You may glimpse them lingering, all decked out at Tel Aviv’s decrepit old bus station, loitering around the train station in Beersheba or soliciting customers on Haifa’s coastline. But apart from the occasional headline (such as when a long-time prostitute hanged herself in a Tel Aviv brothel), tucked away in so-called “discreet apartments,” Israel’s some 12,000 sex workers in the NIS 1.2 billion ($318 million) industry are largely invisible to many Israelis.
But the issue may soon head to the Knesset: The Justice Ministry announced last week it will form a committee to evaluate whether to criminalize paying for sex, broadly modeling itself on such countries as Sweden, Norway, and, as of earlier this month, France. The director-general of the Justice Ministry, Amy Palmer, will head the committee, and representatives from other ministries will be on it as well but have not yet been appointed, according to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s spokesperson.
While prostitution itself remains legal in Israel, pimping, sex trafficking, and running a brothel are punishable by law. The formation of the committee follows nearly a decade of efforts by female lawmakers to spearhead legislation to criminalize clients, primarily by Meretz’s Zehava Galon. From the other side of the aisle, the Jewish Home party’s Shuli Moalem-Rafaeli has recently backed her attempts. While it remains to be seen what the committee will recommend, if anything, the unlikely pair of lawmakers has in the past suggested fines or up to a year in jail for clients, with the option for first-time offenders to attend seminars on prostitution in lieu of criminal proceedings. Galon and Moalem-Refaeli are also proposing expanding welfare services for prostitutes. (In 2012, a similar bill by Galon and Kadima MK Orit Zuaretz was supported by the key Ministerial Committee for Legislation, but the government dissolved before it could be taken further.)
However, recent polls show Israelis may not be entirely on board with punishing people who hire prostitutes, even though they believe it will discourage the phenomenon. Meanwhile, critics have warned the bid would effectively demolish the notion that women have the right to sell their bodies, may worsen their conditions as prostitutes are forced to go underground, and creates an asymmetrical justice system that punishes clients but exonerates prostitutes.
According to the first comprehensive study of sex workers by the Welfare Ministry last month, most of them are Jewish, Israeli, mothers, over the age of 30 and from the former Soviet Union, and they entered the industry for financial reasons. On average, they see 5.5 clients per day. And 76 percent want to get out.
‘Every day I want to die from this work’
The Welfare Ministry report estimated there are some 11,420-12,730 sex workers in Israel, 95% of them women, 89% of whom are over 18. Between 970 and 1,260 (11%) are minors. The figures place the number of prostitutes per 100,000 Israelis at 121-128 — less than countries such as Austria, Belgium, Hungary, Sweden; more than the Czech Republic, Ireland, Norway, Denmark.
Some 97% of the women hold Israeli citizenship, and 86% are Jewish. Most are over 30 (70%), have at least one child (62%), and a slim majority (52%) were born in the former Soviet Union. The majority entered prostitution due to financial woes (66%), and 7% due to drug addiction. One-fifth have a college degree.
Some NIS 510 million ($135 million) is made annually in the 265 “discreet apartments,” 43% of the total yearly sum (1.2 billion in 2014) generated by the industry. Escort services racked up some NIS 220 million ($58 million) and massage parlors that offered sexual services NIS 190 million ($50 million). Street prostitution generated just NIS 70 million ($18 million) in yearly earnings, some 6% of the annual total. Some one-quarter of Israeli prostitutes see more than seven clients a day (the average is 5.5), according to the report.
Financial straits were found to be the force driving women to prostitution (66%), and for most (71%) it was the reason they stay (the remaining 23% said because “it suits them”). Most of the women said they want to leave (76%), 10% said they don’t, 7% don’t know, and 7% said “not right now.”
“The kids are getting older and already asking where Imma [mother] goes at night. I can’t keep lying all the time and tell them I’m a bartender,” said one anonymous participant in the poll, which interviewed 609 women face-to-face (all are cited anonymously).
“I’m sick of it. It’s very difficult, psychologically, you know. It’s not easy every day, every prostitution experience is unpleasant, I don’t get used to it. In my mind, I’m not a prostitute,” said another.
‘The kids are getting older and already asking where Imma [mother] goes at night’
“Every day I want to die from this work,” added a third.
Some were more noncommittal. “I don’t know — when I have money, I’ll leave. At least a million,” said one.
“I wanted to, but I looked into other work. Cleaning is not suitable for me, [prostitution] sometimes is,” the report quotes a woman as saying.
“Not really. Maybe when I get older, I’ll want to leave, and then maybe I’ll be a secretary.”
Others were insistent it suits them just fine: “I feel like this is my most productive period, and I also have patience for it. Then (28 years ago), I did as if I was forced to. Life forced me to. But today I do it with pleasure.”
(For the purpose of this article, a distinction is made between prostitution and sex trafficking, with the latter already illegal, although there is likely overlap. On sex trafficking, the US State Department in 2012 upgraded Israel to “tier 1” on human trafficking, indicating that the government complies with the minimum requirements to prevent the phenomenon, while urging it to impose stricter punishments on those behind it.)
Are all prostitutes victims?
Punishing prostitution clients was first introduced by Sweden in its 1999 Sex Purchase Act, which has since been adopted by Norway, Iceland, Canada, and Northern Ireland, and requires consumers to pay a fine or face up to six months in jail. Defending the apparent contradiction in making buying sex illegal but selling it legal, Sweden contended that prostitution is essentially an act of exploitation and violence by the customers, who hold a position of power and should bear the brunt of the penalty.
The debate was subsequently exported outside of Sweden, leaving countries divided on the issue. “Don’t liberate me, I’ll take care of myself!” a sign brandished by a sex worker on April 7 read, after France ruled a $4,000 fine would be levied on the clients of prostitutes.
Echoing the Swedish argument, Galon on April 18 maintained that “prostitution is sexual violence and enslavement of women, and in the vast majority of cases does not provide a livelihood for the women but rather for the pimps.”
“The deceptive liberal discourse about the right of women to sell their bodies ignores the power relations in the world of prostitution, and the power relations in the world as a whole. Prostitution, in its current form, can only exist in an unequal world in which it’s still okay to enslave women for men’s needs. A society that permits buying the bodies of women is broadcasting that all women can be bought,” she argued.
‘The deceptive liberal discourse about the right of women to sell their bodies ignores the power relations in the world of prostitution’
Outlining the opposition to plans to punish clients, researcher Yehuda Troan in a 2008 Knesset report noted the asymmetry in penalties was “problematic” to some.
“There are those who have fundamental reservations about the model of one-sided criminality, since it gives an exemption to the prostitutes who are also partners in the forbidden action. One-sided criminality is liable to send a message that a woman is permitted to work in prostitution, or could be interpreted as a social statement such as this, which is problematic to many,” he wrote.
Other issues listed include a problem of enforcement, since Israel’s police have a limited budget. The law will make it difficult to compile evidence, since prostitutes may be wary of cooperating and inclined to protect their clients, he argued. Moreover, a law against the clients could make it increasingly difficult for the security services to crack down on those running the operations, since it compromises the testimony of many of the witnesses, namely clients. Finally, it could force prostitutes to go underground, resulting in worse conditions, he maintained.
Israelis on the fence
Surveys have found some growing support among Israelis for laws targeting the buyers of sexual services, though they still prefer regulation to a blanket ban.
A September 2015 poll by the Welfare Ministry of 754 Israelis found that 54% were generally in favor of “legislation against the clients of prostitution services.” But when asked more pointedly whether clients should be “punished,” the figure dropped to 42%. The vast majority of respondents (83%) said the government ought to work to curb prostitution, but slightly more were in favor of the government permitting brothels to operate with regulation (59%) than those who support an outright ban (52%). In other words, the Israeli respondents were in favor of some sort of legislation, but likely one that wouldn’t include criminal penalties.
Support for punishing those who hire prostitutes was up compared to previous polls (22% in a 2007 Knesset poll commissioned by Galon were in favor; 43% in 2013), but the Welfare Ministry report noted that “it isn’t clear whether the change is a result of the phrasing (criminalizing vs. punishing) or that there increased support for punishing the clients.”
That isn’t to say Israelis don’t generally find prostitution harmful. Some 81% in the 2015 poll said it is a phenomenon that compromises human dignity, 70% agreed it is a social phenomenon that harms relationships between men and women, and 74% said they believed sex workers can’t leave this cycle without help. Israelis also believe the prostitutes frequently experience psychological harm (87%), physical harm (76%), rape (70%), and robbery (60%). At the same time, 55% said women have the right over their bodies, including to sell their bodies, and a majority were against punishing the prostitutes themselves (63%).
And half (54%) said laws punishing the clients will reduce the phenomenon.
Touching on the disparity between public opposition and views of its efficacy, the 2008 Knesset report concluded: “Although the public’s views and expectations do not precisely forecast the legal influence, it appears the fact that most of the public does not believe that the client should be criminalized attests to a view of prostitution as legitimate and widespread dangers of noncompliance with the law, and therefore contempt of the law. On the other hand, it appears that the fact that most of the public sees that the proposed legislation will reduce the scope of prostitution strengthens the argument that the stigma of the crime that accompanies criminalizing the client — alongside educational and advocacy — is likely to effect normative, societal change.”
It also underlined a question about the relationship between the lack of public support and legislation: Should legislation reflect societal change, or create it?
The report cites Dr. Noya Rimalt of the University of Haifa, who testified in a 2007 hearing that although it’s better that public awareness drive legislation, there were cases in Israeli law where the laws drove the conversation, such as the strict sexual harassment laws in the 1990s and the ban on smoking in public areas.
“An educational process should precede legal change,” Rimalt said at the time, adding that “it doesn’t always work like that.”