Analysis

Israel's Law Against Prostitution Heralds a New Era of Gender Equality

It's not as harsh as Sweden's legislation, but after years of a wink from the police and the legal system, the new approach has a chance to smash Israel's sex industry

File photo: Anti-prostitution rally in memory of a murdered sex worker, Tel Aviv, August 15, 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

Let’s take a look at the customers. It’s hard to miss their expensive SUVs honking their horns for prostitutes at Tel Aviv’s old central bus station. Can’t they see the black and blue marks all over these women’s’ bodies left by all the injections? Don’t they notice their physical deterioration and that they’re bleeding?

Recently legislation was introduced to criminalize the use of prostitutes. Those who oppose the measure say “prostitution is a choice.” But that doesn’t look like a choice, but rather enslavement.

Actually, those lines were published more than 11 years ago in an article called “A million little pieces” that appeared in the Haaretz magazine. Now, finally, the Knesset has embraced this legislation and banned the buying of sex.

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From the first day I began documenting the prostitution industry, I believed the bill to ban patronizing prostitutes was the most moral answer to the hell I saw going on around the country. It was happening in apartments, hotels, brothels, strip clubs, “massage” parlors and on the streets. This went on in Israel for many years with a wink from the police and the legal system.

Many weak groups found themselves drawn into the cycle of prostitution: single mothers on the verge of starvation and with heavy debts to the so-called gray market, minors at risk, asylum seekers and transgender people shunned by society. Recently trafficking in women resumed, though with new patterns. In any case, all the victims have suffered the common denominator of being left at the mercy of johns and pimps.

The law criminalizing the hiring of prostitutes passed by the Knesset is a softer version of a Swedish measure from 1999, but it’s still good news. It might smash the prostitution industry in Israel. It might also effect great change regarding attitudes about prostitution.

Most of all, the law protects people who have been ensnared in the cycle of prostitution. They will not be criminalized, out of an understanding that they got there because they did not have any choice, and they will be offered rehabilitation.

The law includes a budget of 90 million shekels ($24 million) over three years and provides the first needed response for mothers who are prostitutes. They make up around 70 percent of the industry. It’s also a response for the men and women who suffer both addiction and emotional damage, and for transgender people.

The law places the responsibility for prostitution on the consumers who have hitherto avoided punishment. They will now be fined, and anyone addicted to these services will be offered treatment, which could also unleash a welcome change in how this issue is viewed.

The law will go into effect in a year and a half so that the government and police can prepare for its implementation, and to ensure alternatives for rehabilitation and protection. The law heralds a new era of humane equality of the sexes. It is revolutionary and a tribute to the survivors and the women who have died in the business over the years.