'I Thought Tel Aviv Was Open, but Nothing Prepared Me for This'

Meet Natasha, the transgender former prostitute who has begun to heal through 'Turning the Tables,' a therapeutic organization where she 'found myself creating rather than destroying for the first time'

Vered Lee
Vered Lee
Natasha.Credit: Meged Gozani
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

Natasha was born in the former Soviet Union and came to Israel with her family at the age of four. “Ever since I remember myself I’ve felt like a girl who’s trapped in another body,” she says.

“From a very young age I felt I wanted be something that didn’t fit my gender. I remember telling my mother that I want to be a woman and she responded by saying that women have to cook, do laundry, clean, do the housework, have babies. She said it with humor and elegance and was sure that when she told me of all the chores a woman has to do, I’d be scared off. It did work for a few minutes but the desire to be a woman returned. It didn’t disappear, it only got stronger.”

She remembers her childhood as a nightmare. “I had many difficulties as a child. I felt very lonely. I was a rejected boy who was teased from a very young age for behaving like a girl. Today I realize that already at the age of five I was subjected to sexual abuse,” she says haltingly. “I have some difficult but hazy pictures of being abused at a very young age. I was sexually exploited again when I was 10 but because of the way society treated me, I was afraid to complain and make the incident public.”

Last Wednesday evening there was an event for women called “Women Create” (“Nashim Yotzrot”), with all revenues going to a nonprofit organization called Turning the Tables, which is devoted to the personal and financial empowerment of women who escape the world of prostitution and human trafficking. This is the third year this event was being held in conjunction with Turning the Tables. The event included music, dancing and poetry slam. Among the participants were Dana Berger, Aya Korem, Ruth Dolores-Weiss and Natasha (not her real name), a 32-year-old transgender woman who has managed to escape prostitution with the nonprofit organization’s help.

Asked when she starting working as a prostitute, she says that when she was 14 a neighbor offered her cigarettes in exchange for sex. “From a young age I realized that I could get things with my body. When that neighbor offered my brother the same deal, he ran to tell my parents. I didn’t dare tell them out of fear. Also, since I was rejected by society, I took his advances as signs of warmth and love, without realizing how bad he was exploiting me.”

Natasha has been out of prostitution since reaching Turning the Tables four years ago. Credit: Meged Gozani

Nothing prepared her for what happened

When she was young her family did agree to her wish to change her gender. Relations deteriorated and when she turned 18, she left home and moved to Tel Aviv. “I had a dream of becoming a star and finding myself. I felt there was an openness and freedom in Tel Aviv that would let me do this, but nothing prepared me for what happened, for all the horrors I got trapped in.

“Someone told me about Hahashmal Park – where and how to stand there and how it worked. I didn’t want to do it at first, but I remember that one day I was really hungry and didn’t have any money. I went there and ‘did’ a john [customer]. It was extremely humiliating and a terrible experience but with the 100 shekels I got I bought some food. I realized that this was the way to survive. I didn’t want luxuries or an apartment, only to survive, eat and buy cigarettes and to have 100 shekels in my pocket so I wouldn’t need anyone else. That’s how it began.”

After a month she started working as a prostitute near the old bus terminal in Tel Aviv. When she was 19 she started the process of changing her sex and quickly fell into drug and alcohol abuse, sinking deeper into prostitution. “I turned to prostitution out of deep distress. I didn’t belong to anything. That way I got some sense of belonging. It’s hard to explain but at the time I believed I was in the right place. That’s what I told myself so I wouldn’t go crazy. Later, when I was undergoing therapy I understood I had been in awful distress and that I’d believed I wasn’t so I could protect myself and survive.”

How do you view the clients?

“I see them as miserable characters who aren’t aware of the harm they do to the women, men and transgender people who are sex workers. Strong men who are confident of their manhood wouldn’t come searching for a human body and for sex in exchange for cash.”

Natasha.Credit: Meged Gozani

Over the years she was assaulted and raped on numerous occasions. “The first rape was in that park, during the first days I started working there. I was with a client when another man came up to us. He kicked the client and chased him off, then he dragged me to the parking lot where he raped me brutally while he was putting out cigarettes on my body.”

Did you file a complaint with the police?

“No. For me, complaining to the police would be like being raped again. I never even considered it. The police aren’t an organization that protects transgender people. My survival tool was to show empathy, hold a conversation with a client, not to seem violent. I tried exposing my human and soft side all the time so I wouldn’t get hurt, so that clients understood I was human, so they’d realize there is someone vulnerable they’re with, so they wouldn’t be violent or aggressive.”

A long and arduous process

Natasha’s rehabilitation was a long and arduous process, including many relapses and repeated attempts at rehabilitation. In 2010 she first turned to Sal’it, an aid organization assisting women in prostitution, run by the Tel Aviv municipality and Ministry of Social Affairs.

“I went into therapy for the first time in my life but I left after three months. I went back to the central bus terminal, to the filth and prostitution. I was violently raped by a customer and tried again to rehabilitate myself,” she recalled.

“This time I held out for a year and a half,” she said. “I tried really hard. I knew I didn’t want to go back to prostitution. I was young but already very weary and I wanted a different life. I managed for a while with a regular job, made some contacts, but something went wrong. I was fired and couldn’t find work. I was kicked out of my apartment since I couldn’t pay the rent, so then I broke down and went back to prostitution for a year. Then I tried again. I think there should be special ways of helping transgender people who work in prostitution, and improvement of rehabilitation system in general so everyone can find her place.”

Natasha reached Turning the Tables four years ago. Since then, she’s been out of prostitution.

Lilach Tzur Ben-Moshe, founder and executive director of Turning the Tables, says, “The group offers a unique model of professional training and employment of women, while providing them with psycho-social therapy, advice on how to obtain their national insurance benefits and therapy that allows them to become stabilized.”

“The program is designed for women and transgender women who have left prostitution or who are still involved in it but are taking the first steps to leave that world,” says Ben-Moshe. “We work with them on their self-image, improving their confidence and instilling a belief that they can live a different life.”

The group has already helped 200 women. A 2016 survey showed that 62 percent of them have abandoned the old life completely. The rehab program is training them in the fashion and digital fields, supported by the National Insurance Institute and by several foundations here and overseas. Participants get several types of allowances during their rehabilitation.

Natasha now holds two jobs in design, sewing and product development. She’s also begun playing the piano and singing, and performed at Wednesday’s fundraiser.

“Here I had a choice for the first time. I found that through making simple choices I could discover myself,” she said. “There is no coercion here, it’s a therapy program that gives warmth and love, patience and tolerance, one that allows you to create and develop. I found myself creating rather than destroying for the first time. It’s a long process and I’m thankful for every day I’m no longer on the street.”

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