Note from the author: This article was started before the massive attack by Azerbaijan on Artsakh. I respect the grief of the Armenian people, but also see the need to raise topics that are important for Armenia, and for this reason I wrote this article.
For 21-year-old Tigran*, his biggest fear as a sex worker is that he could be killed at any time when meeting with a client. Or that behind the profile of the woman with whom he corresponds, there may be a man hiding who can also kill him.
“There is a constant aura of fear. You are afraid that you will get sick, that you will be beaten or killed. It has a big impact mentally when you are forced to live in secret. So that someone doesn’t accidentally find out something about you, because sex workers are not accepted in society, especially male sex workers.”
As of 2023, sex work continues to be illegal in Armenia. As Arthur Margaryan, a lawyer for Right Side NGO, says, in Armenia, sex work is considered an offense according to the Administrative Offences Code. In particular, Article 179, paragraph 1, stipulates a fine of 20,000 AMD, approximately $50, for doing sex work (the law uses the word “prostitution”). There is no legal framework for sex workers in Armenia.
All of this contributes to an increase in the number of criminal cases against sex workers, who are currently members of one of the most vulnerable segments of society.
Christina*, a transgender woman and sex worker, also confirms that sex work in Armenia is dangerous.
“One time my client threatened me, beat me, fought with me,” she said. “Recently, my phone was stolen and the thief used it to log into Telegram and start ordering drugs. They still threaten me on Telegram. Since my family is not from Yerevan, they write to me from fake accounts and say that they will go and burn my family if I don’t send them money.”
Christina also admits that, unlike cisgender sex workers, she, as a trans person, faces discrimination much more often, which is confirmed by Tigran, who says that female sex workers are treated better than male sex workers.
However, discrimination and violence are not the only fears that sex workers in Armenia have (to clarify, the response from the Ministry of Health assumed only cisgender female sex workers). Under the state program, sex workers have the opportunity to undergo a free medical examination and be checked by doctors to prevent HIV infection. If a diagnosis is confirmed, they also receive free treatment.
But often, workers in the field fear for their health. According to Tigran, many sex workers delay treatment after contracting HIV because they do not have the necessary funds, and in hospitals, it is not free. Treatment is free only in case of an STI, or if you contact some NGOs and other public organizations.
As part of the project, I also spoke with a 31-year-old cisgender sex worker Lilith*, who admitted that she is forced to engage in sex work because her income from floristry is not enough to live and support relatives who have health problems.
Speaking about her health, Lilith focuses on going to a psychologist once every six months, because, in her opinion, “unloved,” stressful work (which for her is sex work) can drive a person “crazy.” Recalling her first experience in this field at the age of 24, Lilith said that she had to go to a psychiatric clinic after a year of work, and the rejection and impossibility of continuing to be in the profession was so strong.
“I couldn’t imagine myself in this, I didn’t like being touched,” Lilith said. “For about a year, I was constantly crying with clients. After that, I went to a psychiatric clinic and was treated there, because I was already starting to go crazy. And already working with a psychologist, I gradually began to enter the profession.”
She had not worked from then until last year, when, due to dire needs, she had to return to sex work.
According to all three respondents, sex work is paid quite well, and the monthly amount exceeds the average monthly salary in Armenia (all sources are located in Yerevan). For example, Tigran charges from $200 to $300 per hour, and if he met clients with the same frequency as other sex workers, he would earn approximately 200,000 AMD (approximately $500) per day. (For comparison, the monthly salary of a journalist can range from $500 to $750 in Yerevan).
Although each of them began the path of working as a sex worker for their own reasons, one thing was constant – they needed money.
By her own admission, Christina was at first gay, not a trans person. “Then I worked in a travel company, where I did translations from Persian into Armenian. When I became trans, I could no longer do this work because my friends and my environment at work no longer accepted me. They accepted me only as a gay man. But I needed money to live, for hormone therapy, to go to the salon.”
Tigran also came to the profession out of need. However, if Tigran and Lilith would happily stop sex work at the first opportunity if they found a stable job with decent pay, then Christina says that she likes her occupation and does not want to change. “This business,” she says, “allows you to combine pleasure and communication with different people, with good earnings.” She also likes the freedom of her schedule and the fact that she works for herself.
Lilith has a completely opposite opinion: “This job has no advantages. Even money, damned money, comes and goes. Yes, you can make money here, but this cannot be considered a plus, because you know that your inner world is being destroyed, your environment does not accept you, society does not accept you… And then you don’t know who you are dealing with. Anything can happen, you meet a person and you don’t know who he is, a murderer or a madman.”
Lilith makes a separate point that sex work is always humiliating, because the client invariably experiences visible disgust for the sex worker, no matter how hard he tries to hide it: “There is no one who would say, oh well, she earns as much as she can. The way things are, they think that since they paid the money, they can treat you however they want.”
And Tigran adds that it is the process of receiving money that is often the most traumatic: “You must be psychologically prepared for the fact that now you will go have sex with a stranger, and he will also give you money for it. This is a kind of stressful situation, because even if you like the person’s appearance and personality, the thought of him giving you money will be depressing. Not everyone can bear it.”
However, despite the obvious difficulties of this work, people still continue to do it and, according to all three respondents, there is enough competition. Of course, the clientele of trans people, men and women, according to Lilith and Christina, does not overlap, but Tigran’s experience is different. Since Tigran is bisexual and dates both men and women, he faces more competition. “Plus, after the Russian-Ukrainian war, many women and men engaged in escorting came to Armenia, and the number of them is off the charts in Telegram channels.”
But contrary to expectations, getting into sex work is not that easy. And, if from a moral side you can still set yourself up, as Lilith says, then from a purely technical side, people are faced with the fact that they do not know which social networks and platforms they can post on how to build a client base, or where exactly to work, such as in a hotel or at a client’s home. Among other things, says Tigran, you also need to be able to communicate competently with a client so that he notices you and chooses you, and Lilith adds that you also need to be able to find an approach to each client in order to avoid possible violence.
And the clients are completely different. Each of the three respondents reported that there is no specific type that constantly visits them. According to them, people with completely different professions come to them, from doctors to politicians and police officers. People with different financial statuses, of different genders, and different ages, as well as both single and married people. Lilith, for example, noted that married couples often call her, whom she, however, refuses.
Despite the fact that completely different people use the services of sex workers, and the demand for their services is truly great, nevertheless, people in the profession are not accepted in society. “Absolutely everyone goes to sex workers, the question is why, after using their services, do they speak out against them?” thinks Tigran.
He believes that this is the “Armenianization” and religiosity of society. “That is: It is not appropriate for an Armenian to engage in such things. But let’s be honest: They say, ‘your families are sacred.’ But the person who says this goes to sex workers and the amount that he could spend on his children and wife, he spends on a sex worker, betraying their wife and children. They say that this is unacceptable, that Armenians should not do such things, that we are spoiling children…”
It is worth noting that the Scandinavian model of working with this area criminalizes the demand for services itself, and not the services and workers as such. In Armenia, according to lawyer Arthur Margaryan, this, unfortunately, is impossible.
Interestingly, Lilith says, many clients prefer sex with a sex worker to sex with women with whom they could build relationships. “I asked many of my clients, and the vast majority of them answered that they were afraid of problems later. Girls who have sex without money are basically a problem. Someone may blackmail him about what she will tell his wife, someone is saying that you should marry me…”
“Everything comes from the family,” continues Lilith. “I recently watched on Facebook how several women were cursing and swearing at sex workers in some group, and out of curiosity I went to their pages. And on one of them, I found photographs of my client: It was her son who comes to do cunnilingus.” The children themselves are already quite promiscuous, Lilith believes, and adds that she would like society to be stricter in matters of sex, so that children do not lose their innocence so early.
“We also need to make schools stricter. And the army too. And institutions need to be made stricter for girls. They go through these three links, only then they reach a sex worker, a transgender person or a gay person. Let the children go through these three authorities first, and then let’s see if they reach gays, trans people and sex workers.”
The situation could change if sex work were legalized in Armenia, as this would provide an opportunity not only to work in the legal field, as lawyer Margaryan says, but also without fear of discrimination from the police, who can detain them for three hours at the police station to write up an arrest report, or, for example, beat them and cut off their hair.
Tigran says that he would like to work officially, including in order to pay taxes and count on free health insurance, the opportunity to receive treatment on time and a pension for old age.
However, as Armenia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said in response to our inquiry, there are no plans to legalize sex work in Armenia. The agency said they had no figures regarding the number of sex workers in Armenia, nor the number of cases of domestic violence involving sex workers.
* Tigran, Christina and Lilith are fake names used to cover the identity of the subject.
This article was made possible by a grant by RightSide NGO.