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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.

“They know why they’re here,” said the man whose family owns super nightclubs. “People know what coming to Lebanon means. The women lie to their parents about which country they’re coming to. A woman I know tells her family she is in Hong Kong.”

Super nightclub owners are also quick to point out that although the women may be selling their bodies, they’re making good money. If they spend two hours with three customers during their free time, and charge $100 per customer, they’re making $300 a day on top of their salary.

The super nightclub owner said he treated his artist employees well, and even bragged that it’s not unusual for a client to fall in love with one of the prostitutes. The owner boasts that 70 of his Lebanese customers have married women from his club. Lebanese General Security even has rules and regulations clarifying how long an artist must be remain outside the country in order to receive residency if she marries a Lebanese client (the rule is one year).

Toros Siranossian, a former super nightclub owner who represents the super nightclub industry to the Syndicate of Restaurants and Nightclubs, said super nightclubs are a dirty business, but says “Lebanon is not a church,” and justifies the super nightclub system by comparing it to the rest of the Arab world, where prostitution has no oversight.

“Here in Lebanon we closed the brothels, so now customers go to super nightclub[s] where they can take a woman out the next afternoon,” he said. “This is nothing. The most important thing is that the owner of the super nightclub doesn’t sell the woman.”

Siranossian said the government tightly regulates the sector, and thus protects the woman. Still, it appears that circumventing the law is relatively easy. Police corruption in Lebanon is nothing new, and several people acquainted with the industry interviewed for this article said that, at least in the recent past, law enforcement has often looked the other way if enough money is offered.

“The law was permitting us,” said the man whose family is involved in the super nightclub business. “When the police come, we’d pay a lot of money, and they’d forget everything for one week, two weeks,” he said “But they’re putting too much pressure now. They refuse to take the money.”

Others familiar with the super nightclub business say bribes, and connections to powerful politicians, make laws that regulate the super nightclubs hard to enforce.  

“The one who opens a super nightclub, for sure if he doesn’t have support at high level, it’s not easy for him,” said one person familiar with the prostitution business who didn’t want to be named. “If the [super nightclub] took this permission and they pay money, they can do what they want to do.”

Despite its seediness, the same person said the world of super nightclubs does appear to be a clean, transparent and well-regulated industry compared with the plight of street level and red light bar prostitutes in Lebanon. These women sell their bodies for anywhere from $2 to $30 for sex.

Hoda Kara, the director of an aid group that works with Lebanese and Arab prostitutes called Dar al Amal, says the law is unfair to Lebanese women caught working in prostitution. She says that if a foreign prostitute is caught in Lebanon, she will be deported. If a Lebanese woman is caught with a client in Lebanon, she will be arrested and put in jail. The client will be released.  

Kara says that especially during the summer and fall tourist seasons, prostitution at all levels of society continues to be a “very big business” in Lebanon.

“Because of the tourism here … there is demand,“ she said. “And when there is demand, there is supply, from these women who are very poor, who need money, who are not supported, because they don’t have another solution.”