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Project June 13, 2011

Sex and the State: Islamist Governance, Turkey’s Sex Workers

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The bedroom of an independent sex worker who works from her house in an upscale neighborhood of Ankara. Image by Anna Sussman, Turkey, 2011.

In Turkey, prostitution has been legal since Ataturk founded the modern republic in 1923. An estimated 3,000 women work in licensed, state-regulated brothels; another 30,000 await licenses. At one point, the female proprietor of a chain of brothels was the biggest taxpayer in Turkey. While licensed sex workers pay taxes and social security, and receive regular health check-ups, those without licenses work illegally, and are subject to harassment, police violence and fines, penalties and extortion. Over the past decade, the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has quietly closed dozens of brothels, leaving hundreds of women homeless and jobless. Sometimes the demolition of a brothel is accompanied by fanfare and speeches on public morality and health; other times, the closure happens under the guise of a zoning issue.

Despite these crackdowns, the economic crisis (and Turkey's IMF-driven economic reforms) have forced more and more women to turn to sex work to survive. But the government has stopped issuing licenses, leaving women on the street, where they're vulnerable to harassment, police violence and fines. Despite its veneer of moderate Islam, is the AKP imposing its vision of morality on the country, one empty brothel at a time? And where does this leave the women whose livelihood now falls outside of the law?

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