A Third of Female Sex Workers in Israel Attempted Suicide, Government Study Finds

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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A survivor of prostitution who works at a women's rehabilitation center, July 7, 2019.
A survivor of prostitution who works at a women's rehabilitation center, July 7, 2019. Credit: Meged Gozani
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

A 16-year-old girl living in a fairly small community had been in the cycle of prostitution for many months. Several months ago word got out that many local teenage boys and young men had purchased her sexual services. Then her family found out. She tried to kill herself on a number of occasions. Social service agencies intervened and placed her in a closed facility for at-risk youth, but she continued to try to harm herself. The social workers had to lock away knives and other sharp objects to keep her safe. Today she is healthy, at least physically.

Reports of suicide by female sex workers appear in the news occasionally, such as the case of Jessica, 36, who hanged herself in August 2015 in the infamous Tel Aviv brothel at 98 Hayarkon St., which closed in the wake of the resultant public outcry. But most of the suicide attempts, like the emotional costs paid by these women, go unreported.

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A new study, carried out by the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry over the past year, contains disturbing findings about the frequency of suicide and the emotional pain suffered by women in prostitution.

The study, a copy of which Haaretz obtained, found that 30 percent of women in prostitution in Israel who are known to social services have attempted suicide, including girls aged 13-18. A full 50 percent of women in prostitution who are in the social services system suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder and 40 percent suffer from diagnosed emotional difficulties; 27 percent have been hospitalized in the past and 20 percent are dealing with eating disorders.

The most recent study of this type in Israel was published in 2016. The latest study was conducted as part of the ministry’s obligations as stipulated in the Law for Prohibition of the Consumption of Prostitution Services, which entered into force in July.

Part of the social stigma surrounding women in prostitution is the idea that sex work is an economic choice that has no emotional consequences, says Naftali Yawitz, director of a department in the ministry that deals with the issue. He says his department sees these consequences every day, and that suicides or suicide attempts by sex workers are a weekly or monthly occurrence – “and we believe they are in fact underreported,” he adds. “That’s the other side of the coin, deep pain and trauma. There are even cases when they are already within our systems and getting help. There are young girls who have attempted suicide. The emotional price is intolerable.”

Haaretz has learned that some ministry officials support the establishment of residential treatment centers for women in prostitution who also have emotional disorders, with a staff that includes full-time psychiatrists and people specializing in these areas.

The organizations that aid women in prostitution are all too familiar with suicide. Ayelet Dayan, co-director of the Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution, says that suicide attempts, together with complex PTSD and mental illness, are the result of the exploitation and injury these women experience.

The women themselves can testify to this. “I had a terrible day. My troubles overwhelmed me and I cried most of the day, I fantasized about suicide, I went out with two regular customers and I’m simply exhausted. My life is disgusting. ... I haven’t cleaned my room in three months. Tomorrow a disgusting man is coming to me for sex. Believe me, no one has the mess of problems that I have. I’m fed up,” said a woman in prostitution who works with Lo Omdot Mineged (“Don’t Stand Aside”), a nonprofit organization aiding victims of prostitution. Another woman said: “Prostitution is not a choice. It is continual rape that causes scars and wounds in the soul. I know that prostitution killed me, all the experiences left me bleeding in my soul. I’ve had 21 suicide attempts and today I’m trying to raise my head above the water by force.”

Na’ama Goldberg, the co-founder and director of Lo Omdot Mineged, tells Haaretz that hundreds of women have shared “life stories that are unimaginable” with the organization’s volunteers. “They report ... anxieties and fears, suicidal thoughts, sleep disorders and eating disorders” as a result of prostitution, she says. “This reality is the complete opposite of the public perception of prostitution.”

According to the study, just 1,334 women in prostitution are recognized by social services out of an estimated 14,000 men and women in prostitution in Israel. Of these 1,334, 14 percent are under 18 and 40 percent are between the ages of 18 and 25. Ministry officials believe the number of rehabilitation centers for girls and young women in prostitution aged 13-25 needs to be almost doubled, to 25 from the current 15, including in Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities. The centers provide shelter, hot meals, clothing and help in obtaining government aid.

Although the ministry estimates that at least 200 women in Jerusalem work in prostitution, there are no aid frameworks for women in prostitution in the city.

The report found that even in communities that do have rehabilitation centers or other treatment options, 25 percent of women in prostitution leave them within one month and 36 percent leave within three months. “We recognize that exiting prostitution is a spiral movement, not linear, it’s a long treatment process that we must continually adapt and improve,” says Yawitz.

In a response, Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Itzik Shmuli said his ministry is working to improve and expand its services to women in prostitution. “We must act to eliminate exploitation for sexual purposed. Victims of prostitution deserve significant economic aid and rehabilitation that will enable them to break out of the destructive cycle of their life circumstances. I have advanced a number of unprecedented measures that will help them to rebuild their lives, and I intend to continue” this work, Shmuli said.

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