“For those looking for pleasure, a 32-year-old woman, pretty, sexy and free of sexually transmitted diseases is available for 120 Dinars (60 USD), cost of room included,” reads one of five Facebook ads for paid sex services.

 The page’s administrator, barely 25 years old, became an expert on running a prostitution ring in Bou Mhel area in Bin Arous province in Tunisia. This Facebook ring, however, functions at the virtual level where the mere search of certain words like pleasure, sex, or secrecy transports a potential client into a sexual paradise.

“For those looking for pleasure, a 32-year-old woman, pretty, sexy and free of sexually transmitted diseases is available for 120 Dinars (60 USD), cost of room included,” reads one of five Facebook ads for paid sex services.

 The page’s administrator, barely 25 years old, became an expert on running a prostitution ring in Bou Mhel area in Bin Arous province in Tunisia. This Facebook ring, however, functions at the virtual level where the mere search of certain words like pleasure, sex, or secrecy transports a potential client into a sexual paradise.

 Type “Paid sex in Tunisia” in the search engine to find scores of pages that provide various sex services ranging from nude pictures to actual sex. Like any market, this one follows the rules of supply and demand, beginning virtually and ending with a real sexual encounter.

 Online prostitution first appeared in Tunis around 2012, with pages like this one witnessing a surge of popularity, reflected in the numbers of both followers and their posted comments. Most followers are mainly young and middle-aged men eager to dive into what society has always deemed taboo. Now, this forbidden world is only a click away – one message to the administrator and negotiations begin to set a price, place, and date.

 A quick view on some of these markets clearly reveal its surging popularity among young men and women. The Facebook page ‘Girls of Tunisia’ for example has exceeded 10,000 likes. Dozens of other pages with more flagrant names have no fewer than 3,000 likes each, let alone the closed groups, which have hundreds of members.

 It is nearly impossible to have an accurate number of virtual sex trafficking networks due to two main reasons: First, these pages arise fast but are shut down even faster when reporting campaigns against them are launched by other Facebook users. Second, because many of these pages are fake.

 Finding out for ourselves

To get to know the virtual sex trade better, tour correspondent set up a fake Facebook account, and in a four-week investigation period, sent dozens of messages to different pages requesting sex services with various requirements (payment range, requested features about the sex partner, etc) and replies from these pages soon arrived. First, the correspondent had to declare his age, nationality, residence details and the features of his desired partner. Finally, phone numbers were exchanged and an intermediary aranged the date and place of the encounter. Sometimes, a sex worker might individually contact a potential client and send a phone number.

 “I am looking for a sexual encounter with a woman, younger than 25 years old, pretty, sexy and free of sexually transmitted diseases for 200 Dinars (US $98),” read his ad. The correspondent posted this on several pages and closed groups that function as a virtual market for the sex trade. One of the pages that responded was ‘Paid Sex with Bou Mhel Girls.’ The page’s administrator, alias Mino, offered an initial appointment to negotiate service details. The meeting took place in a café near a mall in Bou Mhel where Mino and another young man no older than 25 arrived holding mobile phones and sat across from the correspondent. Without any introduction, the man shot off several questions: Did he (the correspondent) want quick sex or did he want to spend a whole night? How much money did he have for the exchange and did he have any sexually transmitted diseases?

 The appointment ended, the features of the girl and the time and place were set. Of his network of five sex workers, a young woman, alias Sony, was to be the partner and the encounter was set to take place in Al-Zahraa area in the capital two days later. When the correspondent and Mino met at the agreed meeting place Mino assured him along the way that the house was safe, that the owner – a member of his network- would provide all means of comfort and that the authorities would not raid the apartment.

 When they arrived at the apartment, Mino took his fee and told our correspondent to pay the rest of the money to the sex worker who in turn would take care of the room expenses. Then Mino left.

At the building entrance Sony received the author with a smile and took him to the apartment on the first floor where the house owner was waiting for them. She led them to their room and went on to her house business.

After minutes off silence, Sony began telling her story. She is a divorced mother of a daughter in the second grade. She was thrown out afterwards by her family because she one day had sex with a young man she loved. Sony found no other way to escape poverty. Five years ago, she began working as a prostitute in a network run by a woman in her fifties. Sony worked there for three years until she met Mino, who convinced her to change the way she worked, and assured her that the new way would provide her with better payment, secrecy and protection. More important to Sony, working with Mino would keep her close to her home and her daughter’s school.

Sony said that arranging sexual encounters on Facebook helped her avoid many risks that she used to take in the past, like being violently assaulted by her pimp or being arrested in a brothel raid.

 The virtual world provided Sony and Jannat – the house owner who later joined the interview, with the much-needed secrecy and helped them avoid the stigma. Jannat, who suffers a chronic illness, said she put a room in her apartment up for rent for “pleasure seekers” in order to earn some more money to help cover her medical bills.

Another woman who went by the name Asmaa, is a student at Al-Manar University, and barely 24 years old. Asmaa said life in the capital and school expenses forced her to look for a source of income that could help her supplement the small amount provided by her family each month.

Asmaa, who said she wanted a small amount of money to cover her rent and day-to-day expenses, charges 200 Dinars (US $98) per night. This is considered a high price, but she still is very much in demand.

Her experience with prostitution, she said, began after breaking her fear of sex and sleeping with her university student boyfriend. Asmaa soon after broke up with him and began having sex for money. Since she began with the rise of online sex work, she found a long list of pimps and she could choose with whom to work.  She picked her first pimp two years ago when he wrote a post on Facebook asking for certain features and offering 150 Dinars per night. Asmaa says that Facebook is the safest and most secretive platform for sex workers. The relationship begins in front of a computer screen and often ends without any of the parties knowing anything about the other, even after having the sexual encounter.

Sex workers have resorted to Facebook to market their services because it provides them with security; however, the main reason for this shift is strictly financial. The cost of one sexual encounter ranges between 100 and 250 Dinars, (73 Euros) which is ten or more times the cost of a sexual encounter in a licensed brothel. On Facebook, the sex worker sets the price based on age, physical features, duration of the encounter, place, and transportation costs.

These networks rise and fall on social media for many reason; however, state prosecution is not one of them. Siham Al-Raquiq, head of communications department at the Ministry of Technology said: “The ministry, including the Tunisian Internet Agency does not take down any social media page unless it has a court order. No court order has yet been issued to shut down any of these pages. And in 2011, the court issued a verdict banning the blocking of pornographic websites.”

This verdict was issued in May 2011 to prevent state authorities from blocking any website with sexual content, which slows down any intervention from the censorship apparatus to block these sites. As for the number of cases where the court did actually agree on shutting down websites, both the Ministry of Justice and the Public Prosecutor confirmed having no statistics of such cases.

“The ministry of Internal Affairs has no data concerning the size of sex trafficking networks active in the virtual domain,” said Walid Al-Wakini. “Police authorities direct cases to the court system, and the cases directed concerned traditional networks active in certain houses and attract customers the conventional way in public places.”

 The shift in this trade from the real to the virtual domain reveals a flaw in the Tunisian law. The laws are capable of addressing issues connected to the conventional sex trade, but lag behind technological advances. Therefore, the conventional sex trade is far more heavily regulated than the virtual one.

 Lawyer Lutfi Wajah says, “Chapter 231 of the criminal law states that women who illegally solicit sex by word of mouth or gesture and commit the act, even if only by coincidence, face imprisonment ranging between six months to two years and a fine ranging between 20 Dinars to 200 dinars. Moreover, he who engages in a sexual exchange with the above mentioned women faces similar punishments.”

According to Wajah, Chapter 232 of the criminal law also states, “The following categories are considered by law to be accomplices in sex trafficking and stand the punishment of 1 to 30 years imprisonment and a fine of 100 to 500 dinars. The categories are; first, he who facilitates, protects or in any way helps the act of sexually trafficking others or seeks to bring people about it. Second, he who receives payments for the act or receives regular payments from sex traffickers.  Third, he who lives by design with a person involved in sex trafficking and is not capable of providing proof of his ability to cover his living expenses. Fourth, he who drives or provides for another person regardless of consent or adulthood in order to use that person in sex trafficking. Fifth, he who in anyway mediates between consumers and providers of illegal sex trafficking. The mere attempt merits punishment.”

 However, this arsenal of legislations could not prevent Tunisia from being the only Arab country that legalizes the sex trade and licenses brothels that are closely supervised by both the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Health. The law allowing sex trade was issued in year 1941 by the French colonial authorities. After Tunis gained its independence in year 1956, the law remained effective until the present moment.

Before 2011, this law sanctioned the opening of 13 brothels in 13 Tunisian provinces, most famous of which is the brothel of Abdula Qash in the capital. The brothel is made up of 25 shops and 50 rooms and about 130 sex workers, of whom 51 work independently in single rooms and 79 work for 25 pimps.

However, from the old chat rooms to Facebook, the Internet has become, for many Tunisians, an alternative to the traditional sex trade in the old brothels in big Tunisian cities. The law still has not responded to this development.