In Israel's Prostitution Industry, the Women Supervisors Get Exploited Too

Non-sex work at a brothel is still selling sex. Plus there’s the danger of a violent customer, while male managers make the big money. If only Israel's courts understood.

Vered Lee
Vered Lee
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Escort parlors and private apartments where prostitution takes place have become part of the Tel Aviv landscape.
Escort parlors and private apartments where prostitution takes place have become part of the Tel Aviv landscape.Credit: Limor Edrey
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

Over the course of a year, Meital, a 35-year-old single mother, ran a brothel a “small and solid” place, she says.

“I rented a simple furnished apartment in a poor, neglected and crumbling building. I published an ad and employed a woman as a prostitute. I started with one and moved on to two as things developed,” says Meital all the women’s names have been changed for this story.

“The place was open from 9 A.M. until 4 P.M., when I would answer the phone from my other job, and when there wasn’t any interest in the morning, the place was open in the evening.”

The picture she describes is similar to the one painted at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court last month when a ruling legalized prostitution on the condition that the venue be rented by several women together, or by one woman who invites other women to join in.

Meital was one such woman. She rented an apartment and ran her business.

Actually, Meital went into that business due to a raft of crises in her life. These included a violent partner, rape, physical and emotional wounds and drug addiction. She worked for minimum wage and started the brothel to finance her drug habit. After a year, she says, “a known criminal arrived. He asked for protection money and I refused.”

Her visitor then locked her and her two employees in the apartment for three days. “I reached an understanding with him,” Meital says. “He would open a big brothel and I would manage it.”

This is how Meital became the manager of an establishment that employed 12 women as prostitutes, but she didn’t enjoy the promotion. “I made mounds of cash some 100,000 shekels [$25,900] every month but everything went to the drug dealers and was spent on shopping as a way to compensate. I was unhappy, desperate. Today I feel like throwing up. I’m very ashamed of what I did.”

She served a prison sentence for pimping and running brothels after refusing a plea bargain that would have commuted her sentence if she turned in the man she worked for. “I preferred to keep quiet because it was clear that if I mentioned his name I wouldn’t remain alive,” she says.

Meital’s story is one example of a trend in response to stricter legislation against trafficking in women in recent years: The men stay behind the scenes and put the women out front in managerial positions.

According to Roni Shapiro, the director of Israel’s rehabilitation unit for female prisoners, “The men still run everything and control everything, but from a distance, from a safe place. The women move to the forefront, and they’re the ones in danger of being jailed.”

The judge’s dream world

Most brothels in Haifa and the north are run by women, “behind which hides a male world of criminals,” Shapiro says. “The women are at the bottom of the hierarchy and remain exploited. Even when they’re supposedly advancing to a secretarial job manager of a brothel, pimping the men are still the ones who take in the big money.”

Shapiro says she doesn’t know of a case in prostitution in which women run their own place.

“Those who bring them into the position of brothel manager are men. He’s the origin of the wealth, he’s the one who pushes everything from behind the scenes, and many times he doesn’t let the women stop,” she says.

“The cooperative of women in prostitution without a pimp like those the judge legalized simply doesn’t exist. If they tried to create such a model, the criminal world would take control of it in an instant and use them as pretty faces.”

Stav, who began her journey in prostitution during her military service, says it’s not a one-way street and some women go from prostitution to management and back. It’s convenient to have women in management because “it’s an outsourcing of the masculine pimping institution.”

She too helped manage a brothel and stopped a few months ago. She remembers the efforts to mollify her.

“The owners of places keep special lawyers,” she says. “I remember that a well-known lawyer in the field came and briefed us at the brothel what to say in case of a police raid. He encouraged us, saying there was nothing to be afraid of. The owners pay the fines and they run a strong system of persuasion.”

Putting women out front is also convenient because they can use a motherly approach to win the trust of prostitutes. Neta, 26, started working at 21 as a secretary, and after two months moved on to work as a prostitute.

“I wasn’t in touch with my mother and the pimps recognized my needs very quickly. We would drink coffee after work and meet on Fridays and Saturdays; she would come to my place and I would go to hers,” Neta says.

“When I had financial troubles she gave me a loan and another loan. This mother type of pimp is a game, and when my eyes opened I realized she didn’t really care about me; it was a tactic. She only cared that I made her as much money as possible.”

Over the past six months, Neta was rehabilitated with the help of a program run by the Social Affairs Ministry and the Tel Aviv municipality.

“There are women pimps who are cruel and exploitative and do things in a rough way, and there are some who use a honey trap,” says Lilach Tzur Ben-Moshe, director of Turning the Tables, a group that helps women who leave trafficking and prostitution.

She says women who work as pimps “bring warm food to the hostel and try to create a ‘mama image.’ It’s not unusual to hear young women say about a female pimp who’s very exploitative: ‘She’s like a mother to me.’”

“They give loans to women and act as if it’s purely out of a desire to help, when actually they enslave them with the interest payments,” she says.

Hierarchy of earnings

Stav says there’s a crucial difference between a receptionist and being a manager. “A clerk sits in the brothel, surrounded by telephones and women,” she says. “She answers clients’ phone calls with a warm, caressing and sensuous voice, and essentially markets the prostitutes to them details on which sex acts they perform. She entices the client to come to the place.”

The receptionist is responsible for the cashbox and daily operations, and usually she receives base pay of 300 shekels per shift plus tips. Some places don’t give base pay and the wages come from the tips paid her by the prostitutes (if she supplied them with more clients), and bonuses from the owners, depending on the number of clients.

Stav says that for a 12-hour shift, base pay ranges from 500 to 1,000 shekels, and on weekends at the big brothels it can be as much as 3,000 shekels.

The directors oversee the receptionists and are responsible for recruiting the women and running the business. They’re in charge of payments and advertising, and the incoming cash is delivered to them. They make anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 shekels per month.

“Because all these places are equipped with a network of cameras and microphones, some of them supervise everything long-distance,” she says. “They watch their employees and make comments. Others come to the place and oversee everything from up close.”

Naama Zeevi-Rivlin, manager of Saleet, a Tel Aviv shelter for prostituted women, says a very thin line separates the women’s roles.

“We have clients who were in prostitution, and when they got pregnant they became receptionists. As soon as someone is suddenly missing for a shift, they’re called in to fill the position,” she says.

“Being a receptionist is like being a prostitute, only verbally she isn’t physically touched, but she has to sell sex and seduce the customer. They’re under a lot of stress because of the potential dangers a police raid, a violent customer bursting in, and just the fear and shame of being exposed. It’s a steep emotional price.”

Zeevi-Rivlin says the court’s decision gives criminals a legal way to keep on hiding behind women in prostitution and women pimps, as if these women were operating independently.

According to Anastasia, who works as a prostitute, “Everything has changed. It used to be that pimps would buy women and pimp them like animals — drug them, imprison them, beat them up. And now you have girls that used to be exploited in prostitution exploiting other women.”

She herself once ran a brothel and says she knows a woman who runs four places in Tel Aviv. “But I know there’s a man behind it and it all really belongs to him. She’s just a puppet,” Anastasia says.

“She rents the location and does a renovation that costs 100,000 shekels. What women in prostitution has 100,000 shekels? Even if she worked for 20 years, she wouldn’t save that much.”

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