as well as a lack of social benefits and coverage for health risks associated with the job. Several sex workers who were interviewed said they preferred working in a brothel as an alternative to operating on the streets.
“Our heads are in the lion’s mouth,” said Alarasu, a sex worker in Tarlabaşı, a poor neighbourhood with a high crime rate near Taksim square. “At least the brothel is safer. We can have social security in the brothel. We face beatings and they throw bottles at us while we are working in the streets.”
The only legal brothel in the city is a short walk from the Galata tower, a tourist hotspot on Istanbul’s European side. The gate is manned by a security officer, and only women with a permit from the office of the city’s governor are allowed in. The rules for entry to the premises are listed outside the gate – patrons must be at least 18, policemen, soldiers and personnel licensed to carry firearms must hand them over, sharp objects, bags and pepper spray are not allowed, with no entry after 10 pm and no drunks or bottled beverages.
Attempts to interview women who worked in the brothel were rejected after multiple official requests to government bodies to allow entry for research and reporting were denied.
The precarious legal situation of most sex workers in Istanbul comes with other challenges besides the risk of violence and abuse. Kardelen Yılmaz, the legal adviser at the Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association NGO, said that while the profession was legal, many unregistered sex workers could easily be effectively criminalised due to their murky legal status.
In addition, while regular medical check-ups are mandatory for sex workers, unregistered ones have less oversight and often lack health insurance. Most avoid public hospitals for fear of mistreatment and cannot afford private healthcare.
In addition to the usual problems faced by sex workers on the streets, transgender individuals in the industry face an additional challenge because they have no avenue for becoming legal sex workers. The state does not legally recognise non-binary genders, and only issues pink IDs for women and blue ones for men, effectively shutting out transgender people from seeking legal status.
“The state doesn’t even accept trans women’s applications if she doesn’t have a pink ID,” said a transgender sex worker in Küçük Bayram, a street off the main shopping thoroughfare of Istiklal Avenue, who declined to be identified for fear of repercussions, though police officers patrolled nearby and appeared to tolerate the presence of sex workers in the area.
“Working in brothels is surely safer,” the sex worker added. “We wish that there would be more brothels that we can work at, but it is the state’s problem.”
But while working at a brothel comes with additional benefits, like access to social security, it still has its drawbacks.
Şakiroğlu said sex workers were registered as regular entertainment business workers, which means that diseases they may contract as part of their job are not recognised as occupational hazards, preventing them from retiring or earning disability checks.
Not all sex workers in the city prefer working in brothels, even though they believe it is a safer environment. In Tarlabaşı, one sex worker who gave her name as Derin said that working online allowed her to set the price for her services and to keep all the money she earned. But she stressed that sex workers ought to take safety measures like screening customers and operating in groups.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to ensuring the rights of sex workers is the broader question of women’s place in Turkish society. Under the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), displays of public piety have grown and conservative religiosity is resurgent.
Zelal, a sex worker who quit the profession after ten years, chalked up the limited number of brothel registrations since the AKP came to power in 2002 as part of an attitude that deemed this to be a case of women “going bad”.
“Working in a brothel is not going bad, it is climbing the social ladder,” she said, adding that it was hypocritical for the state to simultaneously crack down and keep watch over sex workers and bordellos in the city.