'Nobody cares' about Turkey's sex workers under coronavirus

The already difficult lives of sex workers in Turkey have become even more unbearable during the coronavirus pandemic. Women have suffered severe economic loss, but weren’t entitled to any job security, such as unemployment insurance. Many have attempted suicide because of poverty, and their precarity means they couldn’t take time off work, thus facing significant health issues.

Ankara-based transgender advocacy group Pink Life issued Protective Directives for Sex Workers, Clients, Third Parties and Allies in April, where it said the lowest-paid and most vulnerable persons in the sex trade couldn’t abide by social distancing rules as they would lose all income, pushing many further into precarious positions.

sex worker
One of the sex workers spoke to Ahval for the story

“We are aware that many sex workers have to work as they normally would to survive,” the NGO said.

Narin has been involved in the sex trade for three years, not entirely willingly. Her family rejected her during her divorce, and struggling to make ends meet with two children, she says she was forced into sex work. She quits whenever she can find other jobs, but she was recently laid off as the pandemic got worse.

She quit smoking because she couldn’t afford cigarettes during the pandemic. She has overdue bills, and owes several months’ rent to her landlord. “I don’t have money to visit my children,” she told Ahval. “I don’t even have money to buy bread.”

“If I die now, nobody would care. Justice wouldn’t be served,” Narin said. “Even under normal circumstances, justice is never served for women, under these circumstances it certainly wouldn’t.”

The mother of two has attempted suicide herself.

“I can’t take it anymore. It’s not like it appears from the outside,” she said. According to Narin, no woman would work in the sex trade and like it – “unless she has set up her business, and now has girls working for her.”

sex worker
One of the sex workers spoke to Ahval for the story

“The Johns who come don’t even put on condoms – would they care about hygiene or masks?” she asked.

Deniz, 28, was prostituted by her husband a year into her marriage, at the age of 20. He beat her up when she tried to object. She has since gotten rid of the husband, “but I couldn’t get rid of the sex work,” she told Ahval.

Deniz has been working to get out of the business for the last couple of years, and had started working a regular job before the pandemic set in. She was fired, and had to go back.

“I couldn’t find another job during the pandemic,” she said. “I had to do sex work again.”

Clients feel entitled to do whatever they want, Deniz said. “I paid for it, you don’t get a say,” is how they think. “Once I was even beaten up over this,” she said.

She just found another job two weeks ago, but the state contributed “not one bit” of support throughout nine months of the coronavirus pandemic. “They see us as scum anyways,” she said. “There have been friends who died. The state didn’t even look.”

Transgender sex worker Canan, 32, has a university degree, but couldn’t find a job in her field because of her gender identity. She has continued to work in the sex industry throughout the pandemic, and hasn’t had much difficulty finding clients.

“Their mind is always there,” she said. “They don’t care about their own health, or ours’.”

Some clients have told her that it was OK if they died in her arms.

Canan has received particularly little support, because transgender sex workers are seen as deviant in what she called a homophobic country.

“Nobody should think that we are ones to pity. We have the same legal rights as anybody else,” she said. “But our work is restricted because our rights have been usurped. Yes I am a sex worker, and I have higher morals than many homophobes who say they are the epitome of honour itself.”

“I wish tolerance, love, and a conscience for the government that claims to believe in the religion of tolerance,” she said.

(Names have been changed for the interviewees’ safety.)