Prostitution in the Islamic nation of Pakistan, once relegated to dark alleys and small red-light districts, is now seeping into many neighborhoods of country's urban centers. Reports indicate that since the period of civilian rule ended in 1977, times have changed and now the sex industry is bustling.
Early military governments and religious groups sought to reform areas like the famous "Taxali Gate" district of Lahore by displacing prostitutes and their families in an effort to "reinvent" the neighborhood.
While displacing the prostitutes might have temporarily made the once small red-light district a better neighborhood for a time, it did little to stop the now dispersed prostitutes from plying their trade. Reforming a neighborhood, instead of offering education and alternative opportunities, appears to be at the core of early failures to curb the nascent sex industry. This mistake would become a prophetic error as now the tendrils of the sex trade have become omnipresent in cities like Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Karachi and Lahore, not to mention towns, villages and rural outposts.
An aid worker for an Islamabad-based non-governmental organization (NGO) recently related a story: quickly after his arrival in the capital, he realized the house next to his own was a Chinese brothel. The Chinese ability to "franchise" the commercial sex industry by providing down-trodden Chinese women throughout Asia, North America and Europe would be admirable in a business sense if it were not for the atrocities - human trafficking, sexual slavery and exploitation - which cloud its practice.
Chinese bordellos, often operating as "massage parlors" or beauty salons, are across Pakistan, even spread even to war-torn and restive locations such as the Afghan capital Kabul. Chinese in the sex industry have developed a cunning ability to recognize areas where the demand for sex far outstrips the supply.
The NGO worker said that after months of living adjacent to the brothel things were shaken up - literally. One evening a drunk Pakistani drove his car into the brothel. Later the driver told authorities the ramming was a protest by a devout Muslim against the debauchery of the house and its inhabitants. The NGO worker, however, had seen the same car parked peacefully outside the house the night before.
The local sex industry comprised of Pakistani prostitutes has also grown in recent years. One can easily find videos on YouTube that show unabashed red-light areas of Lahore. The videos display house after house with colorfully lit entranceways always with a mamasan and at least one Pakistani woman in traditional dress. The women are available for in-house services for as little as 400 rupees (US$6) to take-away prices ranging 1,000 to 2,000 rupees. These districts are mostly for locals, but foreigners can indulge at higher prices.
Foreigners in Pakistan have no trouble finding companionship and may receive rates similar to locals in downtrodden districts. More upscale areas like Lahore's Heera Mundi or "Diamond Market", cater to well-heeled locals and foreigners. At these places prettier, younger girls push their services for 5,000 to 10,000 rupees for an all-night visit, and the most exceptional can command 20,000 to 40,000 rupees for just short time.
Rumors abound online that female TV stars and actresses can be hired for sex. "You can get film stars for 50,000 to 100,000 rupees but you need good contacts for that," one blogger wrote after a trip to Lahore.
"The Lahore, Karachi and Rawalpindi sex scenes are totally changing and it's easier and easier to get a girl for [sex]," another blogger wrote. "Most of the hotels provide you the girls upon request." Bloggers also reported that it is easy to find girls prowling the streets after 6 pm, and foreigners can find young women hanging out near Western franchises like McDonald's and KFC. Such women, the bloggers claim, can lead the customer to a nearby short-time accommodation.
Short-time hotels offering hourly rates can be found all over major cities, underscoring the profits being reaped by the sex industry.
Pakistan can also accommodate the gay community with prostitution. Unfortunately, this has also given rise to child prostitution.
A Pakistani blogger wrote, "We [ethnic] Pathans are very fond of boys. [In Pakistan] the wives are only [had sex with] once or twice a year. There are lot of gay brothels in Peshawar - the famous among them is at Ramdas Bazaar. [One can] go to any Afghan restaurant and find young waiters selling sex."
As in many societies, access to technology, the Internet and mobile phones has only facilitated the sex trade in Pakistan. "Matchmaking" websites serve the male clientele, while providing marketing for prostitutes.
The root causes of prostitution in Pakistan are poverty and a dearth of opportunities. Widows find themselves on the streets with mouths to feed, and for many prostitution offers a quick fix. A local Pakistani prostitute can earn 2,000 to 3,000 rupees per day compared to the average monthly income of 2,500 rupees.
Forced prostitution is not rare. Women in hard times are often exploited and pushed into prostitution. Sandra (not her real name), said that after the death of her father she was left alone; friends and relatives deserted her after the grieving period. As a middle-class, educated woman she was surprised to find herself forced into prostitution from her office job.
"My boss initially spoiled me at first," she told Khaleej Times. "[But] now I am in [the sex industry]." Sandra first thought her boss was being gracious, but quickly learned he was grooming her for sex for his own pleasure, and then acting as her pimp.
Many of Pakistan's contemporary sexual mores may have evolved from traditional practices. For example, the polygamy permitted in Muslim society stemmed from the need for larger family units, the better to support familial ties and tend for widows. Until such ancient customs are updated, women such as Sandra will continue to be bought and sold.
It's time for Pakistan to admit that prostitution is doing a roaring trade within its borders, and will continue to prosper until it is addressed in a modern manner. Let us hope that the people and government of this proud Muslim country will stop pretending the problem simply isn't there.
William Sparrow has been an occasional contributor to Asia Times Online and now joins Asia Times Online with a weekly column. Sparrow is editor in chief of Asian Sex Gazette and has reported on sex in Asia for over five years.