Analysis

New Sex Work Bill Goes Too Easy on Clients

In choosing fines rather than criminalization, Israeli Justice Minister is hiding behind the failures of other, flopped, anti-prostitution laws

FILE PHOTO: Memorial protest in Israel remembering a prostitute killed on the job
Meged Gozani

The bill presented Wednesday morning by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is an important step in the struggle against prostitution in Israel. The bill aims to end the policy of quiet, creeping institutionalization of sex work that has thrived in Israel for years.

Important as the measure is, the proposal lacks genuine courage and does not go far enough. It largely protects the clients of sex workers, rather than treating their offense with the requisite seriousness. The bill, following models adopted by Sweden, Norway, Canada, Ireland and France, does not criminalize sex workers and provides for their rehabilitation. We can only hopes it will be implemented in an effective manner.

By choosing the path of administrative enforcement — fines and rehabilitation — rather than criminalization, Shaked is hiding behind the failures in enforcing the law prohibiting the purchase of sex from minors. She argues that since no one has ever been charged with patronizing teenage prostitutes, the administrative route is more practical.

But one must wonder whether the years-long failure of the police, the prosecution and the judicial system to enforce the law against paying for sex with minors should deter the government from making it a crime to pay for sex with adults. Moreover, when Israel was sharply criticized in the United Nations report on the Rights of the Child, one of its most significant steps was to increase the punishment for sex with minors to five years in prison, from three years. No proposal was made to waive criminalization and take the administrative route.

While the bill does note that people engage in prostitution out of distress and have difficulty extracting themselves from it, it immediately explains that this doesn’t indicate that prostitution is without consent or involves exploitation. “The proposed offense is not of high severity in the hierarchy of sex offenses. Therefore it is proposed this be a violation of a severity that is not high; an offense punishable by a fine, to be defined as an administrative offense under the Administrative Offenses Law.”

It is unfortunate that despite Shaked’s statements that the bill conveys the message that the consumption of prostitution is morally unacceptable, the bill makes the question of consent relevant, in contrast to the Swedish law, which recognizes consent as marginal and focuses on the damage, the one who causes it, and preventing it. In the Israeli bill, the customer’s culpability and the damage it causes do not receive appropriate expression. One hopes that this will be just a first step on Israel’s route to saying goodbye to modern-day sex slavery.