How was prostitution and escort jobs in the Ottoman Empire?
Prostitution, including escort jobs is the oldest profession worldwide, but when it comes to Ottoman times very little is known - not just because little research has been done on it. While marriage, divorce, slavery and adultery are extensively regulated in Ottoman customary law and Muslim law, the sharia, prostitution is not. Moreover, researchers are inclined to complain that cases cited in Ottoman records are often not specific enough to determine whether a complaint of “immorality” actually involves prostitution or any kind of adult job.
Prostitution wasn’t confined to one place at this time, but could be seen throughout Istanbul.
The beginning of escort jobs and prostitution throughout Istanbul
In the 19th century, meyhanes (taverns) opened in many places throughout Istanbul, from Yenikapı to Hasköy and from Beyoğlu/Galata to Kadıköy. Usually the servants in these places were beautiful young boys, although the entertainment might be provided by women dancing and singing (today's strippers).
By this time trafficking in women from the Balkans was well established in Istanbul, with gangs recruiting and circulating women who worked as escorts or prostitutes through a number of destinations such as Izmir and Trieste. Foreigners were granted permission to work out of whore houses in certain areas while Muslim women were technically forbidden from engaging in prostitution and escort work. However, the latter were known to be operating in houses in Muslim districts such as Aksaray with the full knowledge of neighbors.
Various consulates took an interest in “rescuing” any woman who was underage if her family requested their aid. The consulate most frequently engaged in this activity was that of Austria.
The Turkish police tended to not interfere in what was happening to foreigners and this message soon got through to the various traffickers who then acquired Turkish citizenship so that they would have the protection of Turkish law vis-à-vis the foreign consulates.
Young boys, men and prostitution
While westerners tend to think of prostitutes as female sex workers, Ottoman culture was such that a great deal of emphasis was placed on the beauty of young boys. In situations where public life is dominated by men, where warfare is frequent and many men spend most of their time as warriors in the company of other men, and where men are educated and women are not, many were looking for the company of male escorts.
Being attracted to young men, loving young men, is an affirmation of those values and virtues, the very values and virtues that a man seeks in himself. One may also be attracted to women and enjoy relations with them, but the relationship must always be hugely unequal in regard both to distributions of power and to the sharing of cultural expectations.
In Ottoman society, women in the more affluent classes were confined to their homes except for those among the poor who had perforce to go outside to shop and obtain necessities for their families.
So it is not surprising to find young boys/men in a variety of roles such as bath attendants or waiters in taverns.