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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.

The super nightclub owner said his club usually has between 15 and 25 artists working every night of the week. On average, 10 to 30 customers come in every evening. Most order Champagne.

“I usually make $10,000 to $12,000 a month in profit,” the owner said. But in the summer, with Lebanese expatriates back home along with visiting foreign tourists, he says he usually makes more, ranging from $15,000 to $20,000.

With 130 clubs in Lebanon, that is equal to about $23 million in profit for the small sector per year — and that’s only the legitimate revenue.  But the practice of restricting employees’ freedom of movement has led some to charge the super nightclubs are involved in human trafficking and forced sexual labor.

In 2007, the U.S. Department of State released a report stating that although prostitution was illegal without a license, Lebanon’s General Security gave “implicit consent” to the trade. The equivalent report from 2009 mentions Syria as a “transit country for Iraqi women and girls trafficked to Kuwait, the UAE, and Lebanon for forced prostitution.” It also lists Lebanon among those countries that are “a destination for men and women trafficking for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation.”

The Ministry of Tourism is responsible for licensing super nightclubs. Director General Nada Sardouk was willing to speak to GlobalPost but reluctant to address her ministry’s involvement in the seedy super nightclub sector, though she did express her libertarian approach to the taboo subject.

“[People] don’t have to go [to the super nightclubs] … it’s very simple. If you don’t want to see the sea, don’t go to the beach,” she said, as she recalled a trip to Amsterdam where police were handing out condoms to prostitutes in the streets.

Sardouk says she opposes any kind of child prostitution and sex tourism. And she says the aspect of nightclub owners locking the women in the hotel for hours during the day bothers her. But she excuses Lebanon’s archaic laws, which seem to violate widely accepted international standards of human rights.

“Personally, as I woman, I hate that, to be kept inside, under control, [but] this is the law,” Sardouk said. “If the woman signed the contract, and she’s aware about what she’s going to do and agree with this, then I cannot defend her if she agreed with this.”

Locking the women inside their hotels during certain hours is one way the authorities try to keep the industry tightly regulated, and Lebanon’s Directorate of General Security does commit a significant amount of man power to super nightclub law enforcement.

But given Lebanon’s other overriding problems it’s not surprising there would be loopholes and problems with the regulatory system of super nightclubs. The issue never comes up in either local or national politics, nor is it raised by Islamist groups like Hezbollah, probably because it is well away from their areas of popular support and control.

But the industry has serious issues. Another U.S. Trafficking in Person’s report that came out in June states that Lebanon’s General Security reported “47 complaints of physical abuse, rape, and withheld earnings of foreign women working in adult clubs in 2008.” The report said the complaints “may have involved conditions of involuntary servitude.” Most of the cases, the report says, “were settled out of court and the victims deported.”

Because the “artists” are deported, the reported cases of abuse may be far lower than actually occur in reality. The trafficking report goes on to say that it is not unheard of for “Women recruited for prostitution [in Lebanon] under its ‘artist’ work permit program [to be] summarily deported…if they complained of mistreatment.”

Because women are deported if there are problems, there is no advocacy group to help women working at the super nightclubs. But super nightclub owners say the accusations of human trafficking are unfounded.