Tourism’s dark side

A proud tradition

Lebanon’s adult entertainment industry/sex trade is worth an estimated $140 million (although this figure could be much higher), and employs over 4,000 people. Lebanon has always worn a patina of sin, one that represents a not insignificant portion (7%) of the tourist industry, around even though the ministry might prefer to focus on Lebanon’s more family-oriented attractions. Though hardly transparent, the market can be characterized as highly diversified, as it encompasses everything from the Super Nightclubs of Maameltein, with their bevies of Eastern European hostesses, the new wave of massage parlors (or anti-stress clinics), and the red light bars for the less well-heeled customers. There is also a thriving local and regional market for Lebanese “escorts,” and models. And then there are, of course the freelancers, the women (and men) who work the hotels, cafés and sidewalks, practicing the oldest profession in the world.

The law

Contrary to what most people think, prostitution is not illegal in Lebanon, in the sense that it is not included in the penal code. Only the act to facilitate or encourage prostitution is penalized. Prostitution is regulated under a 1931 law related to the “preservation of public health,” which stipulates that prostitution must take place in a “public house” or “meeting house,” both of which must be run by women over 25-years-old in accordance with the rules of the particular neighborhood. Other regulations stipulate that prostitutes should be at least 21 years of age, be subject to a medical exam twice a week (the fees of which are to be paid by the municipality) and that policemen can make spot checks whenever necessary. In other words, most prostitution in Lebanon is illegal, simply because it’s not done by the book.

Super nightclubs also fall under the law, as they need permits to serve alcohol and (according to a 1947 ruling) stage “non-cinematic” shows, i.e., cabarets. Finally, a 1929 government ruling controls the daily comings and goings of foreign “artists” employed to dance in bars and nightclubs.

These so called artists need a permit issued by the Surete Generale. The text stipulates that the person in question needs to submit “a certificate of previous work or be a member of a known artistic organization.” In case the artist does not fulfill these conditions, the Surete Generale can still authorize her to work “if investigations show the artist is good and qualified.” It is also worth noting that “exciting” dancing and dancing in indecent clothes are also prohibited. The text also regulates entry and stay in Lebanon. Policy today is that “artists” who enter the country as dancers can only stay for six months.

Super Nightclubs

The biggest money-spinners in the adult entertainment sector are the Super Nightclubs, which account for nearly $100 million annually. (For a popular operation, business can be lucrative. Overheads – rent, electricity, salaries, permits, “unofficial payments” etc. – account for 40% of revenues and, given the nature of the business, the finance ministry will find it hard to get a clear picture of monies earned.) There are an estimated 80 genuine super nightclubs in Lebanon, some 40 of which, including the most upscale ones, are historically located in the Jounieh neighborhood of Maameltein. The rest are dotted around Hamra, Ain Mreisseh, Tabarja, Mansourieh, Hazmieh and the mountain resort of Aley. The number of girls employed per club varies from five to 30, but the top clubs such as the famous Excalibur, which can employ up to 40 hostesses, have more. In theory, all so-called super nightclubs offer cabarets, but in reality only in the bigger ones are shows performed, mainly by girls from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Show or no show, the main business is about spending time with the girls. The deal generally is that if you spend $60 to $100 on drinks, the girl of your choice will keep you company for around 90 minutes. The easiest option is to buy her a bottle of Champagne, but Whiskey will suffice. Your own drinks at $10 each come on top of that.

For men visiting a super nightclub with the idea it being a brothel, the experience can be rather disappointing. In principle, customers are not permitted to leave with a girl and girls are not allowed to offer sexual favors. The clubs are not bordellos and are subject to regular spot checks by undercover policemen or Surete Generale officers. However, if the customer spends the minimum $60 to $100, the customer is entitled to ask the girl “out” the next day between 1pm and 7pm. (The Surete Generale, which regulates the entry and stay of the girls in Lebanon, demands that the girls are to be in their hotel by 5am. They are not allowed to leave before 1pm and have to be back in the club by 8pm, hence the specific window of opportunity).

This does not mean that she will consent to sex. While some will (the rate is roughly $100), others will merely go for a walk or have a meal. In rare cases, clients can take a girl home the same night, but this is risky and restricted to long-term customers and both club owner and girl must agree. The fee is usually $300, $50 of which goes to the girl. The rest is divided between the owner (for loss of business), and the hotel owner, who must pay off the policeman who checks the hotel in the morning.

From Russia with love

For a foreign worker (they are mostly Russian) to find employment in the Lebanese super nightclub circuit, she must first sign up with an agency (most are in Moscow). A successful applicant’s contract will not stipulate the entire range of what is expected of her once she starts working in her new country of employment, but most arrive with their eyes open. (see Global Trade)

The Lebanese club owner pays a fee of about $150 per girl to the agency and must buy the girl a return ticket of some $800 and pay her an average salary of some $300 a month plus commission (based on her ability to sell bottles of champagne). Girls working in the top clubs however can earn salaries of $600 and even a $1,000. The employer pays some $400 for a permit and medical tests, as well as some $350 for medical insurance. Girls share a room in a hotel. Most club owners will pay for the cost of accommodations, which is roughly $300 a month per girl. Cases have been reported however, in which the hotel fee was deducted from the girl’s basic salary. Total cost to the employer per girl for her six-month stint in his employ is some $5,300.

Massage Parlors

Found throughout the Greater Beirut area, massage parlors, or anti-stress centers, as they are euphemistically known, are technically legal and generate as a “sector” over $20 million per year. Generally clean and well-run, these operations employ some six to 12 mainly Lebanese or Filipino girls, who will give a regular 40-minute massage before offering the extra service. The massage usually costs $20, which goes to the house, while any extras, usually another $20 to $30, is kept by the masseuse, who will often cater to around seven customers per day. A few years ago a string of parlors was raided by police and closed down. Today this “problem” has been resolved and many of the best businesses openly advertise in the local press.

Girlie bars

This cottage industry, the closest you will get to a traditional brothel in Lebanon, generates revenues of roughly $6 million per year. There are about two-dozen in Hamra and Ain Mnreiseh alone, recognizable by the universal red light outside their door. The price of a drink is about the same as in your average club on Monot Street, but there all similarity ends. The madam will waste no time in asking you right away if you want to take one of the three or four (often mature) ladies employed in the bar to a quiet place upstairs or behind the bar. The police are paid off at a local level and the cost of full sex is about $50.

Call girls

The top end of the “adult entertainment” market is dominated by the fearsomely popular Lebanese call girls, who ply their trade in the hotels of Beirut and the Gulf countries. Many of the less ambitious operators advertise in the local press as dancers seeking employment or women looking for a marriage partner, but for the high-net worth clients, the local model agencies and pages of the glamour magazines (showing contestants at bikini contests etc.) are their tele-shopping heaven. In these cases, the agency will arrange a contact and take a cut. In this sense, their activities are indistinguishable from regular pimping. The girls, often aspiring singers or models, can earn up to several thousand dollars a night, more if they are requested (and agree) to travel on one of the regular weekend party charter flights between Beirut, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

The Freelancers

At the budget end of the market are those women who ply their trade at the street level. Still, they are a solid component of the industry and contribute around $4 million to the sector. They are generally Lebanese, Syrian or African and offer their wares mainly on Raouche and the Jounieh Highway, but they can be found all over Lebanon. They charge between $25 and $50.

Many women (and men) work out of cafés, especially in the BCD, and in collaboration with a waiter who acts as a middleman between the professional and the potential client. She will charge anything between $100 and $500. Given the nature of their work, it’s difficult to estimate how many women are on the game, but it is assumed the number is in the high hundreds.

Lebanon and the Lebanese: part of a global game

Early last month, former British model David Barnett, was sentenced to four years in jail for running a jet set prostitution racket of 40 men and women for rich Lebanese and Saudi businessmen, including members of the Royal family. Barnett was sentenced to four years in prison. Among his four accomplices was 31-year-old Lebanese Wissam Nashef, who helped Barnett to find prostitutes. Nashef was sentenced to three months in jail and had to pay a 3000 euro fine. During the trial Nashef admitted to having pimped for wealthy clients from Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. The global trade in women to work in the sex industry is estimated to be worth between $7 and $12 billion. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, Russia and Eastern Europe have taken over the role dominated by the Asians in the 1980s. An estimated 500,000 Russian girls, or “Natashas,” are working in the global sex industry today, as well as some 100,000 Ukranians and up to 100,000 Moldavians. An estimated 1,500 of them reside in Lebanon.

Keeping up with the neighbors

In Israel the situation is somewhat different. It’s estimated that every year some 3,000 women are smuggled into the country by the Russian mafia and sold for $3,000 to $6,000 each. According to a local media investigation, these unfortunate women work up to 12 hours a day, serving 10 to 15 clients for an average of some $30 a customer, of which the pimp takes up to 90%. In July 2001, the US State Department placed Israel on the black list of countries that do not meet the criteria for dealing with sex crimes.

Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Beirut since 1996.