As a person who lives in Istanbul, Turkey, I am very familiar with news of violence on women, usually as a consequence of a male-dominated society. However, in this piece, I do not want to discuss the reasons behind violence towards women. Rather, I would like to discuss the reasons behind the general justification of “sex work” and “sex workers. I would like to discuss this topic since I watched two plays performed in Istanbul: one was an adaptation of Lucy Kirkwood’s “It Felt Empty When The Heart Went At First But It Is Alright Now”, a play about a young woman sold by her lover, acting as her pimp and the second was Ebru Nihan Celkan’s “After A Day Nobody Died”, a play about a transsexual woman, named “Umut” (hope) working as a prostitute. During the second play, we watched her to share her feelings, desperation, loneliness and isolation from her family and society with us. However, here I do not talk about forced prostitution. I talk about the conventional understanding of sex work, i.e. formal sex work conducted above the age of consent, by women and by their choice.
Sex work as economic necessity
I think the world is a stage and everyone has a role to play: some become role models, some become teachers, some politicians and intellectuals and some become sex workers. I do not have any problem with the idea that everyone has a particular role in the world. However, I wonder whether there is a relationship between the current increase in the number of sex workers, such as students and young women who prefer to work as “sex workers” to pay their bills and the worsening economic conditions. What is the likelihood of a relationship between a woman’s preference to work as a sex worker and the economic conditions? Are women getting “hornier” during economic crises or do they need money to meet their needs by working in the sex sector? Some argue that women experience difficulty in paying their bills, so they decide working in the sex sector by their choice (with or without intention to leave the market). This means that, willingly or unwillingly, the women in sex sector choose this job due to economic necessity.
Sex work as the expression of female sexual desire
There is also belief that some women are born “different” from the rest, who need more sex and because of that they satisfy their needs through sex work as in the movie “La Belle de Jour”. The idea that some women are different from the rest goes back to the conventional separation between “evil women and good women” or “women for now and women for later” or “women to be enjoyed and women to be wed”. Some even think that prostitutes are morally unclean women who should satisfy men so “pure” women can be left untouched and undisturbed by men. This means that these women would continue to work in sex sector even when after economy improves. Some even go further to claim that prostitution is a moral defect of women since there are other low-paid jobs, like working as waitress, cleaner or domestic worker. In addition, it is also argued that the reason behind the increase in the number of sex workers during economic crises is women’s unwillingness to work or be abused in low-paid jobs. Working in sex industry is found to be easier by them instead of working in a low-paid job. So, it is up to them to face the risks of sex work, because they choose this job. Of course, the different nature of some women cannot be the reason in the increase in the numbers of sex workers during economic crises.
Sex work as an ordinary job in the market
In their daily routines, people complain about unfair payment, bad working conditions, and mobbing, a common problem of work places, including these of the educated upper and middle classes. In addition, sexual abuse is seen in work places conducted by men regardless of their class, culture and religious backgrounds. In this context, whenever a man desires a woman and she does not, this woman becomes his hate target, and is abused sexually, verbally or professionally. So, it can be argued that prostitution is similar to any job, since everyone may work under similar tough and abusive working conditions. Sex workers might complain about their jobs, regarding their health and safety, and might demand the right for equal payment and unionisation and to strike. Through regulation of the sex market, these women can work safely and enjoy their job. Further justification comes when the whole society is regarded to function on economic principles. In this approach, marriage is regarded as a capitalistic and feudal “cage” for both genders, abused sexually, financially and emotionally. In this labour market, prostitution upgrades its status by being re-named as “sex work” and looks like another form of -short-term- marriage.
Sex work as men’s need
I also think about how and why “sex worker” and “sex work” are justified as the oldest job in the world, i.e. prostitution. Although this legitimisation belongs to men, it is also justified by women who see prostitution as a life choice and career opportunity. I also wonder whether the legitimisation of sex work leads to the existing gender hierarchies between men and women. Is there a relation between men’s desire to legitimise sex work and their continuous desire of seeing women ready to obey their orders all time, like in the movie “Stepford Wives”, or live under the threat of being abused and isolated by men? This conventional dichotomy also leads us to reflect on the nature of men and women. As example, while men are accepted to have a tendency for casual sex, women’s nature is open to more debates. While for some, women are more delicate creatures than men, who are born to be mothers and need to be protected by men, for the others women are suppressed by men. Instead, they should stand up for their rights to become independent. In this context, women cannot like domesticity, motherhood, and children. These are found to be conventional roles forced on women by men, which strengthen the existing separation between genders and men’s domination over women. For these people, since everything is a social construct, motherhood and domesticity cannot be liked by women. However, the essence and/or nature of men are never questioned: men need casual sex, because it is accepted that this is in their nature, a natural rather than a social construct. I wonder why manhood would not be considered as a social construct and put under investigation and evolve into a new essence which might not need sex workers.
In the end, sex work becomes a legitimate job mainly done by women from lower economic backgrounds, regarded to be morally unclean, who ironically “save” pure women from being attacked by their partners, lovers, platonic maniacs, and relatives. In addition, sex work empowers women from lower economic backgrounds and provides them with confidence and livelihood. In this society, some are born to be role models, some to be singers, and some to be prostitutes who should enjoy their roles given to them by the society they live. While some of us try to justify sex work, I wonder why don’t they become sex workers, instead of sex workers who need to go on strike for a while?
Basak Tanulku obtained a PhD degree in Sociology from Lancaster University, UK for her research “An Exploration of Two Gated Communities in Istanbul, Turkey” (2010). She is interested in the study of cities, particularly socio-spatial fragmentation, gated communities and similar developments in Turkey; space and identity; urban vacant lands and buildings; urban social movements and protest camps; urban transformation and its effects on urban communities, life and heritage. She is also interested in the human-animal interaction, the protection of cultural heritage and gender issues. She also has a strong background on the socio-political and cultural context of Turkey and the Middle-East. She wrote for various blogs and web pages and published articles in peer-reviews journals, such as Geoforum and Housing Studies.