When I Was A Sex Worker: “I Always Believed That Sex Workers Were Happy And Could Do Exactly What They Wanted”

Abir sat in a chair at the chalet, waiting for the hairstylist to work her magic. This daily routine was her life now: choosing clothes, applying makeup, getting her hair done. Anything she wanted could be delivered to the place. 

The luxurious chalets, with their swimming pools and endless amenities, demanded a certain standard of appearance. Abir practically lived there, only returning to her apartment every ten days.

Around noon, the girls gathered in the lobby, preparing for another long day of work. They often worked until two in the morning, sometimes even until five. Primetime, from six pm to midnight, was when Abir saw the majority of her clients.

“Honestly, I was very happy with everything at that time,” she says.

The men began to arrive, a mix of young and old, though most were over 50. Some had children, others did not, some were single, others married. Some clients were well-known and specifically sought out Abir, while others sought different women. New clients, unfamiliar with the women, made first choices that sometimes sparked jealousy amongst the women.

All the men requested specific sexual services. If a request was too extreme or the payment too low, Abir would decline. Sometimes the client got angry, but he would simply try his luck with another woman. When Abir made a deal, she took the client to her rented room in the chalet. 

She was paid by the hour, even if the act lasted only ten minutes, allowing her to service a large number of men and earn substantial money in a day. According to her, she would engage in sexual activity with approximately 30 to 35 men each day.

In the early years, Abir found satisfaction in the job due to what she considered ‘a high salary.’ But as time passed, she felt physically and mentally drained.

“I didn’t want the money anymore. I wanted to feel comfortable in a loving relationship, where the man loved me as a person,” she says.

Before Abir spent five years in a high-end chalet among some of Lebanon’s wealthiest, her life as a sex worker looked very different. She journeyed from the suburbs of southern Beirut to wealthy Dubai, and eventually to the luxurious chalet in Lebanon.

Without safety nets or education

Article 523 of the Lebanese Penal Code criminalizes ‘any person who practices secret sex work or facilitates it.’ Punishments for such offenses range from one month to a year in prison. 

While it is not illegal to work as a licensed sex worker in Lebanon, the government has not issued any such licenses since the 1970s, after sex work was legalized in the country following World War I. This leaves those working as sex workers vulnerable to arrest and punishment, according to Al Jazeera.

In Lebanon, women engaged in sex work come from various nationalities and age groups. The NGO Caritas shelters girls aged 12 to 18 and beyond, while Dar Al Amal also assists minors but primarily supports women aged 18 to 60, with the majority in their twenties.

After dusk, Doura in Beirut transforms into a hotspot for street sex work. Tuesday, May 14. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Caritas is a confederation of 162 national Catholic relief. Caritas Lebanon provides safe shelters and protection services for victims of human trafficking, including sex trafficking.

Dar al Amal, a non-governmental organization, works to safeguard the rights of children and women. They support women engaged in prostitution by providing mental health assistance, financial aid, and legal services.

Caritas predominantly hosts sex workers who are also refugees within Lebanon, including Syrians, Iraqis, and migrant domestic workers from Asian and African countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. In contrast, most women seeking support from Dar Al Amal are Lebanese, Syrian, with some from Egypt and a few from Palestine.

Hiba Abouchakra, program manager and social worker at Dar Al Amal. The organization’s office in Sin El Fil on Wednesday, May 15. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Hiba Abouchakra, program manager and social worker at Dar Al Amal, emphasizes that these women lack safety nets and educational opportunities, which might enable them to pursue careers other than prostitution. This lack of opportunities compels them to seek alternative ways to generate income.

Moreover, many of the women lack familial support or a place to call home, rendering their circumstances even more precarious.

The outcast of the family

Before Abir moved to Lebanon, her story first began in Syria.

Abir grew up in Syria’s Mountain Latakia, her childhood and school years shadowed by difficult circumstances. Her stepmother subjected her to relentless physical and psychological abuse, marking Abir as the black sheep in a household where she was the only child of a different mother. This treatment isolated her under her stepmother’s harsh rule.

Despite enduring countless hardships, Abir’s resilience faltered when her family orchestrated a marriage to a man she never desired. Living in that unwanted union became unbearable, prompting her decision to break free.

“Lebanon,” she had heard, “offered money, work, and opportunity.” With these promises echoing in her mind, 18-year-old Abir embarked on a journey to Lebanon. 

She was fueled by aspirations of securing employment, amassing wealth, and ultimately returning to Syria. This return would serve as a form of defiance against her family’s wishes, showcasing her triumph.

However, reality proved far harsher than her dreams.

Lebanon’s red light districts

Under the cloak of night, certain neighborhoods in Lebanon undergo a transformation into ‘red light districts,’ veiled in darkness to conceal illicit transactions.

Glitzy ‘super nightclubs’ featuring half-naked performances thrive. They exist alongside discreet corners of bars, cafes, hotels, and parties, all serving the purpose of facilitating the sale and purchase of sex work.

The transformation in Beirut is most notable in areas like Hamra and Downtown. In Daoura, the presence of women working from small establishments has surged, turning the streets into a bustling nocturnal neighborhood, according to Dar Al Amal.

From Jal El Dib to Batroun, and particularly in Maameltein in Jounieh, often referred to as ‘Lebanon’s little Las Vegas.’

Daoura roundabout in Beirut on Tuesday, May 14. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

“I thought it was an easy way to make money”

When 18-year-old Abir arrived in Beirut, she eagerly took on various jobs across different industries, hoping to find her footing in the city’s fast-paced rhythm. However, as time passed, her funds dwindled, and desperation began to creep in. 

It was during this challenging period that she had a conversation with a Palestinian taxi driver that would ultimately change her life.

“In this country,” he said, “if you want to make money, you have to work as a sex worker.”

Abir’s mind buzzed with a blend of curiosity and trepidation as the driver offered to introduce her to three Syrian girls sharing an apartment. Abir agreed to explore this unknown path.

“I thought it was an easy job, an easy way to make money,” she reminisces. “I always believed that sex workers were happy and could do exactly what they wanted.”

Men line the side streets of Daoura’s roundabout. Tuesday, May 14. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Abir stayed with the women for five days without offering any sexual services, unlike the other women. Something didn’t feel right. When illness gripped her frail form, she left the women’s house, finding solace with a new acquaintance in the same industry.

It turned out that Abir was pregnant. The father was a man she had loved when she lived in Syria. Over the following years, she found herself turning to sex work as a means to generate enough income to support her newborn baby.

Trapped in the sex industry

Despite Abir’s independent decision to enter the sex industry in Lebanon, Hessen Sayah, the Head of Caritas Lebanon’s Protection Department, emphasizes that many women are coerced into sex work.

Migrant workers are frequently coerced by individuals, often referred to as gangs. These individuals promise better job opportunities and higher salaries in Lebanon. The women are lured with false promises of decent jobs like selling food, cooking, or cleaning, says Sayah from Caritas. Once outside their employer’s house, these women become trapped in forced sex work to cover rent and debts. Threatened with prosecution by the perpetrators and traffickers, the women have no choice but to comply.

Human traffickers also control the women by withholding their wages or passports. Poverty makes these vulnerable groups easier targets for employers and traffickers. This is according to The Borgen Project, a movement dedicated to advocating for the world’s poor.

Per a former senior General Security officer, who spoke to Al Jazeera anonymously, sex trafficking in Lebanon typically occurs through highly organized rings in brothels like the Chez Maurice case or through so-called “free agents.”

An alleyway in the Daoura area in Beirut. Tuesday, May 14. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

18-year-old Abir, unaware of what her future job would entail, takes her first step into Lebanon’s sex industry. It comprises a complex network of organized prostitution, pimps, and influential clients. Beirut Today delves into these realities in the second installment of our series ‘When I Was A Sex Worker.’

Abir is not the real name of the former sex worker. Although Beirut Today is aware of her true identity, we have agreed to use a different name to safeguard her family’s privacy.