The midnight cowboys of Tel Aviv
They come to Tel Aviv from all over the country − teens and young men who were thrown out of their homes because they’re gay; in the area around the old central bus station, they turn to prostitution to survive.
Call me Ruru, he says as the nighttime blackness deepens. “I belong to these streets,” he declares as he interrupts his circular ramblings through the maze of streets surrounding the old Tel Aviv central bus station. He takes off his small backpack and places it on the sidewalk. “These are my worldly possessions,” he says. “And I also have more things hidden in all kinds of places around here.”
His exhaustion is evident. At 23, he’s considered an old-timer among the workers here.
“I started when I was 12,” he says. “I grew up in an Arab village in the center of the country. From the time I was young, I knew I was gay, but I was afraid to talk about it.” His parents suspected. “They asked me and I confessed that that’s who I was and who I love. They threw me out of the house the same day.”
He came to Tel Aviv and wandered around the area near the old central bus station. “I was a kid,” he says. “I thought I’d find a regular job here and I’d manage.” Here he met a Palestinian from a refugee camp who was afraid to return home after having been tagged as a collaborator. “I asked him for help,” he relates. “I told him I had nothing to eat and had been thrown out on the street. He said: ‘Come with me tonight and I’ll show you where to get work.’ He took me to Gan Hahashmal.
“I saw him get in a car and I didn’t understand what he was doing. When he got out of the car he came over to me and told me: ‘Take a good look − This is the money that you can eat with and live off of.’ That’s how I started with this, and I’m still doing it.”
Cars pass by and the drivers signal to Ruru insistently, but he lets them keep driving around and ignores them. “I sleep in the street, and now in Gan Hahashmal,” he says.
“With the money I buy food, cigarettes, vodka.” At 14, he began experimenting with hard drugs, but then he stopped. “Now I smoke hashish and drink all day. Is it possible to sleep without drinking when you’re out on the street? It soothes the mind and the crying.”
At 18, he was put in Ofek Prison. “I was in a club, I was speaking Arabic and I was stoned. Somebody pushed me and called me a ‘stinking Arab’ and I couldn’t control my anger. I had a knife so I stabbed him 26 times.” While in prison, he hurt another inmate and his sentence was extended. He got out four months ago and immediately returned “home” to the area by the old bus station.
“It’s either stab or be stabbed,” he says, explaining the laws of the street as he gazes scornfully upon the clients cruising around in their cars. “Everyone I knew since I started to work in prostitution either killed themselves, went insane, went to prison or became a drug addict,” he says. “I’ve yet to see anyone manage to live well from this and become a rich and happy man.”
Like Ruru, the names of the other men who work in prostitution and were interviewed for this article have been changed. Suddenly, Ruru gets angry. “From the time I was 12 I’ve been wandering the streets among you, and no one really helps. I asked people for money and no one gave me anything. I would go into restaurants and ask for food and they’d chase me out. It’ll be the same with you. You’ll leave here and go home and you’ll forget about me. I guarantee you. You’ll go to bed and you won’t remember me anymore.”
He puts his pack back on and turns to go. “Whoever sleeps in a bed at home forgets about the people who are in the street,” he says and walks away.
Around the corner
For years, Gan Hahashmal, located between Hahashmal, Barzilai and Levontin streets in south Tel Aviv, was a hub for addicts and male prostitutes, especially minors, but it has changed in the last few years. Once the authorities got fed up with the situation there, the police began making a concerted effort to combat criminal activity and the municipality spruced up the park and added lots of new lighting. Before long, clubs and designer boutiques sprang up and the area was marketed as a Tel Aviv Soho.
But the male prostitution didn’t disappear. It just shifted to a new location − the old central bus station and the surrounding streets: Hasharon, Hagalil and Hanegev, which form a horseshoe. Lately, the activity has also begun to slip over to Har Zion Street where it intersects with Salma Street. In the past half-year, one could also find minors working in prostitution around the Diamond Exchange in Ramat Gan, and for years the Tel Baruch beach has been the place for transgendered individuals.
Walking around the old bus station area, on Hagalil Street one comes across gay saunas and gay clubs that rent out rooms. The male prostitutes stand outside, making eye contact with prospective clients and then, after what looks like a bit of negotiation, going inside with them. For the last six months, the inner parking lot on Hagalil Street has been illuminated, and the activity there has stopped. But the scene on the street is still lively. Outside the bars frequented by refugees, men can be seen standing on the sidewalks.
Transgendered prostitutes stand at the corner of Hagalil and Hasharon. They have a fierce reputation here. “They’re aggressive and violent and they fight for their spot on the street,” explains a man who works in the area. But it’s also apparent that they stick together in a group as a means of protection. More than any other sex workers, they are exposed to verbal violence and provocations from passersby. They are cursed by passing drivers, and groups of drunks harass them.
The corner of Hasharon and Hanegev streets is usually where the Arabs stand, most of them illegal residents. This corner gives them a sense of safety; if necessary, they can quickly escape from the police cars and Border Police vehicles that patrol the area.
The male prostitutes are less overt than their female counterparts. The women are scantily clad and heavily made up, while the men are dressed simply, in a way that doesn’t immediately give away what they’re up to.
“There’s a lot of concealment on the part of men who work in prostitution,” says Uri Eick, coordinator of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) division at the Health Ministry’s Levinsky Clinic by the new central bus station, which focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of sexual diseases. “Male prostitution is not out in the open. You have to look carefully to identify them.”
The shame attached to prostitution is greater among men. “Female prostitution is assimilated in the culture. Unfortunately, it’s given legitimacy by many and doesn’t undermine the woman’s identity,” says Eick. “Male prostitution, however, puts those who engage in it at the bottom of the social hierarchy, even lower than a woman who engages in prostitution, and undermines their identity as men.”
The subject has not been studied in depth in Israel, so it’s hard to come by precise numbers about how many men are involved in it. “It’s not that easy to find them. Some work from home and some find an older sponsor to pay them for sex and sometimes also provide a roof over their head.”
What is the profile of those who engage in male prostitution?
Eick: “You find minors and youths from every part of society who’ve been thrown out of their homes because of their sexual orientation, found refuge in Tel Aviv and turned to prostitution as a way to survive. Often you also see men who are 30 and older working as prostitutes, but the street prefers younger men. Some come into it because of poverty, financial hardship and homelessness − it’s the only way they find to survive and get by. Most came from a dysfunctional home − poverty, abuse, physical and emotional neglect. Many also have a history of being sexually abused, but it’s unspoken. They don’t admit to it, they’re ashamed and have trouble talking about it.
“Not all of them are homosexuals necessarily. Many of the addicts admit that this isn’t their natural orientation, but just a quick way to get money for the next fix. Among the illegals, you also find men who are only doing it for a livelihood.”
Yael Gur, director of the Levinsky Clinic, adds that in recent years refugees have also entered the circle of prostitution. “Up until two years ago, there was an attempt on their part to obscure this. But now they stand there on the street corner and it’s clear that they work in prostitution.”
What’s the profile of the average client?
Gur: “A lot of the clients are married men and men who are still in the closet, and just like the male prostitutes, they hide it and are ashamed of it.”
The level of violence male prostitutes experience is also hard to measure, says Gur. “It happens in the encounters with clients, but the male sex workers don’t report it or admit it. It’s hard for them as men to admit that a client attacked them; there’s shame in talking about it.”
What kind of damage do you notice among transgender and male prostitutes?
Eick: “Some of the key things you see in them are difficulty trusting in others, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, and other health issues. The concealment exacts a heavy price too: social loneliness and disconnection from family, which for the transgendered people often begins as they start the process of sexual transformation.”
Gur and Eick say that transgender and male prostitutes also suffer from low public awareness of and concern with their plight. Women’s movements that come out against prostitution tend to fight more for women’s rights; they forget to fight for the rights of men and transgendered people involved in prostitution and to demand therapy that would help rehabilitate them too, they say. They add that those who want to escape prostitution don’t have anywhere to go − there are no halfway houses, employment solutions, psychotherapy or any rehabilitation programs available for them. All that exists is just a partial solution for a few transgendered individuals as part of the Selait project (the name is a Hebrew acronym for Aid to Women in the Circle of Prostitution) and at the Beit Dror aid center.
“Unfortunately, we’re not hearing a voice coming out loud and clear from the LGBT community against male prostitution and fighting it, the way we see activist women who combat female prostitution and trafficking in women. Pressure also needs to be put on the government ministries to open all the services needed to get minors, young people and adults out of a life of prostitution, to see to their rehabilitation and their integration in society.”
A double life
Every other Thursday evening, the Levinsky Clinic sends a mobile unit out to the areas frequented by male prostitutes. It is staffed by Eick, who is a social worker by profession, a doctor and a team of volunteers. They talk with the men and try to give advice and create a connection that will lead them to seek help at the clinic. They also do tests to diagnose sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), give out information brochures about preventing these ailments, and distribute condoms.
Amer, 19, from a Bedouin village in the south, stands on the darkest part of the sidewalk at the corner of Hasharon and Hanegev. A hood covers his head. He is tense, his eyes darting about. Eick goes up to him and invites him to come and be tested in the mobile clinic. From inside the vehicle he continues to cast wary glances outside. “Police cars pass by here and I don’t have an ID card,” he admits. Shai Kramer, a resident in family medicine at Barzilai Hospital, takes a blood sample from him to test for AIDS and STDs and gives him a hepatitis vaccine. He looks disheveled and eager to talk.
He came to Tel Aviv a year and a half ago to make enough money to get by. “I slept on the street for a few weeks,” he says. “I couldn’t find work. A man offered me the chance to work as a prostitute and I agreed. Only for the money,” he stresses. “I really prefer women.”
His family doesn’t know what he is doing. Six months ago he was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward after he suffered a nervous breakdown. “I have anger and anxiety attacks,” he says. Two days ago he was robbed. “It’s a dangerous area,” he says.
How can we find you to give you the test results? − the staff wants to know. “I don’t have a phone,” he says. “But I’m here every day.”
Anat, 18, makes her way to the clinic vehicle. “You have the results yet?” she asks. “I want to have AIDS!” she shouts. “Why?” asks Kramer as he searches for the results. “Because I feel like killing myself. I want to kill myself,” she says with a smile. A year ago I saw her standing on the part of the street that’s reserved for the transgendered prostitutes. Back then, the signs of her drug use were not so evident. Her youthful appearance and charming manner of speaking, mixed with wounded survivor’s humor, stood out.
“The violence here is severe,” she said succinctly. “I have no idea how I’m still alive.” She’s been in prostitution since she was 14. Her family wouldn’t accept her desire for a sex change, so she ran away.
Inside the vehicle, surrounded by the team members, she suddenly talks about the hardship of being cut off from her family, who refuse to accept her. An oppressive silence follows the sudden outpouring. The results are normal, the staff tell her.
Everything is okay. “Why? Why? I want to kill myself already,” she says as she bounds out of the van.
Almaz is standing all alone, eyes scanning the street. She wears a long silky wig. A tiny black dress clings to her emaciated body, and her legs are clad in high-heeled boots.
Numerous layers of makeup can’t quite hide her sadness. The story of Almaz, a 19-year-old Israeli Arab, made headlines last August. She had gone out with her boyfriend in Tel Aviv when they were attacked by five of her relatives − her father, brother, brother-in-law and cousins − who didn’t accept her decision to live as a transgendered person. They sprayed them with tear gas, put her in a car and sped toward her hometown.
“During the drive, they bound my hands with a belt and threatened to kill me,” she says. “When we got there, they left me handcuffed and chained on a mattress in an abandoned house. I still have the marks on my body from their violence.” When her boyfriend came to, he called the police, who located and freed her. Her attackers had been in detention ever since, but last week they were released to house arrest until the conclusion of the legal proceedings. “I’m scared,” she says. “I’m scared they’ll come looking for me and hurt me again.”
After the kidnapping, she sank into depression and left her job as a saleswoman. She refuses to talk about the days she spent on the street and sleeping in stairwells. When she couldn’t find a new job she started working in prostitution.
“Society really gives people like me just one choice − work in prostitution. It’s very hard for me, it disgusts me. I want a normal job,” she says, eyes welling with tears. “This isn’t my world. I can’t let a man I don’t know and I’m not attracted to touch me for money. I’m a romantic, I believe in love.”
Until recently, she worked out of her rented apartment. “I hate working on the street,” she says. “It’s a violent place. Everybody’s against everybody. The transgendered old-timers don’t accept my presence. When I got close to their corner they would start chasing after me. I ran away, but they caught a friend who was with me, beat her up and yanked off her wig.”
This coming Monday, she says, it will all be behind her. “I’m flying to London,” she reveals. “My family won’t be able to find me there.” A week later, I saw her on the street again. “At border control in England they wouldn’t let me in when they realized I wanted to work, and they sent me right back to Israel,” she recounts in despair. “I don’t know what to do. Meanwhile I’m moving from one friend’s apartment to another. I’ve gone back to prostitution so I’ll have money to survive.”
Yotam leans against a wall on Hanegev Street. He is neatly and stylishly dressed. His expression is melancholy and he is soft-spoken. “I want to stop working in prostitution. I can’t do this anymore,” he confessed when we met late one night. “This has to be my last month.” He says his father is a drug addict who has spent his whole life in and out of rehab centers and prison. His mother raised him and his siblings alone. At 15, he started working in sales. “I couldn’t ask her for money for going out and for clothes, so I had to start working,” he says.
When he passed by the bus station on his way to a work shift, a man offered him NIS 500 for sex. “I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “He explained to me and guided me and I was dazzled by the money. That’s how it went day after day. The money tempted me. I was with two men and made a thousand shekels in just a few minutes. I was young and new to the area so I made good money and started to neglect my regular job.”
For three years he’s been hiding his work as a prostitute from his family and friends. “I live a double life. I leave the house in my work uniform and change clothes in the bathroom at the bus station,” he says. “When my mother asks where the money comes from I tell her I received bonuses at work. It’s not that she doesn’t know − I think she just doesn’t want to know. It’s hard for me to believe that she doesn’t get what’s going on.”
In about a month, he’s due to be drafted. “I really want the army to be a framework that will prevent me from coming here,” he says. “I look at the people here and I’m afraid of becoming like them, afraid of falling into drugs, of losing my mind. Prostitution makes people crazy.”
Just in the meantime
On every visit to the area where the street prostitutes hang out, one sees new faces.
Wasim, 24, arrived here two months ago. He was born and raised in a violent home in the south. “I have a vivid image of my father dragging my mother on the floor by her hair,” he says. “All I recall from my childhood is terrible poverty and hunger.” When he was 17, his older brother tried to assault him sexually. “I had to get away from it all so I came to Tel Aviv.”
At first he found a regular job. “I slept with friends who worked in prostitution in the apartment. I wouldn’t be able to sleep all night because they’d come in with clients and I’d show up at work exhausted. My boss thought I wasn’t alert because I was using drugs, and she fired me.”
How did you get into this?
“I looked at my friends and saw that they were making a lot of money, eating well and dressing well. I was broke, so I decided to give it a try. The first time on the street I made 1,200 shekels working from 5 P.M. until midnight. The next day I made 759 shekels. You start to compare an hour of work at a normal job where you get 21 shekels and here you’ve made 200-300 shekels after just 10 minutes. I told myself that it’s just in the meantime and anyway, nobody knows me here. The money silences the thoughts.”
Throughout the conversation he keeps saying that he intends to stop doing this kind of work. “I’ll find an apartment, I’ll get settled and look for a normal job,” he says. “Working in prostitution is hard. It’s hard to have sex with someone when you don’t really want to.
You feel like he’s raping you. I’m doing something that I don’t like, because it’s a way to make quick money, to pay for everything right away. You don’t need to wait until the tenth of the month. When you don’t have money for food and rent, what are you going to do? Wait for the tenth of the month every time?”
Two weeks after we talked, Wasim rented an apartment in the southern part of the city. In the evenings, I saw him on Hanegev Street. Just before he got into a car that pulled up next to him, he said to me once again: “I want to look for another job soon. I’m sure I’ll stop with prostitution very soon.”
Male prostitution that goes on in apartments throughout the city is fed by clients that come through ads in the paper and on the Internet. Working at home is considered less dangerous, and the prices are commensurate: The average price on the street is 100 shekels; in apartments in ranges from 250-300 shekels. I met Diana, a 26-year-old transgendered individual, at her home in the center of town. It’s a nicely furnished rented two-room apartment in a new building. In the parking lot is the nice car she recently bought. Both of Diana’s parents were addicts, and her mother worked as a prostitute.
Did you know what your mother did?
“Yes. Whenever I was told, ‘Your mother is going to look after children,’ I knew where she was really going. There were times when I went to get money from her and I saw her with clients. She got clean 15 years ago and built a new life, but it’s still hard for us to talk about it.”
She started working in prostitution in Gan Hahashmal as a teenage boy. She became transgendered a few years ago. “Male prostitution is a lot harder and less profitable,” she says. “The clients wear the young guys out. For transgendered prostitutes the work is not as hard and pays better.”
Why did you start working in prostitution?
“I didn’t learn anything in school, I knew that I had no other way to make money to get ahead in life and achieve my dreams. I grew up in boarding schools without anything and I remember the feeling of other people having parents who gave things to their children. I came to Tel Aviv as a penniless teenager with a great hunger to get everything that was lacking in my childhood. And suddenly you see that you can make a lot of money.”
What did you feel when you started out?
“That I had money of my own. That I had power.”
She spent her first days in the city in decrepit apartments she shared with other prostitutes. Now she advertises on the Internet and in newspapers and works mostly at home. “The neighbors don’t know,” she says. “It’s discreet. Clients don’t show up in groups like to an escort service. They’re very secretive about coming here because none of them is ready to tell his friends that he goes to a tranny.” The clients come from every walk of life, she says.
“They could be married people who were afraid their whole lives of being found out as gay and feel more comfortable with a transgendered person because she’s outwardly female. And it could be a religious couple where the husband wants me to sleep with his wife while he watches. Every day I’m surprised all over again by the fantasies.”
Diana also works at the old bus station. “There’s a sisterhood there among the trannies and it’s like a get-together with friends combined with work,” she says. “When I go around there, I see women from my mother’s time who are still addicts and still working as prostitutes, and it makes me think of her.”
You don’t feel that you’re following in her footsteps?
“I don’t see it that way. She got into this out of a need for drugs. I got into it out of a desire to get money and improve my position. She made a thousand shekels a day but she ended up at a rehab center in a shirt full of holes, with no underwear and with no money for cigarettes. It’s sad. All the money went to drugs and nothing was left.”
Diana has a tough, matter-of-fact attitude toward life. It’s hard to break her protective barriers. “I mentally detach myself and see the clients as the money they’re paying me,” she says. “After the sex I don’t remember them.” All through our conversation, she emphasizes that she has no problem with prostitution. “Where else could I fit in with no education and skills, and make this kind of money? I’ll keep working at it until I achieve all my goals − to buy an apartment in Tel Aviv, and then another apartment. It’s not the kind of work where you end up with a pension. The money you make in your prime years is the money you’ll have in the future.”
Wouldn’t you rather work at something else?
“I’d be glad to work in any other field just as long as I could make a thousand shekels a day. Since that’s not possible, I can’t stop doing this.”
Jamil, 22, from East Jerusalem, and his friend Michael, 19, share a neat studio apartment in the south of the city. Both work in prostitution. The telephone dictates their daily schedule. “On a normal day I wake up and find 76 text messages from clients,” says Michael, holding up one of his phones. Our conversation is continually interrupted by phone calls.
“At home the client wants to be more pampered. In the street it’s a lot quicker,” says Jamil.
Michael: “But the street is more dangerous. People tried to rob me and there’s a lot of violence.”
“In that world you either fall into drugs or into the hands of the police,” Jamil adds.
“I work at this 90 percent of the day,” admits Michael. “If you see that there’s no work [in] the house then you go out to work in the street.” They both profess to be gay and pull out of the closets wigs, feminine clothing and high heels. They say that they sometimes choose to work as women, because it can be more profitable.
The house functions as a brothel morning and night. “If the client wants both of us, the fee is higher − 500 shekels. If he prefers just one of us, then the other goes into the bathroom and waits until the client leaves,” Michael explains.
Isn’t it hard to live in an apartment that’s always used for prostitution?
“No, there’s a special sheet for clients,” Jamil laughs as he sprawls on the bed. “If they want to go to the bathroom we tell them it’s being renovated, and we only give them drinks in plastic cups.”
“The neighbors know, and they don’t make a fuss,” adds Michael.
Both are warm and charming, full of charisma, and wield a sharp sense of humor to blunt the pain. Michael comes from a big family; his father is a drug addict. At 13, he started working in one of the shops near the bus station. “For five years I worked at a normal job, and I saw what was going on around the bus station and I was careful not to get caught up in it,” he says. “One day, a man said to me − ‘Get in my car and just get undressed. I’ll pay you just for that.’ I hesitated but I was too tempted by the 500 shekels he offered me. I took the money and it changed everything. The next day he came back, and I agreed again. And then I started getting into cars where the clients wanted me to let them go down on me. I was new and in just the first days I made 2,600 shekels, and that’s how I got into it.”
How did you feel about it?
Michael: “From the start I had a bad feeling inside, and I still have it. You look at yourself and it’s hard, to realize that you’re going with people for the money, but the money also makes up for it. I try to ignore what it does to me inside, but it always comes up. It destroys a person from inside.”
In a “slow” month they make NIS 15,000. When things are going well, they earn 25,000. “After the client leaves, we sit there and count all the money,” laughs Michael.
What does this money mean to you?
Michael: “It’s a feeling of power. Control. Confidence. It fills the voids.”
“I make a lot of money, but it all goes to pay off debts and to get by and to help my parents,” says Jamil. “No one really manages to save money from prostitution, and everyone wants to stop, but they can’t. After you get used to this kind of money, how are you going to manage on just 3,000 shekels a month?”
Would you like to get out of prostitution?
Michael: “Yes, but it’s hard to get out. I’m afraid that five years from now, let’s say, it will be impossible to stop. I’m afraid that my reputation will be tarnished and Mom will find out. Even now, I don’t hug her as much because I feel dirty and don’t want her to touch me.”
Jamil: “I think that society needs to wake up. We know kids that are 13 or 14 and working in this. And women really need to wake up too. Every man that comes here, religious or secular, has a wedding ring. The real damage is that you’re drawn into a sick world and surrounded by sick clients and you lose your innocence and develop self-hatred.”
On their computer they have a farewell clip made for a friend who committed suicide a few months ago. Pictures of the handsome youth appear on the screen accompanied by music in the background. “He was gay and his family didn’t accept it,” they say. “He started working in prostitution and hated it. It depressed him and made him commit suicide.” Michael’s expression turns gloomy. “I have suicidal thoughts,” he says.
“Sometimes I feel like my head is exploding with them.”
“We’ll commit suicide together, God willing,” Jamil teases him, gives him a kiss and asks him to turn off the computer. “None of us is really happy,” Jamil says.
Later that night, we meet again near the old bus station. Michael and Jamil are dressed as women. They are gradually surrounded by a group that includes young transgender friends, one of them a girl not yet 15, gays who work in prostitution and girls who just hang out with them. Some of them head off to a club and others stay on the street to work. Rami, 18, is hanging out with the group. Uri Eick and the mobile clinic team ask him to come in and get tested. While the blood sample is being taken, he is asked about how many people he’s had sex with in the past three months. “Between 50 and 100, I’m not sure exactly,” he answers.
“No, women too.”
“Have you ever been tested before?”
He says that when he was 15 he was sexually assaulted. His family knew about the attack, but he never received any treatment. He started working as a prostitute about six months ago. “It’s just for the money,” he says.
Doesn’t working as a prostitute remind you of the sexual assault?
He’s quiet for a moment and his eyes fill with tears. “Yes, it does remind me a bit of the rape situation. After the act with a client it goes through my head.”
Are you under the influence of drugs or alcohol when you’re having sex with clients?
Eick suggests that he come to the clinic for talk therapy. Rami nods. Then he goes and joins the raucous group that is quickly swallowed up in the gloom of the neighborhood.
A line of vehicles is already forming behind them and following them as they stroll around the area.