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Department of Political and Social Sciences

Life at the Margins: Gender Transgression and Sex Work in Contemporary Turkey

Every year, about 30 researchers defend their PhD theses in the SPS Department. In order to illustrate the range of their research, each month the department selects and presents a dissertation notable for both its exceptionally high quality and general interest to the public.

26 October 2022 | Research


How do transfeminine sex workers—one of the most marginalized and targeted groups in Turkey—respond to the violence, discrimination, and stigma encircling their lives?

Trans people and trans sex workers in particular face violence and other rights violations all over the world. In recent years, we have witnessed a striking rise in hate speech and anti-trans legislation targeting this population globally. Turkey is one of the countries where the protection of the rights and safety of trans people is particularly slim.

Güler's ethnography with a community of transfeminine sex workers in urban Turkey explores their collective practices generated under hostile conditions. Some of the practices discussed in her thesis refer to building a community, communal spaces, social codes, and relationships. Others can be read as acts and expressions that contest violence and marginalization. These two groups of commitments are not mutually exclusive; establishing communities in the face of antagonistic conditions entails a defiant meaning, and practices of contestation are shared, even if not always performed, communally.

Güler examines these collective practices through the theoretical lens of urban margins, which she conceptualizes as spaces of ambiguity. Ambiguity in this context indicates that margins, where trans sex workers are constrained by intense police surveillance, societal discrimination, and the lack of other employment options, also bring them together and motivate them to self-organize.

Her research largely relies on ethnographic fieldwork, during which she conducted participant-observation and in-depth interviews in a neighbourhood setting. She also collected and analysed various online sources, namely, legal codes, NGO reports, newspaper and magazine articles, and oral history documents.

The thesis makes three contributions. First, it demonstrates that urban marginality, albeit less focused, is a critical component of the lives of trans sex workers in Turkey. Secondly, it illustrates the relevance of the categories of gender and sexuality to urban struggles for space, housing, work, and safety. While trans feminine sex workers are among the most marginalized groups in the city, their struggles have been largely neglected by urban literature. In general, there is a lack of articulation between research on urban struggles and sexuality because sexuality has largely been considered as secondary to, and separate from, the struggle against material deprivation and precarity.

Finally, the thesis offers a nuanced account of urban marginality. On the one hand, it explains the material, relational, and discursive possibilities created at the margins. Trans sex workers establish communities and networks of care, earn a living, claim visibility, and refuse shame and despair, which Güler refers to as everyday social and material persistence. On the other hand, tensions and ruptures are reinforced and solidarities and struggles become precarious at the margins. The profound ambiguities that shape urban marginality in this context generates both conflict and solidarity; competition and cooperation; and pain and humour, which shows us the complexity of life at the margins.

While embedded in Turkey, this study speaks to the cases of trans sex workers who are subject to the same sort of violence and discrimination in many parts of the world and other groups marginalized with respect to their class, caste, race, and ethnic position in different urban contexts.

Ezgi Güler defended her doctoral thesis at the European University Institute on 7 October 2022. Her research has been published in the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, FocaalBlog, and Palgrave Macmillan. Her broader research interests centre on urban sociology, gender and sexuality, ethnographic research methods, sex work, structural violence, and migration. Prior to completing her PhD, she studied Social Psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and Mathematics and Psychology at Koç University in Istanbul.

Read Ezgi Güler's thesis in CADMUS.

Last update: 26 October 2022

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