Prostitution in Israel Netted $308 Million in 2014, First-ever Survey Finds

Government study says up to 12,730 sex workers in 2014, each with approximately 660 clients a year; Tel Aviv is center of Israeli sex industry.

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Outside the old bus station in Tel Aviv. The average age of the girls entering prostitution is 13 to 14.
Outside the old bus station in Tel Aviv. The average age of the girls entering prostitution is 13 to 14.Credit: Nir Kafri

The first-ever government survey into prostitution in Israel found that annual payments to sex workers amounted to an estimated 1.2 billion shekels ($308.2 million) in 2014.

The survey by the social affairs and public security ministries found there were between 11,420 and 12,730 prostitutes in Israel that year, 95 percent of them female. The data, published last week, showed that each sex worker had approximately 660 clients a year.

According to the study, as many as 1,260 minors were employed as prostitutes or at risk of prostitution in 2014. The Social Affairs Ministry’s current budget for combating prostitution is 22 million shekels, with about two-thirds of it earmarked for dealing with minors.

“The data is very difficult, and we cannot remain indifferent to such a phenomenon,” Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz said. He said the budget for treating prostitution among minors will rise this year.

Over 40 percent of the 1.2 billion shekels goes to prostitutes working out of “discreet apartments,” while the total income of sex workers walking the streets amounted to about 70 million shekels in 2014.

The study was eight years in the making. In 2007, the year before it was launched, an interministerial committee formulated a plan to deal with prostitution among women and girls. However, it soon became clear that no precise numbers were available to indicate the extent of the phenomenon or its characteristics. This situation had been known since the 1990s, when government committees determined that research was needed.

Publication of the study was delayed by both organizational and methodological problems, which led to criticism of the Social Affairs Ministry by experts in the field.

The survey, conducted among a sample of some 600 female sex workers, revealed economic hardship as the primary reason women said they were working as prostitutes. Sixty-six percent of the women interviewed said they started working as prostitutes to pay off debts, while 10 percent said they had no other profession and no other way of supporting their children. More than 70 percent said that working as prostitutes had failed to solve their financial problems and therefore they could not stop.

“I had problems with my mortgage, the National Insurance Institute didn’t help. They wanted to take my house,” one woman told interviewers. Another said, “I worked as a waitress and at McDonald’s before this, but inflation started and all the prices went up. Everything was expensive – food, everything – so I needed more money.”

The women interviewed had an average of 12.2 years of schooling, while 20 percent had academic degrees.

Of the other reasons women said they entered prostitution, 9 percent said they were led into it by another person; 7 percent cited substance abuse; and 5 percent said sexual abuse.

The survey distinguished between various types of prostitution: street- or apartment-based; prostitution offering massage or escort services; services such as exotic dancing; domination; and prostitution among transgender individuals.

The survey showed that prostitution in dwellings was nine times more common than in the street.

The women in the survey said they took an average of 5.3 clients a day and that they normally worked 2.5 days a week. About a quarter of the women said they took more than seven clients a day.

The survey revealed that most of the women interviewed were not temporary sex workers: 40 percent had been working between five and 15 years, and 12 percent had been prostitutes for more than 16 years.

The findings showed a large gap between the number of women who want to leave prostitution and those who believe they can – 76 percent versus 24 percent. In answer to the question “Do you see yourself in prostitution for many more years?” one woman responded, “I really hope not. The truth is I tried to go home, but the easy money brought me back here. This is not my dream, but the reality is different. There’s nothing to be done. I would like a normal life.”

The main center of prostitution in Israel is Tel Aviv and the center of the country – 62 percent of the “discreet apartments” and 48 percent of the massage parlors are in the Tel Aviv area. Only about 1 percent of such facilities are in Jerusalem.

The survey discovered there were approximately 670 adult sex websites in 2014, including erotic pictures of women and men offering to pay for sex. Advertising sex for a fee is becoming more common, and there are also apps for this purpose. These findings, according to the survey, show a change in the sex industry in Israel. In the past, it was an underworld phenomenon dominated by pimps, whereas sex on the Web is global and without boundaries – which must be dealt with internationally, the survey concluded.

The authors of the survey conceded that they had difficulty pinpointing an accurate number of minors working in prostitution. To arrive at a figure, the survey used numbers provided by social workers and by an at-risk youth assistance organization, Elem.

“My mother threw me out of the house. If I went to her, she’d call the police right away. I was 12 and I saw some guy drive by in a car; he stopped for me. He was 27 and he asked me why I was outside at that hour. He offered to take me to live with him in a village in exchange for me sleeping with him regularly,” one minor said.

Forty-five percent of the women interviewed said they started working as prostitutes between the ages of 25 and 39. Only 9 percent said they started when they were under 18. Most of the women – 62 percent – were mothers, and 9 percent were married.

Fifty-two percent of the women interviewed were natives of the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe; most had come to live in Israel during the wave of immigration in the 1990s.

In terms of male sex workers, some 68 percent provide sex exclusively to men, and 23 percent only to women. Nine percent provided sex to both men and women. Forty-one percent of the men said they were sex workers because they were attracted to the profession; 40 percent cited economic hardship as the reason.

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