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Male brothels?

Dorian Jones, Istanbul (nh)May 3, 2013

In Turkey, a women's rights group has petitioned parliament for the creation of a male brothel. The call has heated up the discussion over whether the state should run brothels at all.

A red glowing neon heart on the front of a brothel in Frankfurt am Main.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W.Steinberg

In Taksim square in the heart of Istanbul, Hayrettin Bulan reads a declaration calling for male brothels. The call is being made by the anti-poverty group "Sefkat Der". The group is fighting for an end to state-run brothels. Bulan says their radical move to call for brothels for women comes out of frustration. They had to change tactics in their anti-prostitution fight, she says.

"The government is basically protecting sex slavery using legal grounds to do so," Bulan says. "They say men need sex and they need to go to brothels. But on the other hand, they are not accepting the principles of "gender equality." Bulan and his fellow activists argue that if you assume that women need sex, too, and demand similar places for them, "then you should open male brothels to meet this demand. If you think there is a need then think of women's needs and open male brothels."

In Turkey, female prostitution is legal with state-controlled brothels – and was legal even before the birth of the Turkish republic 90 years ago. Opponents of prostitution like Sefkat Der want prostitution to be abolished. But since the state has refused to heed their call so far, the opponents have changed their tactics and are now calling for equality and therefore the introduction of brothels where women can visit male prostitutes.

Not a media stunt

Sefkat Der is no stranger to controversy and to matching its words with action. Last year, it organized shooting classes for female victims of domestic violence as well as helping them apply for fire arms licenses. Hayrettin Bulan of Sefkat says they have already petitioned parliament and the ministry of the interior under legal principles of equality for the opening of male brothels and warns if their request is rejected they will open a case at the European Court of Human Rights.

A prostitute is waiting for a client on the street (Photo: imago/EQ Images)
There are tens of thousands of women working undocumented on the streets of TurkeyImage: imago/EQ Images

"We don't think Turkey will open male brothels," Bulan says, "but with the fines from the European Court for violating gender equality, such rulings would show up Turkish hypocrisy to the world." The compensation money, Bulan hopes, could then be used to fund women seeking a life outside of prostitution.

One of the women supporting the campaign is former sex worker Ayse Turkucu. She managed to successfully build a life for herself after working in state-controlled brothels – something she says is extremely difficult. She had worked in brothels for 20 years when she got married in 1996 and quit prostitution. "I know very well the torture, the violence, drug use and how the state is an accomplice in brothels because I worked in 7 brothels across Turkey," she says, summing up her own experience.`

Turkucu says women are seen as worthless in brothels, and that it's difficult for them to get another job once they've worked there. "Even most families won't have anything to do with the women in most cases. They won't even take the bodies for burial if they die."

Brothel closures are seen as a threat

The opening of male brothels is unlikely, with the ruling Islamic AK party being far from enthusiastic over the state running brothels anyway. Under its decade-long rule, the number of brothels has nearly halved to the current 56. But government closures are also proving contentious with the women who work in the state brothels.

At the temporary closure of the historical Karakoy state brothel in central Istanbul, a group of activists are protesting outside the building. Police say the Karakoy brothel was shut for violating rules controlling it. But some of the activists at the protest claim the closure is part of systematic efforts to end state brothels entirely, a policy that the critics fear would endanger women.

The Karakoy brothel is one of 6 institutions being closed on one street alone, says a sex worker who does not want to give her name. "The number wasn't enough already for the women working here," she says, and adds that there used to be 11 houses and that no new registration documents have been given out to sex workers since 2002.

There are already 100,000 women working on the street undocumented, she warns and 40,000 of them applied to brothels to work. "If this continues," she says, "it will result in women going to the streets without any control or protection, and without any health measures. We don't have a choice, we have to do this job in order to continue living."

The government has refused to comment on the call for brothels for women. But the whole controversy over state brothels seems to have put the government between a rock and a hard place. While it is curtailing state brothels, it appears reluctant to end what has existed for more than a century, probably wary of being accused of implementing a religious agenda. But as long as there are state brothels for men, the call for brothels for women seems set to grow too.