Under the shade of a tree at an Istanbul cafe, Suzan, a voluptuous woman in her 50s with dyed blond hair and a warm, generous smile, describes how she went from teenage bride to full-time sex worker.
Over several cups of Nescafé during the span of a humid summer afternoon, and backed by the brilliant blue of the Sea of Marmara, Suzan tells her story. As she talks, her cell phone rings nearly every 15 minutes. Customers, she explains. It's a syncopation of male desire, hungry for her attention.
She was married off by her father at age 16, with only a primary-school education, and she left her alcoholic, gambling husband after having seven children with him, one of whom died in infancy. To support the remaining six, she tried everything: selling cheap clothes in a local market, working in a factory, waitressing at a tea garden. But her meager earnings didn't cover school fees for six children. A chance meeting with a sex worker while waiting for a train convinced her it was time to switch careers.
Despite charging only $15 to $30 per client, she found she could make a decent living, particularly as she amassed a steady base of customers who liked and trusted her. Unlike other jobs, however, this one put her in the cross-hairs of the law. In the 20 years she has worked in this field, she has been fined by the police more times than she can count, and she has appeared in court more than 50 times. Four years ago, she spent six months in prison while police investigated her possible involvement with drugs and work with underage girls. They found evidence of neither and released her without charges.
Until then, Suzan had hidden her work from her children. But the six-month sentence compelled her to tell them where she was going -- and why. In a voice clotted with emotion, she recalls how they comforted her during their weekly visits to the jail. "They told me, 'It's OK, Mom. You raised us, and you brought us bread. Can we come and talk to the judge? We can tell him how you were such a great mom,'" she says.
When the last of her children finishes school -- after she has seen her youngest daughter graduate from college -- she plans to leave the industry for good.
Istanbul is no Bangkok. Its sex trade is, for the most part, invisible. But sex work, both lawful and unlawful, has a long, distinguished history in Turkey that reaches back to the height of the Ottoman Empire. In the 21st century, however, it is quietly being swept away by an Islamist government whose desired image for Turkey -- modern, pious, and upwardly mobile -- leaves little room for the work of Suzan and her colleagues.
According to its Health Ministry, Turkey currently has 3,000 licensed sex workers, who work in 56 state-run brothels known as genel evler, or "general houses." Unlicensed sex workers number 100,000 -- more than 30 times as many -- about half of whom are foreign. (Turkey is a destination for Eastern European women, known as "Natashas," who either arrive voluntarily or are trafficked.)
Upon Suzan's release from prison, she applied to open a government-licensed brothel of her own. "I was ready to pay my taxes," she says. "I have a family; I know what it means to have a family. I don't want to do this in an apartment building with families around, or in a car like I do now."
Her application, however, was rejected. The stated reason was a "lack of space." She is hardly alone. Over the last decade, as the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has steadily accumulated power, the number of licenses granted slowed to a trickle and in the past three years has ceased entirely.
The existing genel evler are also being closed or moved to urban peripheries. In some cities, it's done with little fanfare. In others, grinning mayors hold triumphant news conferences in front of the rubble where the demolished den of sin once stood. For women like Suzan, the net result is the same: fewer places where they can work without fear of harassment, violence, and arrest.
Turkey has long straddled Europe and the Middle East -- both politically and culturally -- and the changing standards toward the sex trade are part and parcel of this larger identity crisis. If Turkey considers itself a European country, the policies on its books fall comfortably in line with neighbors such as Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, where sex work is decriminalized or legal. But if Turkey sees itself as part of the Middle East, its policies toward prostitution become a jarring abnormality. Although the sex trade flourishes in the region -- Iraqi women and girls engage in survival sex in Damascus and Amman; Eastern European women are trafficked into Dubai; older men from the Gulf take temporary child brides in Egypt -- it does so exclusively in the shadows.