Israel Tries a New Approach to the World’s Oldest Profession

Proposed legislation aims to criminalize clients of prostitution. But will it really bring change?

Women waiting for clients on the streets of south Tel Aviv, July 27, 2017.
Ilan Assayag

Nighttime in central Tel Aviv. The cafés are bustling, the restaurants packed. On 12 Carlebach Street, by the post office and a bank, lies an apartment with a spa, offering massage services. The reception desk has a sign on it: “Sex not provided here.” But according to online forums plied by consumers of prostitution services, it most certainly is – for 300 shekels ($83).

The secretary, sitting next to two tattooed titans by the entrance, inquires about my sexual preferences. When I explain that I’m there to write an article, all three refuse to speak.

A woman wrapped in a towel peers out of the room next door. They won’t let me talk with her. I ask what they think about the law to incriminate those who use prostitutes, which passed a preliminary Knesset reading a few weeks ago. They shrug. “It’s irrelevant to us,” they say and point to the sign.

Five minutes drive away, in south Tel Aviv, there are no such signs. Three women are looking for clients by the former Central Bus Station area. They won’t talk about the law, either. The laws of Israel aren’t relevant in these parts, which are controlled by violence, exploitation and drugs.

But the laws of economics don’t apply here, either. Israel’s sex industry turns over some 1.5 billion shekels a year – an estimate that probably falls well short of the reality, given the reluctance of the industry’s participants to openly disclose their business.

A young woman on the streets of south Tel Aviv, awaiting clients.
Ilan Assayag

A survey conducted jointly by the social affairs and public security ministries last year found that some 12,000 people work in Israel’s sex industry, which serves hundreds of thousands of clients a year. Prices for services may range from the equivalent of a few dollars to hundreds.

The private apartments in which sex services are provided are believed to turn over about 600 million shekels a year, while escort services turn over about 200 million, according to Economy Ministry figures. Street prostitution is estimated to turn over 60 million shekels a year. Of course, none of this gets reported to the taxman. None of the sex workers get social benefits, pensions or social security. This is an entire industry that has nothing legal in it. The only ones really making money are the pimps.

Very few cases about raids by the Tax Authority or police are publicized, but the stories that are give some idea about the scope of activity. They indicate that the Economy Ministry’s assessments are seriously lowballed.

In June, charges were filed against Noi Hadad and Sarit Yitzhak-Agranova, the managers of two brothels in Tel Aviv. Their establishments alone are believed to have turned over anywhere from 35 million to 100 million shekels in the space of three years.

At the start of the year, Einat Harel – aka the Madame of Tel Aviv – was sentenced to 44 months in prison for operating brothels in three different apartments. The police originally claimed Harel had concealed 47 million shekels in revenues over seven years, but in the plea bargain the amount was revised to 5.5 million.

And these are the minnows in the world of prostitution: The big pimps and traffickers earn much more.

Lena from Lewinsky Street

Either way, the ones really profiting from prostitution in Israel are organized crime gangs. Prostitutes working at the brothels mentioned above usually get half the money clients pay, but often spend much of that on drugs.

They may be mum about the new legislation on the street, but users on web forums frequented by johns were distinctly more vocal.

“How the hell is this happening? Anyway, Lena from Lewinsky Street once told me there’s no way this law will pass. She knows people in high places who use girl services,” wrote one poster innocuously calling himself Eliahu, on a forum less innocuously called Sex Adir (“Terrific Sex”).

It's estimated that between 12 and 18 percent of men visit prostitutes in Israel.
Ilan Assayag

“Wait a sec, from now on it’s illegal to go to escorts?” wondered the user dubbed “The big with the big.” Benzi8 promptly reassured him: “It’s still legal, they just decided in principle to enact a law it will take time.”

It will indeed. The bill criminalizing johns, and a second bill seeking to rehabilitate former prostitutes, both passed one critical hurdle – the Ministerial Committee for Legislation – on July 16. Three days later, they passed the next hurdle: the first of three readings into law in the Knesset.

Based on the proposed new law, a client caught for the first time will be fined 1,250 shekels, which will be halved if he agrees to attend a course on not using prostitutes. Get caught twice and the fine doubles to 2,500 shekels. Get caught again – i.e., become defined as a serial user of prostitutes – and you’re facing a year in jail.

Or not. The bill is not yet law, and the last time anybody tried to pass such a law it also passed the first two hurdles – then went nowhere and subsequently fell, together with the 18th Knesset.

One problem with criminalizing johns is that it means fighting a primeval sense that sex is something that can be bought with money or obtained by force, says MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union). “It is an incursion into male territory.”

But just as everyone today knows the difference between courtship and harassment, concepts can change about prostitution too, she says. “Consumption of prostitution is an activity along the continuum of sexual abuse,” says Michaeli. “It is no coincidence that the vast majority of prostitutes experienced sexual abuse in childhood. Anti-customer legislation is really a change in the world order.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked supports the concept behind the bill. “This law is first of all a statement that going to prostitution is immoral and should not exist in our society,” she told the Knesset. Nevertheless, she would rather wait for government-sponsored legislation rather than a private members bill.

Prostitution isn’t an isolated problem. It comes along with human trafficking, pimping, drugs, abuse of minors, pedophilia and violence. Life expectancy rates in the industry are significantly shorter than among the general population. The proposed legislation wants to spell out: Legitimizing prostitution is identical to legitimizing pedophilia or violence. Users will not be able to pretend it’s okay.

Across the spectrum

According to the social affairs and public security ministries’ 2016 report, 7 percent of women in the sex trade say they got into it because of drug or alcohol addiction, while 5% said the main cause was prior sexual abuse. However, two-thirds blamed economic circumstances. And in a 1998 U.S. study, 57% of the women reported a history of sexual abuse; other studies place the figure as high as 85%.

Clearly, the statistics are not precise, but it’s difficult to obtain accuracy when dealing with an industry that operates in the dark. The only thing we can say for sure is that if Israel criminalizes the use of prostitution, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are about to become criminals.

Who are these users? Well, they come from across the spectrum.

“I started to go to prostitutes in high school, and continued in the army and afterward, too,” says Itamar (a pseudonym). “By the age of 18 I was going to strip clubs, and from there to escort services. I’d spend 300 to 500 shekels a month, and I know there are people who turn this into a weekly ritual.” He personally spent all his money earmarked for dating on prostitution: “There’s an addiction to going to prostitutes. It isn’t only the release and orgasm; it’s the entire experience of being able to come discreetly, choosing who you want.”

He even assumed it was fun for the women, aside from being their occupation: “I didn’t realize these were women in economic distress,” he says.

“This is a cross-sectoral phenomenon,” says Natalie Levin-Ohana, a manager at Toda’a – a nonproft that hopes to change public perceptions of prostitution. “Men stop by prostitutes in the morning, on the way to work, the way you drink a cup of coffee,” she adds.

Previous research suggests 12 to 18% of Israeli men above age 18 frequent prostitutes, which is about the same as the reported rate in Europe.

Everywhere, though, the assumption is that their predilection is underreported because of a sense of shame.

Dr. Yeela Lahav-Raz, of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, says there are three basic types of john: the consumer; the predator; and the addict.

Self-described addicts of prostitution describe dysfunction in the family as they spend their nights on the hunt. Their bodies and minds may be in pain; they may want to stop, but not feel able. They are not addicted to sex but to other aspects of prostitution – like being in control or role-playing, Lahav-Raz qualifies. The authorities do not treat them as addicts, she says. That’s a theory Rachel, a former prostitute, recognizes: She hasn’t met a single man who lost his home and everything over “addiction” to prostitution.

Meanwhile, the only thing that isn’t illegal about prostitution is its consumption: Tax laws, labor laws, municipal bylaws – you name it, it’s violated. No business licenses either, of course. And maybe soon, even consumption will be illegal.

“I was in the field for four years and I saw it all,” says Rachel. “From laborers to judges, Knesset members on the right and left, from east and from west. There are fathers who take their sons to an initiation ceremony at age 13, and high school graduation parties that invite female strippers with the full knowledge of teachers. It’s legitimate everywhere.

“The paradox is that it is mainstream, but women in prostitution are excluded from the mainstream,” she continues. “Prostitution is not sexy – just as children with cancer and the disabled are not sexy. The sex industry works hard to create stereotypes that are wrong. ... People are stuck on this fantasy of a liberal student. I have no idea how they get from a woman at the Central Bus Station with needle marks to that.”