Book Review: Mark Wyers’ “Wicked Istanbul”

Fun Fact: There are around 60 state-run brothels in Turkey. This may be surprising given Turkey’s reputation as a conservative, rather religious country. So, how did this come to be?

American expat and doctoral candidate Mark David Wyers has produced a history of this topic in his work Wicked Istanbul: The Regulation of Prostitution in the Early Turkish Republic. Wyers has delved into existing works written about prostitution in Turkey, Ottoman archives and historical documents from the Republican era to produce a detailed and highly contextualized narrative of the development of brothels from the days when they were policed by local community members, to when they were completely banned and then, finally, regulated by the state.

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The book is more than just a narrative, however. It deals with questions of how gender and sexuality are used in shaping national identity. Women themselves were caught at the intersection of eugenics, nationalism and a rethinking of human sexuality (accepting it as a legitimate male urge that must be accommodated) and Orientalist double standards leveled at the Ottoman empire. The book draws on legal documents, contemporary news articles and other sources to show the ideological tug of war in which prostitutes are demonized as foreign elements, threats to the Turkish gene pool, a threat to virtuous women and finally, a legitimate outlet for the male libido. This analysis, in my opinion, is the great strength of Wyers’ work lies in that he runs it parallel with developments in the world of paid sex across the globe. He shows how the push for regulation in Turkey was a result of a move that took place in many countries away from moralistic language surrounding prostitution and a tendency toward medicalized discourse about sex.

For me, ethical questions practically leapt out from the page of this book. Particularly, “To what extent should the freedom of individuals be sacrificed for ‘the public good’?”Also, “Should particular groups be expected to sacrifice more than everyone else?” Wyers comes down hard on the side defending the prostitutes as disenfranchised citizens. Using the example of prostitutes’ identity cards being confiscated when they entered the registered brothel system, he says:

Ottoman and Turkish Republican discourses on regulation [of prostitution], as in the rest of the world, were… implicated in increasingly vehement narratives of nationalism and citizenship, as regulatory laws wrote the prostitute into a sub-citizen class, sheared of rights for the sake of protecting the body of the state from venereal disease.

Additionally, he describes hospitalization for prostitutes with venereal disease as “incarceration,” pointing out that an infected prostitute would be forcibly confined to a hospital, suffer a loss of earnings and have to pay for her treatment until she recovered from her illness. At the same time, he makes a concerted effort to avoid portraying these women as passive victims of pimps, johns or the state. He shows how time and time again, women who saw it as being in their best interest to avoid the registered brothel system continued to operate clandestinely. He even provides excerpts from newspapers describing how some bold prostitutes beat up johns who were disrespectful to them.

We should not find it surprising that Beyoğlu, ever the contentious center of Turkish identity conflict, was the beating heart of the controversy over prostitution, as well. In the late Ottoman era, foreign settlement led to a large proliferation of brothels in the area. Ernest Hemingway, while working in Turkey as a foreign correspondent described Galata as “more unspeakably horrible than the foulest heyday of the Barbary Coast.” Orientalists of the 19th century were more sensationalizing and had a pastime of describing Istanbul as a haven of “white slavery.” Wyers presents Beyoğlu as the place where it became necessary to clean up prostitution in order to become more respectable in the foreign eye. Later, during the republican era, Beyoğlu became ground zero in another ideological battle; prostitution and its elimination became seen as an element of Turkification and eliminating “Levantine”—or multiethnic—qualities of Turkey.

As for Wyers’ style of writing, it exhibits many tendencies of post-modern academia. That is, there is the tendency to refer to things as texts and acts as writing.  While many express frustrations with this level of abstraction, I would say that in Wyers’ case it’s a useful technique as it is public narratives he is dealing with—those of gender, nationality and ethics in the minds of the newly emerging Turkey. As we are describing issues of representation of social actors through media, policy and propaganda, then I believe the style is appropriate for the occasion.

Wicked Istanbul was published by Libra Yayıncılık ve Kitapçılık.

Dayla Rogers is a contributor to Yabangee. 

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Dayla Rogers
Dayla Rogers first learned Turkish in high school as a participant in Rotary Youth Exchange. After earning a master’s degree in education, she moved to Istanbul to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher trainer in Turkey. She currently teaches English at Marmara University. Her favorite thing to do for Yabangee is arts and culture interviews. She is also a Turkish-to-English translator and a tango dancer.

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