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Lebanon's sex industry: hidden in plain sight

Prostitution is legal in Lebanon, but the lack of licenses leads to charges of exploitation.

Editor's note: Some of Ben Gilbert's reporting in this story appeared first in Executive Magazine. Read that story here.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Twenty minutes north of Beirut, in the Christian heartland of Lebanon is Jounieh, the country’s little Las Vegas, where dozens of “super nightclubs,” Lebanon’s equivalent of strip clubs, line the main street. 

Inside one club, called Excalibur, a young woman from the Dominican Republic wore white denim-shorts cut just below the crotch, stiletto heels and a tight T-shirt that stopped just above her navel. She also wore braces on her teeth.

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She was in Lebanon legally, classified by immigration authorities as an “artist,” owing to the fact that she dances on stage at some point during the night. About 4000 Ukrainian, Russian and Moroccan women like her come to Lebanon every year to work in Lebanon’s adult entertainment industry, of which the estimated 130 super nightclubs in the country are a staple. 

Many Lebanese aren’t even aware that prostitution is legal in Lebanon. Licenses for brothels have not been issued since the 1970s. Now, super nightclubs fill part of the void, serving a middle-class and professional clientele in much the same way that escort services in North America and parts of Europe walk the thin line separating the sale of sex and the sale of social interaction.

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Social mores and cultural taboos make it more practical for men here to turn to prostitutes for casual sex rather than an extra wife.

“Lebanese girls take work,” said one super nightclub owner who agreed to speak to GlobalPost on the condition that his name not be used. “You have to take them out to dinner, meet their family.”

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“But the artists, the girls at the super nightclubs, you can meet them, take them out, go skinny dipping and have fun, and they aren’t so uptight,” he said.

The nightclub owner said most of his customers are Lebanese (they like blond women, he says), and older: He estimates 80 percent of his clients are between 50 and 60 years old.

“[The customers] like the company,” he said. “It refreshes their memory. Some are married. Some are divorced. Some don’t have partners. Some are shy. Some are lonely, and they come because they don’t know how to build relations.”

In order to speak with one of the female “artists,” a customer must order “Champagne” and select the woman whom he wants to have sit at his table. The Champagne has little to do with the bottle of alcohol that arrives: the term is merely super nightclub-speak for having one of the artists sit at a customer’s table for exactly an hour and a half. Champagne usually costs about $60 to $80 (the government adds a value added tax of 10 percent to all purchases).

Once the women are ordered, they arrive at the customer’s table, sit down and strike up conversation. Kissing is permitted in super nightclubs, as is light petting, but anything beyond that is strictly prohibited by law, and most clubs won’t allow it.

But with the purchase of the Champagne, a customer also purchases the right to make a “date” with the woman, supposedly with her consent, anywhere from the next day until seven days after the visit.

The “date” is often code for sex.

When I visited the super nightclub, posing as a customer, the young Dominican woman made clear what services she could provide beyond dancing and sitting with customers.

“Sex costs $100 for three hours,” she said bluntly, responding to a question, and leaving the way open for a transaction. “Talk to the manager if you want to set a date.”

The date can be set for any day between 1 p.m. and 8 p.m., when the girls have “free time.” Lebanese regulations say the women must be in the super nightclubs between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. Between 5 a.m. and 1 p.m., they must be in their hotels. This allows the police to keep the industry tightly regulated; it also allows the club owners to dominate the women’s lives and restrict their movement. 

To guard their investment, super nightclub owners keep a tight leash on their “product.” Club owners take their female employees’ passports, and it’s regular practice for owners to lock the doors of the hotel between 5 a.m. and 1 p.m.

One man, who frequents super nightclubs and whose family owns several, justified restrictions on the women’s movement thus: “We are restricting movement for our own benefit,” he said. “Maybe she has a boyfriend and he doesn’t have the money to go out. He’ll come and pick her up and we won’t get our $66 for Champagne. If you don’t control everything, you will lose money.”