Living

Escort services in Lebanon slip through cracks of law

A grab shows an online escort services website.

BEIRUT: The websites offer glamor, sex and options. Age, hair color, nationality and measurements can be selected online. With an email or a phone call, Lebanon’s online escort services promise that beautiful women, and some men, can be delivered to your door and be at your service – for a hefty fee.But these escort agencies also appear to exact a high price from the women involved, and differ in some key ways from the prostitution that takes place in country’s nightclubs and super nightclubs.

Prostitution is nominally legal in licensed brothels in Lebanon, but no new licenses have been issued in decades. It takes place through the well-known artist license loophole, which is given to women working out of night clubs and super night clubs. Maya Ammar of KAFA (Enough Violence and Exploitation), a nongovernmental organization that works to eliminate gender-based violence and exploitation of women and children, says the artist visa is a so-called “legal” scheme, whereas “the women who work in these [escort] companies are part of the ‘illegal’ sector.”

Women with artist visas are tested monthly for HIV, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. These medical checkups are regulated by the Interior Ministry and General Security – General Security comes into the picture in part because many of the women holding artist visas are not Lebanese, says Nadia Badran of Soins Infirmiers Developpement Communautaire. Women who contract STDs can’t return to work until they are cleared by doctors, and those non-Lebanese who get HIV lose their visas.

Between 2000 and 2010, SIDC, which works with the health of marginalized populations, conducted an outreach program with Lebanon’s National AIDS Program that targeted male and female sex workers, intravenous drug users, and men who have sex with men.

Through this program, which involved former sex workers training current workers on healthy sexual practices, Badran estimates SIDC came into contact with almost 5,000 female sex workers.

The organization is set to release the data it compiled from those 10 years in the coming months, but Badran says that in general, sexual health for women who do not work in the clubs is not well monitored. These women “are on the street or [they] are call girls, so nobody knows about them. They have to check their health by themselves.”

Badran adds that women working as escorts, or indeed as prostitutes in illegal brothels or on the street, are less likely to use condoms than women in the clubs. This, she says, is because condom use “depends on the client’s intentions and preferences. If the client wants, he can [use a condom] ... If not, she cannot oblige him to wear a condom. And maybe sometimes they will pay more for not using a condom and she will accept.”

Women also may be afraid of losing their jobs if they demand condom use from clients, Badran says, especially if they do not work alone. “However, the women who work, for example, in nightclubs and super nightclubs can oblige [clients] to use condoms more ... The places where they work support them in asking for a condom, because if a woman becomes infected she must stop work. [Using condoms there] is in their interest.”

But what of the high rates listed on the websites? Women appear to earn several hundreds of dollars per hour, and if they are in the job by choice then they can make an excellent living.

While this may be true in some cases, Badran says the majority of escort services are run by men. When women “work with a pimp, the pimp will take most of the money and she [the sex worker] will get less.”

She notes that the high rates on the glitzy websites “are not for local people. Most of them are for foreigners that come from outside Lebanon and ask for this type of service. People from other countries can afford to pay.”

Speaking to women about their jobs is tough. Ammar says “it’s very hard to reach these women. If you try to call the number that they post online, if you want to profit from any of their services, they want your name and your hotel number to make sure that you exist ... They want to make sure you are not a journalist or an NGO or a security official.”

Indeed, the person who answers the phone at such services is usually a man. But arranging an evening with the women is fairly simple. When a reporter from The Daily Star called the mobile numbers listed on several websites and asked to meet with specific women, he was provided with their mobile numbers. Meetings were arranged on the same night, and prices were negotiated. Over the phone, the women described the sexual acts they were willing to engage in.

And all of this is operates under the nose of the government. The Internal Security Force’s Office of Electronic Crimes is tasked with shutting down the websites that advertise such services. A security source told The Daily Star that while the businesses are illegal, they are difficult to close given the ease with which sites can pop up again.

“Usually we don’t have the ability to find many of those websites,” the source said, adding that “we wait for complaints to take action against the websites that provide escort services.”

Operating the websites, he said, “is more of a misdemeanor,” although “escort services that take money are prostitution and in violation of the law.” If a website is targeted by the ISF, they are referred to the Office of Disciplinary Prosecution following an order by the prosecutor.

Many of the websites make a nod toward legality – with disclaimers saying that they simply connect people with independent escorts. But “any such services advertised online that are reimbursed with money violate the law,” the source added. And regardless of their legality, beyond the poses and the promised evenings of pleasure, the reality for the women involved is likely much grimmer.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 17, 2012, on page 2.

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