Sex workers in Greater Tehran 2008


Azadeh Azad
by Azadeh Azad

The sex trade is a growing industry in Iran, especially in Greater Tehran. Yet, there is not much field research being carried out on this subject. The reason is twofold. First, the official discourse of the Islamic State in Iran continues to deny the existence of the sex trade in the country, which leads to unwillingness by various Islamic governments to bring up this subject or to initiate and support related research. Second, social researchers are facing many difficulties in undertaking research because of the above lack of support as well as the specific characteristics of this profession in Iran: its illegality and the harsh punishments that await arrested sex workers as well as its veiled and clandestine nature.

Sex workers, alongside other clandestine groups whose activities and even existence are considered undesirable in Iran, have tried more than ever to organise themselves and hide their activities from those who would subject them to punishment. This concealment has made it difficult for the researchers to do serious work on sex workers and find out about their working conditions, income and material gains, class composition, reasons for their being in the profession,their procurers, and social vulnerabilities that are related to their working conditions, etc.

However, recently a social researcher, Saeed Madani, has finished an extensive field research project on sex workers of the Greater Tehran. In two recent interviews he had with Bijan Barahmandi from Radio France International and Mehdi Afrouz-Manesh from Jebhe-Melli News, Madani spoke of his research.

It seems that after the Revolution, the few researches that were done on sex workers were limited to women and girls who were in prison or lived in Welfare Organisation’s re-training centres. That’s why they do not reflect the realities of these women’s lives and none of them are as good as Setareh Farmanfarmaian’s in 1969. The latter, one of the most outstanding social researches in Iran, is a comprehensive analysis of different patterns of sex trade and individual lives of sex workers.

Today, it is difficult, especially for a male researcher, to have access to sex workers and to gain their trust for collaboration, because of the hostile social norms and illegality of their profession. Nevertheless, Madani has succeeded in gathering a statistical sampling from sex workers of the Greater Tehran who were outside of prisons or re-training centres and active in their profession during the interviews.

According to Madani, the number of sex workers in Tehran has increased in recent years. Furthermore, the individual and family characteristics of the sex workers have changed over the past 40 years. In the past, the majority of sex workers belonged to the socio-economically poor or low-income families. In fact, the dominant image of a sex worker was that of a poor, illiterate, immigrant girl, trapped by an evil predator in Tehran. However, the recent research demonstrates a shift in the pattern.

The new socio-economic pattern shows that most of the sex workers (70%) are not immigrants, but women and girls who were either born in Tehran or have lived most of their lives, i.e., at least 17-18 years, in the capital.

Half of the sex-workers are in this profession for their survival, while the other half are women and girls who are trying to overcome their economic inequality and to reduce the gap between themselves and women in other socio-economic groups. They aim at having a better housing situation and a better life style in general.

In other words, on the one hand, these women are dissatisfied with their economic situation and on the other hand, they don’t see any normal or legal way to obtain a better life. For instance, they want to have a higher education, but have not succeeded in entering the State universities that are free. So, they engage in sex trade in order to pay for their tuition at Azad University. Here the motivation is not to escape from poverty, but to overcome inequality and injustice. The role played by the social class gap is more obvious in this group of sex workers than in any other.

Madani divides the sex workers of the Greater Tehran into three groups: 1) Sex workers from south of Tehran whose motivation is to satisfy their basic needs or even to have a place to sleep. 2) Sex workers from north of Tehran, or high-class sex workers, who have the power to decide their own working conditions, such as their fees and the type of clients. 3) All of the other sex workers whose conditions are in-between these two groups.

While the first group has to work under any condition, sometimes receiving several clients a day, the high-class sex workers possess all the tools to choose their clients, decide their fees and even say "No" to them if they wish. More clearly, the culture of sex trade is not much different than the society’s general culture. To illustrate this idea, Madani brings up the fact that part of the process of his data gathering coincided with the mourning month of Muharram. He states that they were, therefore, facing the intense diminution of sex workers’ activities across the city of Tehran, that these women were not working during this period, and that those who were working have said they would not be working if they could decide for themselves.

While in 1969 and the early 1970’s, most of the sex workers were women who were drawn to the profession after their "defeat in marriage," today one encounters a great number of single and married women among the sex workers.

The phenomenon of married women who enter the profession with the knowledge and collaboration of their husband is both complicated and painful, but does not follow a single pattern. There are addict husbands who first hook their wives and then force them into sex trade in order to pay for their own addiction. Then there are husbands whose low income does not cover the living expenses of their families; so their wives, with or without their knowledge, get involved in the risky business of sex trade.

The age of sex-workers has reduced. In our time, sex-trade begins at the age of 15 or 16 and stops at the age of 50. The sex workers’ median age has also reduced and younger age groups have joined the profession. In 1969, the median age of the sex workers was 31 years, while in 2008 Madani’s study has obtained a median of 26-27 years. The median length of doing sex trade in Tehran is 5 years, which leads us to the median age of 21-22 years as the age of entering the profession. If in the previous post-Revolution researches, the median age of entrance into the profession was lower, it is because the statistical samplings were taken from the Welfare Organisation’s re-training centres where always younger arrested sex workers are housed.

The traditional low education level of the sex workers has also changed. While in 1969, based on S. Farmanfarmaian’s research, over 90% of women sex workers in Tehran were either illiterate or with little education, in 2008 women sex workers of the Capital are more educated than ever. Over 90% of sex workers have some education, a majority have high school diplomas, a few of them have university education - some of whom have higher than Bachelor degrees, while only 5% of them are illiterate or with little education.

All of the above statistics demonstrate the presence of a relative awareness in women who are engaged in sex trade, which adds an element of choice to the perspective, making us forget about the myth of an immigrant, poor and illiterate girl who enters this profession out of ignorance and helplessness.

However, the traditional reasons for entering the profession still persist. In many cases, sex work is still the only way for many economically needy women and girls to have an income. With the increase in the unemployment rate, especially among women, they are facing a more difficult situation. According to Madani, some of the government policies, such as the recent "Family bylaw," also facilitate the process of making sex trade a legal and legitimate occupation!!

Madani invites us to forget about the image that most of sex workers suffer from some mental or personality disorders. These disorders are not higher among sex workers than the average in the society, although many studies show that girls who have been subjected to sexual abuse in the family, tend to be drawn to sex trade more than others. In the present study, 30% of sex workers admitted to have been a victim of sexual abuse in their childhood. In fact, family background plays an important role in the attraction to this profession. Another contributing factor would be the presence of a sex worker in the family or among friends!

It seems that the use of the new electronic media such as the Internet and mobile phone has made it easier for the sex workers to avoid being arrested. There are only two groups of sex workers that are frequently arrested: runaway girls who don’t have much experience, and women over 50 who, following rejection by their peer groups for losing their sex appeal, begin soliciting on the streets and become visible to the authorities.

There is an obvious judicial confusion regarding the illegal status of sex-workers. When arrested, their punishments range from a minimum of two months incarceration to a maximum of execution by stoning. The reason for this confusion lies in the fact that under the present Islamic regime, as in the pre-Revolution times, sex work as such has not been considered a crime. However, there are 17 to 18 offences that could be attached to the sex work.

There has not been much research on the male clientele of the sex work industry in any given society, and that is certainly true about Greater Tehran. However, in his study, Madani asked the sex workers about their clients and the type of men they are. One of them, a 38 year-old woman, divided her clients into six groups:

1) Men who are not sexually satisfied by their wives. 2) Men whose sexual needs are beyond their wives’ imaginings. 3) Young men who are in the beginning of their sexual experimentation and have friends who encourage them. 4) Men who are very rich and don’t know how to spend their money. 5) Men who don’t enjoy being with their families, but instead are pleasure-seekers devoted to their friends. 6) Men who pretend to be religious, forcing their wives to behave in a pious way and to remain sexually backward, having to go elsewhere themselves!

According to Madani, maybe this is not a correct classification, but it provides a comprehensive image of the clients.

The interviewed sex workers stated that over half of their clients are men between the ages of 30 to 50. The second age group is composed of young men between 18 and 29 years old. Most of their clients have high school and higher education, and over half of them are married.

As expected, sex workers had often a negative moral judgement against their clients. In some cases, when the surveyor mistakenly used the expression "prostitute" (roospi) in his questions, the sex workers objected to this term and said that the word rather befitted their male clients, especially the married ones. The researcher has intently avoided using the word "prostitution"(Roospigari) in his research, as it has a negative connotation for women. I am wondering if this is a lesson taught to him by these same sex workers.

Nevertheless, Madani refuses to use the expression "sex worker," which is used in today’s researches all over the world. He states that the use of this expression implies the legitimacy of this method of making a living that he doesn’t agree with, which in his opinion has its theoretic foundation in liberalism and libertarianism. So, he has chosen the words "body-selling" (Tan-Forushi) and "body-seller" (Tan-Forush) that seem more appropriate to him!

This leads me to the first problem I see in Madani’s approach. There are a lot of moralistic and arbitrary statements as well as complimentary comments towards the Islamic State in his interviews, unbecoming of a social scientist, which I have overlooked in my free translation and summary of his interviews. He adopts a religious and authoritarian outlook and treats sex workers as deviant women.

The second problem with Madani’s study is that he doesn’t seem to have included women who engage in temporary marriages or "sigheh" with men for a pre-determined and fixed period of time, from 10 minutes to 10 days to longer, in exchange for a fixed sum of money. These "marriages" automatically dissolve upon completion of their terms. There are no requirements of having a witness, a written contract or permission from authorities for this veiled form of sex trade that is sanctioned by the Shia Islam. This shortcoming probably derives from Madani’s own definition of sex work, which is to offer one’s sexual services in exchange for money or merchandise without religious or legal contracts.

The third problem is Madani’s lack of emphasis on sexually transmitted diseases, specially HIV virus and AIDS. The only time the researcher spoke of STDs was when he mentioned the case of some girls who, dreaming of getting married later on, accept "abnormal" sexual relations (read anal sex) in order to keep their hymen intact, but by the same token make themselves more vulnerable to catching an STD and/or AIDS. Otherwise, we don’t know whether the sex workers he has interviewed make their clients use condoms, whether any of them have regular health checkups, or what percentage of them have caught the HIV virus.

The fourth problem is Madani’s assertion that the great majority of the sex workers in Greater Tehran are NOT immigrants. In the light of the trafficking of women and children for sex trade, both nationally and internationally, the assertion that the great majority of sex workers of Greater Tehran are not immigrant women seems suspicious to me. Also, who are the minority immigrant sex workers? Aren’t there sex workers from Russia or the newly formed Persian-speaking republics? Over a decade ago, I met a few Russian sex workers in Tehran. Have they all suddenly disappeared?

Finally, what about procurers and traffickers? Saeed Madani is silent about them.

It seems to me that the above issues are much more important than Madani's self-serving praise of the Islamic government and his comment about the religiosity of the Tehrani population during the month of Muharram. The researcher has also failed, in his interviews, to announce the title of his study, the centre where it has been conducted and whether or not it has been published.


more from Azadeh Azad
persian westender

Conducting this kind of

by persian westender on

Conducting this kind of studies by a male researcher in IRI is novel and interesting. I’m still a little confused on whether this study is conducted under approval and supervision of authorities in Iran, or as independently? In any case, there could have been plenty of biases in this study. For example, the way that the researcher has approached the sex workers might have been problematic. Whether he is not mistaken as a client, or whether he is enough trusted by the sex workers is unclear. The way that he should introduce himself is very critical, because for the interview he simply should not be mistaken as an authority figure. This particularly could have been a problem with sex workers with lower SES who may have less familiarity with research and academic bodies. Although, he has not referred to particular centers for arrested sex workers, it can be implied that he has picked the subjects by the same manner that a client picks the sex workers! It is also possible that he could have access to particular groups of sex workers as there is no indication of random sampling. Obviously, he could not cover all the complicated and contextual issues related to prostitution. Has he in the first place indicated that what is his main goal of the study? If not, in my opinion, lack of the objective of the study is his biggest problem. Especially with the embryonic and newly-emerged field of this kind of studies in post-revolution, the researcher should clarify more sequential perspective of studies, and not addressing the whole characteristics of sex workers. If the data that he provides is credible, it is interesting to see that the trend of sex working with regard to SES is changing with more prevalence among the females of higher socio-economic status. This represents the altering the view of sex to a subject for fun. I’ve personally heard the stories of young male sex workers who are employed for providing sex to well rich single women with high payments in Tehran.

Anonymous Observer

Irandokht, Since You're the Comment Police

by Anonymous Observer on

No, not really.  The article speaks for itself.  Actually, my comment, if read more deeply, is a signal for Iranians to focus more on their own social problems than that of others.  As you can see, a well written article on a very important issue in Iran gets 11 comments (two of those from you and two of those from me).  But a video about a rock throwing Palestinian teenager being shot with a rubber bullet gets more than 200 comments....and therein lies the problem.  If Iranians paid more attention to their own problems rather than buying into the somke screen put up for them by the IRI to ignore what's going on from within, they would be in a much better position than they are now....and that's my point.


dear A. O.

by IRANdokht on

Do you have any comment for the blogger about her article?

I think Azadeh's effort in bringing us this very well written article deserves a lot better than the kind of comments you have left for her.


Anonymous Observer

Shazde Jan

by Anonymous Observer on

Man sange-Israel ra be sineh nemizanam.  My reference if to our resident Islamists on this site who portray Iran as sort of a utopia and blame everythng that happens in Iran in the "Zionist" and American, etc... bogeyman...that's all. 


During The Shah there were brothels

by Anonymous Iranian (not verified) on

During The Shah there were brothels and they were controlled by Health department and prostitution was limited to those brothels.Now prostitution is spread everywhere.The last I heard women who are working the streets go to cemeteries or Khomeini mausoleum looking for customers.


transgender sex workers

by sheyda (not verified) on


Shazde Asdola Mirza

moment Anonymous Observer jan moment

by Shazde Asdola Mirza on

Pedaram, to ageh ironi hasti behtareh ziad sangeh esrael be sineh nazani. On haroom zadeha tamome media poshteh sareshoneh, va man o to ro lazem nadaran keh jaishono bemaleh. Albateh "iron-e-eslami" yeh kharab shodeh hast, vali kheylish ham takhsireh hamon mozihast!


Interesting to say the least

by IRANdokht on

Azadeh jan

I agree with you about the shortcomings of the research done by Madani. There are so many issues regarding sex workers, as you mentioned sex trafficking is big even internationally and especially between Iran and the countries near Persian Golf, HIV and other STD's are much more important than how immoral an act these women are doing!

The poverty and unbreakable social class barriers have become such obstacles in today's society, how can anyone blame only the women? These women are victims even if they're not the illiterate dahatis that were brought to big cities by force. Didn't the fact that some of these women are forced to work by their husbands, make him realize it's not the women's fault?

Did his research talk about male prostitution at all?  how can anyone look at prostitution and its growth in a society if they do not include the alarming rates at which the male prostitution in IRI is growing?

Anyway, I wish someone with more of a social conscience would research this issue. 

Thanks for a very interesting post.



Azadeh Azad,

by Anonymous Reader (not verified) on

I applaud you for writing this blog.

The name most often used in Iran by ordinary people for prostitute is ‘gendeh’, which there is no mention of it here. I don’t understand how an extensive blog about the subject of prostitution could be written without mentioning ‘gendeh’, ‘gendeh baazi’, ‘gendeh khanateh’ and so on.

I do not like the term “sex worker”, however I can see that there exist many similar terms in English language such as: “textile worker”, "auto worker”, “industrial worker”, “shipyard worker”, “field worker”, and so on, but all these terms refer to a person who is engaged in some kind of production, so to speak. What does a ‘sex worker’ produce? There is no commodity, no production.

At least in American-English, there is a trend to use politically correct terms such as 'visually impaired' instead of blind, but ‘Kaargar-e Jenssi' does not seem like a term that is normally used in Iran. ‘tan forush’ and ‘khod forush’ on the other hand seems to be more reasonable since it readily indicates that one is engaged in selling one’s body. Did the surveyed prostitutes themselves indicate what they prefer to be called, rather than not to be called?

I would like to know where the 10 minute time for the minimum duration of act of ‘sigheh’ come from. According to ‘tozih ol masa’el’ by Khomeni it is as little as one hour, however, in my opinion, with some men it could be as little as 2 minutes.

There are some other minor errors with use of English language in this blog, but overall it is great.

Anonymous Observer

There Is No Such Thing

by Anonymous Observer on

It's all a Zionist fabrication.  There are no sex workers, drug addicts, criminals, street children, Basij patrols harassing women, unemployment, poverty, etc. in Iran....Iran is a completely free society and a utopia of freedom.  These are lies spread by enemies of Iran, espcially Zionists, neocons, etc... 



by Anonymous00110001 (not verified) on

Prostitution has been part of Islam from the beginning and it's called sigheh.


You don't say!

by LOL (not verified) on

Well I thought mullahs, or the reps of God on Earth had come to turn Iran into the envy of the Islamic world and a shining example of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad.