Stop Blaming Israeli Prostitutes; What About the Clients?

Regulating the oldest profession will not bring an end to the violence and enslavement. On the contrary.

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In an essay on “the Israeli client” ‏(in “Flesh and Blood: Prostitution, Trafficking and Pornography in Israel” - in Hebrew, Pardes Press‏), attorney Naomi Levenkorn, who crafted the wording of the bill to charge sex industry consumers with criminal liability, complains that for many years it was only women who were put under the spotlight when the issue of prostitution was examined. “It was the woman’s background, her family, her tendencies, her drug addiction, her emotional, financial and social state that was scrutinized. But the one driving the demand the client is hardly investigated at all. The client of the sex industry, the one who makes it thrive, who often hurts women more than their pimps or traffickers do, who shapes the image of the woman in whom he is interested and influences the sex industry despite all his importance, is the least scrutinized player in the world of prostitution.” For years, the client has continued to elude public view. He eludes the eye of justice as well as of the media.

And once again, in the article in last week’s Haaretz Magazine, instead of discussing the client’s motivations and his criminal responsibility, instead of examining who is truly responsible for the existence of prostitution, who profits from it and why there is justification for putting the customer on trial and terming him a “criminal,” we got questions like: “Do women choose to become prostitutes?” This is the sort of question that interested parties in the prostitution industry have been pushing in the media in recent years.

The public’s attitude toward prostitution is often tainted with prejudice. Similar notions about domestic violence and sexual assault that were once quite common ‏(“She went to his apartment, so ...,” “She wears revealing clothing, so ...” are often applied by society to prostitution ‏(“She chose it”‏). The Association to Regularize Prostitution in Israel, as its name indicates, is dedicated to bringing order to the profession. In my work as a journalist, I have frequent occasion to observe the scenes of prostitution - discreet apartments, escort services and the street. Prostitution in Israel appears to already be under some supervision and institutional monitoring. Aid organizations working on behalf of the Health Ministry come to these places and conduct tests for disease among women who work in prostitution, among clients and even pimps. Police cars patrol areas known for prostitution and a certain status quo seems to be maintained between the police and these places. It all goes on right under the state’s watchful eye, and yet violence is increasing and the oppression of women is intolerable.

Will regularization bring an end to the violence? An end to the enslavement? Not at all. From the day I first began covering the scenes of prostitution and interviewing people, I have been documenting violence and cruelty to women, men and transgenders in prostitution. Before rushing to regularize prostitution in Israel, we should first look elsewhere in the world, at the countries that have regularized prostitution such as Holland and see how the model is working. Holland is now considering canceling the regularization, which has not reduced the incidence of prostitution. Instead, it is perpetuating insupportable injustice, oppression and violence. Regularization turns pimping into a recognized and legal profession, thereby giving a legal imprimatur from society as a whole to business conducted in the shadows. Reports clearly show, as was noted in the article, that the Dutch regularization only led to an increase in prostitution and drug use, and fostered conditions for a thriving sex trafficking trade. So if the Association for the Regularization of Prostitution really wants to fight sex trafficking, as it professes to do, it cannot call for the regularization of prostitution.

In the article, representatives from the organization also complain that “the biggest problem is that people confuse us with street prostitutes ... We want prostitution to leave the street, we want the phenomenon of junkie girls who are exploited and beaten, not to mention the victims of trafficking in women, to disappear completely.” You wonder if there is really any connection between prostitution that doesn’t happen on the street and prostitution that does happen on the street? Well, the prostitution of women starts in discreet apartments and escort services - just where the women interviewed for the article ply their trade.

Most often, women who work in luxury apartments become addicted to drugs. It’s hard to blame them. A prostitution “shift” requires them to work 12 to 14 hours during which they have to perform sex acts with 10 to 20 men on average. If you can’t commit to four or five such shifts a week, you don’t work. Often the owners of these places supply the women with hagigat and other “good” drugs so they will have “desire” and be alert and show an interest in the clients, and, mainly, so they will feel disconnected from their bodies. When they become chronic, hard users, the owners throw them out. Clients don’t want to see girls with marks on their bodies from shooting up, or keep girls who are clearly drugged in “prestigious” places. So the women go from one place to another and finally end up on the street. No woman sets out to work as a street prostitute, but many end up on the street as their last stop.

And is there no exploitation of women in escort services and apartments? Is there no violence against women in these places, or women who become drug addicts ‏(and often have to hide this‏)? The Association for the Regularization of Prostitution in Israel is trying to market itself as wanting to fight this “last stop,” but this stop is just one link in the chain of prostitution. There is no real difference between the different arenas.

And note the demand regarding the women who work in the street: “We want prostitution to leave the street, we want the phenomenon of junkie girls who are exploited and beaten, not to mention the victims of trafficking in women, to disappear completely.” One could raise the same argument against the women interviewed in the article that they so angrily direct at feminists: Why won’t they accept the desire of junkie girls to work as street prostitutes? Why do they think that women in the street have no right to work as prostitutes? How dare they be so “patronizing” and deny the junkies in the street the right to work? Is it because the junkies in the street are ruining the image they’re trying to sell, the idea that “prostitution is a great thing”? Is it because of the low fees that women on the street receive, revealing the truth about the world’s oldest profession?

To fight drug addiction, Israeli law prohibits their manufacture, possession, use, trade, import, and the temptation of minors. Every link in the illegal drug industry is punished in accordance with the law. The legislature has never considered legalizing the trade in heroin just because there are people who think heroin is a wonderful drug and they “choose” to be addicted to it. Prostitution itself has never been prohibited in Israel. Women who work in prostitution are not breaking any law, nor are the men who buy sex services. Israeli criminal law prohibits pimping, leading someone into prostitution, maintaining or running a place of prostitution.

In Sweden, which in 1999 became the first country to enact a law against prostitutes' customers, prostitution is prohibited and criminal liability is imposed on all parties involved, except for the women. The law that criminalizes customers of sex services represents an attitude in which the society takes responsibility and stigmatizes the customer, rather than the woman working as a prostitute. For the first time, the woman who works in prostitution is not the one subject to criticism, sanction and condemnation. According to the available data, since the law was enacted in Sweden, the number of women engaged in prostitution has declined by two-thirds. The law has also helped to halt the entry of more women into prostitution, and there has been a decline in the number of women smuggled into Sweden to work in prostitution. Prostitution is decreasing there year by year. The Swedish model has been successfully implemented in Iceland and Norway as well, and somewhat surprisingly, France has also approved a law against consumers of prostitution.

I want people to bear in mind that in the last few years, reports from aid organizations in Israel are warning that the age of entering into prostitution is dropping, with the average age now being 14 ‏(similar to Western countries‏). Elem estimates that a third of the 5,000 people trapped in the sex industry in Israel are minors. In March 2008, I reported in Haaretz that the prostitution fees around the Tel Aviv central bus station had gone down to just NIS 5. The time has come for the customer to pay the true price for the dehumanization he causes to prostitution workers and be fully recognized as the criminal he is.

A prostitute on the street. Credit: Reuters