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Israel Could Have Stopped Exploitation at Strip Clubs a Long Time Ago

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Tel Aviv's Baby Dolls strip club closed under an administrative order, February 10, 2020.
Tel Aviv's Baby Dolls strip club closed under an administrative order, February 10, 2020. Credit: Ilan Assayag

Since the 1990s, Tel Aviv issued business licenses to strip clubs, and together with the police they normalized prostitution in the eyes of Israelis. In practice, they encouraged prostitution tourism that exploited society’s most marginalized women. It took many years, but it seems that finally the city and the police have distanced themselves from this exploitative industry. It’s an important, positive step, that we can hope was made in cooperation with organizations engaged in rehabilitating female sex workers.

Judge Michal Agmon-Gonen’s brave precedent-setting ruling in August 2017 was the first step in the efforts to curb the proliferation of strip clubs in Israel. The revolutionary ruling, in which the judge refused to issue a license to an unlicensed establishment, forced the judicial system, law enforcement and Israeli society as a whole to stare into the abyss of the exploitative prostitution industry, which had been operating for decades under the guise of “sex entertainment” in the area of the diamond exchange in Ramat Gan.

Tel Aviv's Pussycat strip club, in 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod

Her ruling was strengthened when then-Attorney General Shai Nitzan redefined lap dances in clubs as prostitution. The comprehensive list of guidelines issued by Nitzan’s office in April, alongside the January 2019 law criminalizing the clients of sex workers, completed the revolution now under way in Israel, which adopted a legal language that expresses a unified and uncompromising policy against prostitution, and provided law enforcement with substantial tools against the crime organizations that operate the clubs.

This week’s administrative order shuttering three Tel Aviv strip clubs was welcome news from both the feminist and humanist perspectives. Strip clubs market themselves to the public as no different from any other form of entertainment, while ignoring the harm suffered by women who are trapped in these jobs.

No amount of whitewashing will erase the fact that lap dancing demeans and objectifies the women who perform them. The profile of the average stripper is the same as that of the average female sex worker. Most are young women who suffer economic hardship, depression and drug addiction, and who have been sexually abused. They are easily lured into strip clubs with online and newspaper ads promising vast salaries.

While researching Tel Aviv’s Baby Dolls for a Haaretz article in 2013, I interviewed a 30-year-old woman who worked as a stripper in the club. “I saw a newspaper ad and I was in a bad emotional state,” she told me. “A year before, I had been raped, and my life was in tatters. I’ve since been in therapy and I’m at a different place now, and today I wouldn’t work at a place like that. I was desperate and I had no place to sleep.”

Women working at the GoGo strip club demonstrating against its closure, February 10, 2020. Credit: Ilan Assayag

Tamar worked at Baby Dolls for a month, sleeping on the premises. “The month that I spent there undermined my emotional state and my perception of myself,” she said. “You feel like you’re only a body, a sex object, and that that’s all you’re worth. Your self-image gets worn down in places like that, you feel like you’re nothing.” Drugs were regularly used by the strippers and the staff of the club, she said. “Many of them use it often, take it in order to dissociate before going onstage,” she said.

To be clear: Shutting down strip clubs won’t end stripping, which is alive and well in private settings like bachelor parties, brokered by agencies that work with the prostitution industry. Shutting down the clubs isn’t enough: Their operators and owners must be prosecuted for exploiting women.

It’s important to note that those who stand to lose the most from the abolition of strip clubs are pimps and the crime organizations that use them as cash cows. In my 2013 article, Tamar said that most of her wages were from tips, and mentioned the club’s private rooms, which were used for sex work. “Though the ads promise big money, you don’t get anything from your employers,” she said. “The work is intense, you’re signed up for five shifts a week according to your contract, and at the end you don’t even get a paycheck from the venue.”

Tamar said that Baby Dolls opened at around 6 P.M. and that clients began arriving around 9. Strippers’ shifts ended around 4 or 6 A.M. “The only money you get is from the clients,” she said. “You’re depending on their tips and their whims. You see girls going up to the rooms all the time, with clients and with the club’s security guard following.” Half of what they received, she said, would go to the club owners. Ultimately, Tamar escaped the club, fearing that she would be coerced into sex with the clients.

Closing the clubs is, as I said, a positive step, but it is egregious that the Tel Aviv city hall, the police and the State Attorney’s Office have only acted now to end these years of exploitation.

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