Israel Wants to Completely Criminalize Paying for Sex

A bill has across-the-board support in the Knesset, although the Public Defender's Office fears that the move would simply drive prostitution underground.

Sharon Pulwer
Sharon Pulwer
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A prostitute on the street
A prostitute on the street. Credit: Reuters
Sharon Pulwer
Sharon Pulwer

Opponents of prostitution may soon be backed by a law calling for the criminalization of clients, including possible jail time for repeat offenders in a country where 10,000 or so women go out every evening and see an average of five or six clients.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Haaretz he would like to see such legislation, and other ministries are onboard. There is also across-the-board support in the Knesset; the two MKs behind a bill in the works are at the opposite ends of the political spectrum: Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi) and Zehava Galon (Meretz).

“I have no doubt that the law will mean a comprehensive change in the way the state deals with consumption of prostitution, and it will eventually root out the phenomenon,” said Galon, Meretz’s chairwoman. “I don’t believe that anyone can find a reason to oppose such an important and humane action.”

The two lawmakers submitted their bill this week, but it will come up for a vote only after the rules for implementing it have been hammered out. The first is step for a special interministerial committee to determine whether the authorities would be ready to enforce such a law.

This decision is expected to come in May. According to an anti-prostitution project, more than 300,000 men could be affected by such a law.

The bill is expected to come up for a vote during the Knesset’s winter session, after the interministerial committee completes its work.

“The mood today is leaning toward prohibiting the consumption of prostitution with the addition of a rehabilitation model, but it’s not clear if everything will be in one package,” a member of the interministerial committee said.

The committee is headed by Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor; its members come from the ministries of social affairs, health, finance, education, public security and justice. Also on the panel are members of social action groups and academics.

Fines, then jail

According to the proposal the committee is working on, a client of paid sex caught for the first time would pay a fine of 1,250 shekels ($339), and the fine would be halved if the offender attended an anti-prostitution course, similar to courses traffic offenders must take. Second offenders would be fined 2,500 shekels, while repeat offenders could find themselves in prison for a year.

Money from the fines would help fund rehabilitation programs for former prostitutes.

According to a person present at meetings between Moalem-Refaeli, Galon and Erdan, the minister intends to help promote the law and increase its likelihood of passing.According to Moalem-Refaeli, a position paper on the subject included unequivocal support for criminalization by both Erdan and Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich. Finance Ministry people, including budget experts, toured areas where prostitution is common and “everybody came back with very clear understandings,” Moalem-Refaeli said.

Along with penalizing clients, the proposal also includes the rehabilitation of sex workers. The bill recommends the establishment of a national authority to deal with prostitution, and a rehabilitation program tailored to the needs of each woman.

The program would include halfway houses, psychological treatment, financial support for the women and assistance for their children. The last issue is a problem because there are no figures on the number of children whose mothers are sex workers.

The members of the interministerial committee realize that current rehabilitation services for prostitutes are a far cry from those required if the bill is passed. The Social Affairs Ministry currently provides assistance to around 600 prostitutes annually.

But according to experts, the law would require assistance to thousands of women without means of support once they left prostitution. The current budget of 8 million shekels a year would have to be increased to around 20 million shekels, experts say.

“In the first years when there is a large number of women still working as prostitutes, more funding will have to be earmarked for rehabilitation,” said Yael Gur, a social worker who heads the Health Ministry’s Levinsky Clinic. Gur is also the Health Ministry’s representative on the committee.

According to Gur, major funding would have to be committed for at least a decade to provide former sex workers with psychological assistance and help them find a new means of livelihood.

Moalem-Rafaeli and Galon’s talks with the social affairs and finance ministries indicate that funding would be gradual, based on revenues from fines imposed on clients and considering the number of women leaving prostitution.

The funding is also meant to be used in a new project to be run with the police’s cyberunit. The authorities would use the internet both to locate sex workers and direct them to rehabilitation services.

Another initiative is to recognize prostitution as a disability for which an allowance could be granted from the National Insurance Institute.

“The moment the number of consumers of prostitution declines, we have to give alternatives to former prostitutes; otherwise they won’t be able to make a living,” said Efrat Sharabi, deputy head of services for the individual and family welfare at the Social Affairs Ministry.

“Almost 80 percent of prostitutes reported that they work as prostitutes because they need the money. Prostitution is the fastest way to get it,” said Sharabi, who is also a member of the interministerial committee.

Opposition to the bill

But not everyone believes that the bill is the solution. The Public Defender’s Office vehemently opposes criminalization of prostitutes’ clients.

“It’s clear to everyone that prostitution will continue to exist,” said the deputy head of the Public Defender’s Office, Hagit Lernau. Criminalization would only drive it underground, and women prostitutes would find themselves more cut off from help that the police could provide and access to other assistance, she said.

Lernau, who is also a member of the interministerial committee, said criminalizing clients of prostitution would harm them the same way drug users are harmed by criminalization.

“There are said to be hundreds of thousands of clients of prostitutes, some of whom live ordinary lives. They could become criminals overnight,” she said.

“And it probably won’t be considered a serious offense, which means the police won’t invest significant resources in enforcement.”

Lernau says the people who stand to be hurt the most are the male and female sex workers.

“Taking a group everyone agrees is vulnerable and trying to help them by making their situation worse in the hope that impairing their livelihood will lead them to rehabilitation is a very problematic approach,” she said.

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