Home          Index by subject          Blog          Editorial board          Publishing norms          About us          Contact us         


Being a transsexual woman sexworker in Ankara, Turkey: an ethnographic approach

This essay is based on an ethnographic field research carried out in December 2011-January 2012 over a period of 1 month in Ankara/Turkey on the lives and work of transsexual women sex workers.

By Ayse Sargin

That curious evening started with a text message from a friend of mine who used to be involved in Kaos GL, a leading LGBT rights organization in Turkey. For some time, I have been desperate to reach transsexual women working as sex workers for an ethnographic study based on semi-structured interviews, informal conversation and participant observation. As a result of a few phone calls, I had finally found the contact I was looking for. The text message contained the phone number of a transsexual pimp named Hikmet¹. I was excited. I called her immediately, told her about my research as well as my wish to meet with her. Her reaction was disappointing: “Oh honey, I can’t deal with this kind of intellectual rubbish, you will just be a nuisance for me. Besides I don’t have any time for this…” I insisted; I told her that I will not take her time at all, that I just wish to hang out with her for a while in order to talk and feel the atmosphere. She laughed and said: “All right then, let’s meet, you f.cking intellectual”. I got the address right away and fearing that she would change her mind, found a taxi as soon as I could.

When I reached the address in Gaziosmanpaşa, a posh neighborhood in Ankara, it was around 9 pm. A woman with a fancy mini dress who spoke Turkish with a Russian accent - who later became one of my informants for the study - opened the door of the apartment. She let me into the living room. The room was smoky and dim-lighted. The decoration of the room was no different from the decoration of a standard living room in the house of a mediocre Turkish family: a sofa with three seats, another sofa with two seats, two armchairs, a coffee table in the middle and at the other end of the room, a dining table and matching chairs. Hikmet, three transsexual sex workers and a male customer were sitting on the sofas and armchairs. As I entered the room, I smiled to everyone and sat timidly on the edge of one of the sofas. Hikmet smiled back at me and asked “So now did you come to work as a whore? Are you going to get f.cked as part of your study, tell me about it.” Everybody else was silent, looking at me, waiting for my answer. I gulped and opened my mouth while trying to come up with something to say. That is how the first interview for my fieldwork started.


Sex Work in Turkey
Prostitution is legal in Turkey. It is regulated under article 227 of the Turkish Penal Code of 2005. While sex workers are not criminalized, promoting prostitution as well as acting as an intermediary or providing a place for prostitution are crimes and intermediaries are punishable by two to four years of imprisonment. On the other hand, brothels are legal and licensed. In order to work in a brothel, a sex worker must be registered and acquire an ID card stipulating the date of her health check. The women working in brothels are subject to regular health checks.

According to a 2004 study by ATO (Ankara Chamber of Commerce) there are 100,000 sex workers in Turkey, which means that one out of 350 women in the country are working as sex workers. (“Türkiye’de Fuhuş Artıyor”, 2004). The study reveals that 3000 sex workers are registered in 56 brothels across Turkey while the rest are working illegally. The study claims that there are 30,000 sex workers waiting to get licenses in Istanbul, Ankara and İzmir. A 2011 article argue that this number has risen to 100,000 (Sussman, 2011). On the other hand, the government has become more and more unwilling to give new licenses in the last couple of years and some brothels are in fact demolished by local authorities in large cities such as Ankara and Bursa.

In Turkey, sex workers’ ages range from 15 to 40. Recently, there are concerns that child prostitution involving children below 15 is increasing (ECPAT International, 2008). According to the ATO study, the prostitution sector has a turnover of 3 to 4 billion US dollars and a vast amount of population with diverse professions ranging from brothel and hotel owners to taxi drivers earn their living in prostitution sector. Although existing statistics do not specify their exact numbers, a considerable number of the sex workers in Turkey are non-Turkish (from former Soviet Union countries) women born with women genitalia² and Turkish transsexual women.

Street sex workers, most of which are transsexual women, are regulated through Article 32 of the Law of Misdemeanors. There have been complaints that the police is using the Law of Misdemeanors to arbitrarily and unfairly fine transsexual sex workers in order to drive them away from the streets (“Çapkın'dan İstanbul Polisine ‘Travestiyi Eve Hapsetme’ Bonusu”, 2009).


The History of Transsexual Sex Work in Turkey
The first time I heard about transsexual women sex workers was when I was in my late teens. In the 1990s, transsexual sex workers’ confrontation with the police was one of the most popular news stories on evening news. The dramatic scenes of the cops chasing transsexual sex workers on highways in Ankara and Istanbul and them cursing at the police or the TV crew were commonplace with the notorious subtitle reading “transvestite terror”. In these news stories the word “transsexual” was used interchangeably with “transsexual sex worker” and “transvestite” was used to refer to transsexuals who did not have a sex reassignment surgery.

Although transsexual women sex workers became visible for the wider public with these one-sided, stigmatizing news stories of the 1990s, transsexual sex work in Republican Turkey dates back to the 1970s. In those years, transsexual sex workers were living and working in Abanoz Street, a street famous for whorehouses in Beyoğlu neighborhood of Istanbul. There were transsexual women sex workers from neighboring countries working in that street, as well. Belgin Çelik, who is a former sex worker and a current transsexual rights activist, likens the street to the “red light district” of the Netherlands (Çakır & Kocadost, 2008).

Transsexual women sex workers had relative peace and security vis-à-vis the police and potentially violent customers in Abanoz Street in the 1970s. Health controls were frequent and in raids the police just checked on whether the workers had their health controls regularly. At the end of 1970s, Abanoz Street was closed down and transsexual sex workers had to move to Dolapdere, a nearby district in Beyoğlu. After the coup d’etat of 12 September 1980, business in Dolapdere ended as well with the announcement of a curfew by the military. In the first days of the coup d’etat, the houses of transsexual sex workers were raided and they were first taken into custody, later put on trains and exiled to nearby cities (Çakır & Kocadost, 2008).

Ülker Street in Beyoğlu became the Abanoz of the 1990s for transsexual women sex workers. Around 100 of them lived and worked on that street until they were ousted - as a result of intense pressure which most of the time involved open violence - by the collaboration of the neighborhood dwellers and the police in 1996. (Selek, 2007). A similar outright violence was directed at the transsexual women sex workers living in Eryaman district of Ankara in 2006, leading to their exile from the district (“Eryaman’da Travesti ve Transeksüellere Sistemli Şiddet,” 2006).

Belgin Çelik compares the 1970s and the 2000s in terms of the visibility of transsexual sex workers as follows:

"We existed back then too, but because we were not visible, people did not “see” us. Today everybody says that the LGBTI individuals appeared suddenly. I laugh at this…Because those days we did not have the courage to be on the street. We lived and worked behind walls.” (Çakır & Kocadost, 2008).

Since the 1980s, transsexual women sex workers have been subject to systematic pressure and harassment from public authorities. Increasing visibility starting from the 1990s, let alone bringing legitimacy, on the contrary, meant increasing pressure, stigmatization and violence by the public, media and public authorities including the police. Between 2008 and 2012, ten transsexual women sex workers have been murdered and many of them have been beaten up either by their customers or neighborhood mobs.

Today, transsexual women sex workers mostly live and work in a dispersed fashion in large cities of Turkey including Ankara and İstanbul, open to mistreatment, arbitrary detention and unfair fining on the basis of the Law of Misdemeanors, as well as to lethal violence.


In the Field
The aim of this study is simple: to understand what it means to be a transsexual woman sex worker, the complexities of gender and sexuality involved and the operational dynamics of transsexual sex work. The study is based on an ethnographic fieldwork that involves semi-structured interviews, informal chats extending to “hanging out together, drinking and making small talk” as well as participant observation involving a number of transsexual sex workers and some other business-related individuals around them such as taxi drivers, bar owners and a bodyguard in Ankara over a period of 1 month in December 2011-January 2012.

Hikmet was my first contact through whom I reached her transsexual women sex worker friends, one leading to the other. I met with all of my transsexual women sex worker informants (totaling 8) in their homes more than a couple of times. We drank and chatted over almost everything ranging from politics to sex, while I managed to turn some of these chats into semi-structured interviews on the specificities of their work life and customers. The ages of my transsexual women sex worker informants ranged from 25 to 45; they were born in various parts of Turkey as diverse as Sivas in Central Anatolia and Artvin in Northeastern Turkey. They were involved in sex business for 5 to 25 years. Most of them had secured a more or less good standard of life: all lived in relatively expensive parts of town such as Ayrancı and Gaziosmanpaşa and some had cars. All of them knew that I was carrying out a fieldwork: some learned from the start, others during the course of time. In a visit to Hikmet’s house, I also had a chance to talk with a biologically female sex worker from Russia and her male customer which gave me further insight into the dynamics of sex work in general.

Other than house visits, I twice went to two popular LGBTI bars for observation and had a chance to talk with the bar owners in the bar, as well as with the taxi drivers working in the area on the way back home. I also once took a taxi and asked the driver to go back and forth on the street in central Ankara - where transsexual women street sex workers populated - in order to observe the sexual transactions on the street. One of the most interesting informants I had was a transsexual man who used to work as a bodyguard for transsexual women sex workers. He was very useful in filling the gaps that the transsexual women sex workers left because they refrained from talking about or simply missed.

I attempted to use a voice recorder in my first interviews, but I had the impression from the start that this highly disturbed all of my informants. Transsexual women sex workers felt personally uncomfortable and unnatural with the presence of a tape recorder; one said “Girl, what is this? I feel as if I am put into a laboratory to be scrutinized.” Taxi drivers and bar owners were equally uncomfortable with the voice recorder fearing that I might be a snitch or a journalist. Instead what I did was, during the long chat and interviews in houses and bars, I took regular short breaks and went to the bathroom to sit down and take notes which proved to be extremely valuable sources while I was writing this paper.

The informal chats and the semi-structured interviews I had with my transsexual women informants and in fact the study itself, by and large, revolved around the issues of gender, sexuality, work life, customers and relations with the police. Talks with the taxi drivers and the transsexual male bodyguard gave me an additional insight into the work life and environment of transsexual sex workers. Despite the fact that the contributions of all my informants were indispensable for me, I will mainly quote and refer to only three of them by their names throughout the text, Hikmet, Cansu and Deniz: Hikmet, my first contact who is a 37-year-old transsexual woman sex worker and a pimp; Cansu a young transsexual woman sex worker aged 25 and Deniz who is an 35-year-old transsexual man who used to work as a bodyguard for many transsexual sex workers in Ankara for 7 years. Since the study was mainly on transsexual women sex workers, this paper does not cover the experience of being a transsexual man in Turkey, but my chats with Deniz was very mind-opening to get a grasp of transgenderism in general.

Although it might have been interesting to do an interview with the police, I deliberately chose not to. The circle of transsexual sex workers is naturally narrow for reasons of security and solidarity and the news of my communicating with the police, the arch enemy of transsexual sex workers, would spread very quickly arising doubts about my aims and presence among them endangering my whole relationship with the entire community of transsexual sex workers. Moreover, the short but intense period of proximity I had with the transsexual sex workers I contacted throughout the fieldwork created a curious sense of empathy and solidarity in me; I would feel that I was betraying my “friends” if I went ahead and interviewed the police in a cold-blooded or “objective” fashion as if I was not listening from my “friends” the day before how the same police beat up and arbitrarily detained them. Talking to the police for purposes of “objectivity” or attaining a more “balanced” account of the “reality” would turn the transsexual sex workers I made friends with over a period of one month into ordinary “objects of study” along with others.

The fieldwork experience is put forward below in three distinct but interrelated sections, respectively “Gender and Sexuality”, “The Work” and “Security and Activism”. The headings are self-explanatory: the first section below is an account of the perception of gender and sexuality among transsexual women sex workers, while the second section describes the operational dynamics of sex work. Most of my informants were also transsexual rights activists and their story of becoming activists is closely entangled with their increasing loss of sense of security over the years. The section entitled “Security and Activism” below brushes on the issue of security in the business, relations with the police and rights activism for survival.


Gender and Sexuality
In Turkey, in popular language, “transvestite” refers to the males who dress and act like women but who have not had a sex reassignment surgery, while transsexuals are considered as the males who are transvestites with surgery. This categorization was also embodied by the mainstream media in the 1990s’ news stories on “transvestite terror”. “Transvestite” and “transsexual” in popular language exclusively refer to male-to-female transsexuals, while female-to-male transsexuals are almost assumed to be non-existent. During the fieldwork, it turned out that all my informants refused this classification made on the basis of surgery. They argue that what is determining one’s gender is not having a sex reassignment surgery or not; one is a woman as long as one feels as a woman - which they do. They all refer to themselves as “trans” or “trans woman”, while referring to individuals who are born with women genitalia as “biologically females”. Only one of my informants used the words “transsexual woman” interchangeably with “faggot” when referring to herself.

Hikmet hates it when a customer prefers women born with women genitalia to her. “I had to leave my mother, my religion, my culture, my education, my profession, my friends just to be a woman. Those who are born biologically female never pays any of these prices.” Being a transsexual is being an “alien”. Hikmet’s business partnership and later close friendship with the Russian biologically female sex worker - whom I met in Hikmet’s house - started when in their first encounter she described herself as a “transsexual” just like Hikmet, meaning that she is an alien to her family back in Russia and to the police and state in Turkey, just like a transsexual is an alien in the eyes of her family, police and the state.

Most of the transsexual women sex workers are unwilling to go through a sex reassignment surgery not to lose their customers, while some openly say that they are perfectly happy with the way their bodies are. One revealed that she does not want to lose her penis, as she reaches orgasm through her penis. She also added that she is scared of losing her reproductive capabilities when she goes through a sex reassignment surgery.

Cansu vividly describes how being a transsexual women sex worker contains the painful irony of “f.cking men to be a woman” and using the “blessings of male strength to protect their female body” on the streets. Streets are dangerous and you have to show your physical strength to scare off hobos, money-demanding drug users or potentially violent male customers. Transsexual women sex workers are forced to physically fight like “men” when circumstances require in order to “preserve their womanhood”, their identity and lives on the streets. Thus, transsexual women sex workers take to the streets as “women” but survive on the streets as “men”.

What makes traditional gender classifications more frustrating for transsexual women is that not all of them are heterosexual. For instance, Hikmet is a bisexual transsexual woman meaning that she not only has sex with men but also women. She complains about how bisexual women born with women genitalia she hooks up with expect her to assume the “manly”, assertive and harsh sexual behavior traditionally expected of men in bed.

One thing that stroke me throughout the whole fieldwork experience was the fluidity of genders and sexualities in the lives of transsexuals and in sex work involving transsexuals. All of the transsexual women sex workers I talked with told me how they engaged in various sexual activities with their customers overriding the traditionally accepted heterosexual sexual hierarchies involving an active penetrating man and a passive penetrated woman. When I asked Cansu the reason why she referred to herself as a “faggot” in one of our chats, she said: “I don’t know what I am really. When customers demand, I have sex with men and women. Sometimes they penetrate me, sometimes I penetrate them. What am I, what is my gender? I don’t really care. I don’t say I am of this sex; I just say I am a human being.”

Hikmet considers herself an anarchist and an antimilitarist activist. She argues that what made her a political activist is her transsexual identity. According to Hikmet, being a transsexual allows her to refuse all the roles assigned to individuals by the society, including gender roles: If I were not a transsexual, I would have assumed traditional male or female roles. Man f.cks, and cheats on his wife. Woman gets f.cked and cooks for the man. This is what I saw from my mother and father. If I were not a transsexual, I would have been an average guy with an average profession and perhaps with conservative leanings. Being a transsexual gave me the chance to step out of these pre-assigned roles.

The Work
Unlike biologically female sex workers, almost all transsexual women sex workers are their own bosses; they work on their own without any intermediaries or pimps. There are also very few transsexual women pimps, Hikmet claiming to be the only one in Ankara. Hikmet pimps young transsexual women as well as women born with women genitalia like the Russian sex worker that I have met. She receives half of their earnings per customer in return for paying for their internet ads, as well for paying the rent, electricity and water of the “koli house”. (Those transsexual sex workers who can afford it rent two apartments: in one of the apartments they live, in the other they work. The second type of apartments is called “koli houses”; “koli” meaning “f.ck” in “Lubunca”, the secret language that transsexuals use among themselves.) Hikmet says that there are not many transsexual women pimps working with biologically female sex workers, as they mean competition which she cannot afford - as she herself works as a sex worker from time to time as well.

Customers get into contact with transsexual women sex workers in a number of ways. They may pick up the sex workers wandering on certain parts of the town at night usually during the weekend, or meet with them in person in bars or get their phone numbers from contacts like taxi drivers or bar owners. The major districts where transsexual women street sex workers populate are Hoşdere Street in Çankaya, Köroğlu Street in Gaziosmanpaşa, Etlik, İskitler, Batıkent and Eryaman. They have been driven away from Cinnah Street in Çankaya and Küçük Esat district over the years because of systematic police harassment. There are no socio-economic criteria in the choice of these districts, as they say that customers come from all socio-economic backgrounds. Basically, transsexual women street sex workers are everywhere across Ankara as long as they are not facing any harassment or organized violence in the district they work in. In recent years, internet has also become an important medium of direct communication for customers and transsexual women sex workers. Many transsexual women sex workers open up websites where they post their pictures and contact information for potential customers.

Bars are also one of the major meeting places for customers and transsexual women sex workers in person. There are two main bars in Çankaya which are famous for being “as gay-transsexual bars”. There are few women born with women genitalia in these bars; the overwhelming majority of women are transsexual and males coming to the bar are potential customers of transsexual women sex workers. Both bars open their doors around midnight during the weekends and stay open until early in the morning. The dance floor is mainly where the customers and workers meet. Simply what happens is that the potential customer comes up to a transsexual woman, they start to dance and get physically close while at some point one of them offers sex and when they agree on it, they talk about the price.

The sex occurs on the street in a car, in the sex worker’s house (her own house or her “koli house”) and rarely in a hotel. If the sex worker has known the customer for long, they may also go to his house but this is again rare. The car option comes up only when the sex involves merely oral sex or when the sex worker is not at all comfortable about taking the customer to her house. If the sex worker does not have a car but the customer does, they either do the sex in the customer’s car or in the worker’s house. If both have a car, both drive to the sex worker’s house to have sex or the worker gets in the car of the customer for a short period of time for sex.

The bar owners I have talked to mentioned about a few instances when they saw transsexual woman sex workers and customers having sex in the bathrooms of the bar but they added that these were rare and they did not allow such events to occur in their premises. The bar owners were extremely careful on talking about this issue as providing a place for prostitution is illegal according to the Turkish Penal Code. The taxi drivers and bar owners mentioned nothing about getting a commission when they provided the phone numbers of transsexual women sex workers to potential customers, probably not because of fear of breaking the Penal Code, but simply because transsexual women sex workers prefer to work on their own without any intermediaries.

The prices transsexual women sex workers charge for an hour of sex range from 30 to 150 Turkish Liras. There are no fixed prices; the neighborhood the sex worker is doing her business, the socio-economic status of the customer and the financial condition of the worker most of the time determine the specific price in each transaction. The more posh the neighborhood is and the wealthier the customer is, the higher is the fare. If the sex worker has a relatively stable financial situation, then she has more chances of setting a standard price for her services and selecting customers. While the younger transsexual women sex workers are demanded more and thus would be more likely to set a higher price, they are also the most vulnerable as newcomers to the sector with no stable and secure income. There is no age limit to working as a transsexual sex worker. I have been told that there are women over 60 who are still active in the business. Most of my informants pointed out that there has been a general decrease in the prices in the recent years as a result of the rising entry of newcomers (both women born with women genitalia and transsexual women) into the business.

Number of customers vary as well. It depends on the age of the sex worker, the prices she charges and the personal limits she sets to herself. Both Hikmet and Cansu told that they may have sex with up to 25 customers a day when they need money. The average number was 5 on a regular day. Other informants agreed to the maximum number being 25, but for some the average number was lower and for some higher. Thus, it is impossible to determine the average number of customers that applies to all transsexual women workers. On some days, Hikmet and Cansu do not work at all. All of my informants said that the days transsexual women sex workers are most busy are Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays.

An overwhelming number of customers are males. Men of almost all ages (ranging from 18 to 60), all professions and socio-economic backgrounds are customers of transsexual women sex workers. Most of the middle-aged ones are married with children. When I asked about the customer profile, Cansu laughed and said: “Profile? There is no profile. Any one gentleman or lady that you see on the street can be our customer”. Most of the male customers want to be anally penetrated while some anally penetrate the worker. Cansu describes the proportion as follows: “If I sleep with 15 men a day, I penetrate 10 of them while 5 of them penetrate me.” Some of the transsexual women sex workers I talked with argued that these men are not gay at all, as they are outraged at the idea of being penetrated by a man. “They just want to have sex with a woman who happens to have a penis.” explains Hikmet. Others claimed that these men were “undisclosed gays” afraid of confronting their sexual identity and feel less guilty when they have sex with individuals with a penis who have the physical appearance of a woman. According to Deniz, a transsexual man who worked as a bodyguard in the houses of transsexual women sex workers between 1999 and 2006, customers who are “undisclosed gays” are the ones most prone to turn violent after sex. He argues that these men, when they realize that they had let a “penis” penetrate them, they attack the owner of that penis in feelings of shame, guilt and anger. Transsexual women sex workers rarely have biologically female customers. They are usually the wives of the male customers who request the sex workers to have vaginal sex with their wives while they are watching.

Although I tried to get hold of one of the male customers of Cansu and Hikmet, I was not successful. Both told me that the men suspected that I was a journalist and that I might uncover their “secret sexual identity”. So all the information I have of the customers is based on the perception of my informants. It appears that a longer period of fieldwork is necessary to build trust in male customers of transsexual women sex workers.

On the other hand, the male customer whom I met in Hikmet’s house and who apparently has sex with only biologically female sex workers, was keen on talking about his involvement in the sex business as a customer; he almost bragged about how he regularly meets with Hikmet and other pimps to “try” every newcomer into the business. For him, who was a 50-year-old man “happily” married with 5 kids for over 20 years, Turkish women are as clumsy and awkward as “construction workers” in bed and in fact it is his wife who “pushes” him towards sex workers by her incapability to satisfy him in bed. He is a regular customer of the Russian sex worker that Hikmet pimps and a bunch of other biologically female sex workers sold by some other pimps. During the conversation, he boasted a couple of times about how the women in his life had never been enough for him since his youth, implying his sexual power. On the other hand, he strictly refuses the idea of having sex with a transsexual woman, arguing that only a “faggot” does that. It seems that men who are customers of biologically female sex workers are more open to talk about it, as it is seems “natural” and a sign of powerful manhood for a heterosexual man to have sex with a woman born with women genitalia – even she is a sex worker. On the other hand, having sex with a transsexual woman is nothing to be declared publicly and bragged about, particularly when it is thought that sex with a transsexual woman most of the time involves or may involve anal penetration of the male customer by the transsexual woman sex worker.

Almost all the transsexual women sex workers and the Russian biologically female sex worker I talked with said that it is impossible to engage in sex business without using alcohol or drugs. So, many of my informants are drug users. For Cansu, it is a “traumatic experience to sleep with 20-30 men a day”. Her biologically female colleague agreed with her: “Sex work makes your body extra-sensitive. Alcohol and drugs desensitize you, making the work more tolerable.”

Security and Activism
Security is one of the main issues in sex business. The dark streets, shabby bars and intimacy with total strangers poses a threat to everyone involved: the customers, the sex workers, taxi drivers and bar owners. Even I had my share of this sense of insecurity: each time I visited a house of one my informants or went to a bar, I gave the addresses to a close friend of mine and made her call me in regular intervals to make sure that I was safe and sound. The taxi drivers that I talked with warned me over and over again about being careful wandering in transsexual bars and going in and out of the houses of transsexual sex workers, since “some of those guys [transsexual women sex workers] are unstable; all of a sudden they turn aggressive and threaten you with a knife”.

Ironically enough, although transsexual women sex workers are stigmatized as “terrorists” by mainstream media and the wider public they are the ones who are the most vulnerable: since 2008 many transsexual women sex workers are murdered and the ones who are yet safe and alive are increasingly losing their sense of security, as violence again transsexual women sex workers are continuing to be on the rise. We are talking about basic, most vital security issues here: not being stabbed by your customer in your own home or beaten to death by homophobic mobs on the street.

Hikmet describes the loneliness of the transsexual woman sex worker in the street as follows: “On the street, in the middle of the night, it is only you, hobos, drug addicts, police and - if you are lucky enough – god.” Most transsexual women sex workers carry with them knives or pepper spray to protect themselves on the streets. On the surface, home appears a relatively safer place to engage in sex work for transsexual women sex workers compared to the streets. However, the workers are subject to lethal threats in their homes as well. Deniz tells about a number of instances when they had arguments or physical fights with the customers. Deniz makes sure that the customer sees him when he arrives in the house of the worker. While the sex worker and the customer engage in sex in the bedroom, Deniz waits in the living room and sees the customer off after he pays the price. Deniz was once stabbed by a customer who, after leaving the house following the sex, came back with a friend of his to demand his money back from the “faggot”. When there are threatening situations, Deniz and the transsexual woman sex worker he protects sometimes resort to “Lubunca”, their secret language.

The police pose almost the same level of threat to transsexual women sex workers as do the violent male customers. Arbitrary detentions, round-ups and torture in police stations were always a reality for transsexual women sex workers since the 1980s. The 1996 Ülker Street and 2006 Eryaman District events were two prime examples of extensive homophobic mob violence directed at transsexual women sex workers organized within particular neighborhoods where transsexuals populated the most, with the police turning a blind eye on the violence and discrimination.

Starting from the 2000s, the police put to use a new instrument that turned out to be just another way of harassment for transsexual women sex workers: Law of Misdemeanors. On the basis of the Article 32 of the Law, the police can inflict a fine on any transsexual woman on the street, regardless of whether she is going to the grocery store or to a friend of hers, based on the assumption that all transsexual women standing or walking on the streets are involved in prostitution. This arbitrary use of the Law of Misdemeanors not only further contributes to the stigmatizing of transsexuals, but also force them to stay in sex business in order to pay the fines.

It is interesting that safety against sexually transmitted diseases is not an issue for most transsexual women sex workers that I talked with. They say that they have considerable bargaining power with their customers regarding condom use and most refuse sex if the customer does not put on a condom. The transsexual women sex workers that I met with are very critical of the increasing number of projects on raising awareness on sexually transmitted diseases. They argue that these projects mainly target transsexuals and gays rather than biologically female sex workers, further denoting transsexuals and gays as “other” and contributing to their stigmatization. Hikmet says that “transsexual women know how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases unlike the biologically female sex workers”. She adds: “We used to have boxes of condoms in our cars and houses when no one ever heard of condom use in Turkey”.

Increasing loss of security among transsexual women sex workers over the years in the face of lethal violence and police harassment led them to organize for their rights to life and freedom from violence. Pembe Hayat³ (Pink Life) LGBTT Solidarity Association established in 2006 is the fruit of the pursuit of transsexual women sex workers for their rights to survival and recognition, in the aftermath of the Eryaman exile in Ankara.

Many transsexual women sex workers I talked with are somehow affiliated with Pembe Hayat. They say that organizing under Pembe Hayat, discussing about gender and sexual identities as well as learning their rights against the police in workshops conducted in not only raised their confidence and strength, but also their sense of empowerment and security. Since now they know their rights, Hikmet says “I am not afraid of the police. They are afraid of me, of my statement in the police station, in case they get into trouble with the courts for mistreatment.” As Deniz succinctly reveals: “When you come out as a transsexual, that is when the problem starts. As long as you are hidden, everything is fine. It is not the sexual orientation that is the problem. The identity is the problem because it is visible.”

Activism provides both a refuge and a platform for solidarity for those transsexual women who challenge not only the traditional gender roles but the so-called moral values of the society banning sex for money, by coming out and being visible as a transsexual woman sex worker.



1. The names of the individuals cited within the scope of this study are changed in order to protect their privacy.

2. Throughout the essay, I use “women born with women genitalia” interchangeably with “biologically female”.  

3. Further information on the association may be obtained from their website: http://www.pembehayat.org 



Çakır. B., & Kocadost, B. (2008, September 7). 12 Eylül Treninde Transseksüellerin Adı Hiç Anılmadı [Name of Transsexuals not Mentioned when Remembering Coup d’Etat of 12 September 1980]. Bianet. Retrieved from http://bianet.org/biamag/biamag/109982-12-eylul-treninde-transseksuellerin-adi-hic-anilmadi

Çapkın'dan İstanbul Polisine ‘Travestiyi Eve Hapsetme’ Bonusu [Bonus to Istanbul Police for ‘Trapping the Transvestites to Their Houses’]. (2009, September 18). Radikal. Retrieved from  http://www.radikal.com.tr/turkiye/capkindan-istanbul-polisine-travestiyi-eve-hapsetme-bonusu-955056/

ECPAT International. (2008). Global Monitoring Report on the Status of Action Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: Turkey. Thailand: ECPAT International.

Eryaman’da Travesti ve Transeksüellere Sistemli Şiddet [Systematic Violence to Transvestites and Transsexuals in  Eryaman]. (2006, May 3). Kaos GL. Retrieved from http://www.kaosgl.com/sayfa.php?id=113 

Selek, P. (2007). Maskeler, Süvariler, Gacılar. Ülker Sokak: Bir Alt Kültürün Dışlanma Mekanı [Masks, Cavaliers and Gacis. Ülker Street: A Place for Marginalization of a Subculture]. İstanbul: İstiklal Kitabevi 

Sussman, A.L. (2011, August 19). Diming the Red Lights in Turkey. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/dimming-the-red-lights-in-turkey.html?_r=0

Türkiye’de Fuhuş Artıyor [Prostitution is Increasing in Turkey]. (2004, July 18). NTV, Retrieved from http://arsiv.ntv.com.tr/news/278844.asp?0m=S11Y





Ayse Sargin

Ayse Sargin has a B.Sc. in International Relations and an M.A. in Political Science. She is a feminist activist who has written extensively on gender-based violence, gender equality and politics in Turkey since the mid-2000s. Ayse is also involved with the environmental movement. Currently, she is pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Essex in the UK. Her research focuses on the interplay of ethnic and political identities in grassroots resistance to dams across Turkey.



BronislawMagazine of provocative open-ended anthropological debate

Who are we? Bronislaw is an online magazine of new anthropological thought and debate. Our main purpose is in one hand to help disseminating anthropological research to a broader public, but in so doing, also to create a space where anthropologists can go beyond the limited frames of academic publishing and allow themselves to develop thoughts and questions that have arisen during research, to broaden fieldwork-based reflections, to expose developing ideas to community debate, or even to join into other contemporary anthropological debates by replying to essays published here or elsewhere.

The magazine

Previous editions


Editorial board

Our collaborators

Authors (soon)

Collaborate with Bronislaw

Publishing norms

Contact us