How to Answer the Silent Call for Help of Israeli Prostitutes

Addressing prostitution requires more than the passage of a law. The need to do so became painfully clear in the wake of the suicide of a Tel Aviv prostitute earlier this month.

Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar
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Protesters hold signs reading 'Prostitution is rape,' and 'Brothel = rape facility,' Tel Aviv, August 22, 2015.
Protesters hold signs reading 'Prostitution is rape,' and 'Brothel = rape facility,' Tel Aviv, August 22, 2015.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar

Things that didn’t happen this week:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened an urgent cabinet meeting and established a comprehensive emergency plan to rehabilitate women in prostitution. In the plan, large sums were allocated to aid in the areas of housing, employment and more, which will allow the women to escape from prostitution.

In addition the government decided on a number of immediate measures:

*Active enforcement of the law prohibiting pimping and the maintenance of premises for purposes of prostitution.

*Advancement of a law prohibiting hiring of prostitutes (called the Client Criminalization Law).

Escort parlors and private apartments where prostitution takes place have become part of the Tel Aviv landscape.Credit: Limor Edrey

*A team appointed by the public security minister and justice minister will examine why the procurers’ house in Tel Aviv continued to operate despite closure orders issued in recent years and indeed returned to operation just three hours after the removal from the premises of the body of the woman who committed suicide after spending 15 years there during which she was raped dozens of times a night for 12 hours, six days a week.

*There will be an inquiry into why at the demonstration held on Saturday evening near the place where the woman hanged herself the police did not refrain from taking violent measures against demonstrators and even arrested one of them, instead of arresting pimps.

*The public security minister appointed a woman as the new chief of the Israel Police. It is not certain that this move will lead to the recovery of this rotting organization, in which only recently some of its top officers have been suspected of various offenses, including sexual harassment and indecent acts.

*The education minister ordered immediate formulation of a program for gender studies to be implemented at the start of the school year next week in all schools everywhere in the country.

*Israeli society has acknowledged that a gender holocaust is underway in its midst: The victims of are girls and women – as well as men, mainly boys – most of them victims of sexual abuse in childhood, who enter the cycle of prostitution, from which for the most part there is no exit, at the average age of 14. And the society that has acknowledged this has decided to declare: never again.And back to the reality. The public discussion of prostitution focuses mainly on the debate as to whether to pass a law to incriminate the client or rather a law to institutionalize prostitution, and on questions like whether women and men who want to root out this social phenomenon are talking patronizingly over the heads of the women in prostitution themselves, and what the real interests are of those who support institutionalization. On both sides of the fence unambiguous solutions are being proposed. However, the situation is far too complex to deal with in a single way.

Outside the old bus station in Tel Aviv. The average age of the girls entering prostitution is 13 to 14.Credit: Nir Kafri

Reut Guy, a prominent activist in the field, is the director at Elem, a non-profit organization for youth in distress and an organizer of the demonstration last Saturday night. “I have met hundreds of girls and women in prostitution and there are no two women who will say the same thing,” she explains. “Among other things, it depends on at what stage you meet them: A girl of 16 needs something different from a woman of 40 or 30. She is in a different place in the world of prostitution. Girls do not identify themselves as victims, they are still in control of the situation. Sometimes the prostitution is in exchange for vodka or cigarettes. It’s not like at age 30 when she is trapped in a ‘parlor.’ Someone who works at a strip club needs something different from someone who is already shooting up at the Central Bus Station. There is a continuum in this world. There is no single solution – institutionalization or criminalization. There is a lot in between.”

The Sla’it and Ofek Nashi programs in Tel Aviv and Haifa, respectively (under the aegis of the Social Affairs Ministry and operated by the municipalities) are helping women get out of the cycle of prostitution but this is a drop in the bucket. They help several hundred women every year but there are tens of thousands of other women they do not reach. Someone like Jessica – as the woman who committed suicide last week was known – never even came within their range.

Guy makes it clear that the solution has to be very comprehensive and must include three elements: identification of the population in prostitution and fundamental and extensive help for the women and girls, enforcement of the law and a change in public awareness. Is it possible to extricate them?

“We don’t extricate them,” clarifies Guy. “We help them get out if they want to. We help them want to get out. The idea is to expand their set of options. Women and girls go into prostitution out of a limited set of options. We are in big competition with the world of prostitution: It offers money that is quick available cash, though not really easy at all, and also a sense of worth – someone is paying to be with me. It isn’t spoken about much, the profits of the world of prostitution, the reasons they find prostitution an effective survival strategy. After all, otherwise they would not be using it; they aren’t stupid. The aim is to show them that it is possible to survive in other ways – that won’t lead to their death at age 40.”

The alternative, the path to a different way of life includes not only an employment alternative but also comprehensive care, both psychological and physical.

Legally, it’s a wide-open arena, she says. The punishments are risible and the existing laws are not enforced. Thus, for example, the punishment for sex with a minor is three years in prison, as compared to selling drugs to a minor for which the punishment is 21 years in prison. In 2014 alone, 1,000 girls under the age of 18 were added to the number of women in prostitution, according to Social Affairs Ministry figures.

As for changing public opinion, at the demonstration last Saturday night Guy called upon men to stop engaging the services of prostitutes, going to parties to which strippers are invited and visiting strip clubs.

“Prostitution has social legitimacy the likes of which I have not seen for many other phenomena. I ask women friends: If someone with whom you go out on a date tells you that he once raped someone, would you carry on with the date? Clearly not. And if he tells you he went to a prostitute? Once, in Thailand? The date will continue. It’s not considered out of bounds in our society. Therefore action by the police and the welfare authorities isn’t going to help on its own. In order to fight such an entrenched social phenomenon, it has to be a combined and funded force.”

Sla’it, the Tel Aviv aid program for women in prostitution, this week assembled a list of 30 women in prostitution who died circumstances connected to their way of life in recent years. Their average age when they died was 40. According to Sla’it director Naama Ze’evi Rivlin, some of them died due to the collapse of their bodily systems and some were beaten until they lost consciousness.

“Thirty women in seven years,” stresses Rivlin. “Every three months on average a woman in prostitution dies. The violence is inherent in prostitution. Women in prostitution tell us how they need to kill their soul so as not to know and not to feel what their body is going through. Quantities of downers, pills, alcohol and also hard drugs. Tactical aids for cutting yourself off and not existing. The soul doesn’t exist and the body wanes. Because how long can you survive hundreds of penetrations by hundreds of men a year, year after year? Prostitution kills. It kills the soul and then the body.”

It killed Jessica. According to friends who worked with her, her decision to hang herself in the room where she lived and was exploited by dozens of men every night is a statement against what she experienced for 20 years and a call for help for the rest of the women in prostitution.

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