Israel Targets the Sex Industry: Moving to Ban Internet Ads, Fine the Johns and Close Websites

While making enforcement more feasible, state asks court to block five internet sites, including a site on which johns rate and review prostitutes

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'The forum of the johns' was once part of the Sex Adir website
'The forum of the johns' was once part of the Sex Adir websiteCredit:

Israel is taking aim at the sex industry. Through prostitution itself is not illegal in Israel, various aspects involved in it are, and the latest bill will fine customers caught with prostitutes 1,500 shekels, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said on Wednesday, the day after a proposal to ban online advertising ads for prostitution.

The state is petitioning the courts to remove five Israeli prostitution websites from the internet, including Sex Adir, one of the biggest of its kind.

Recidivist customers caught with prostitutes within three years of the first offense will pay doubled the original fine, according to the draft legislation Shaked presented on Wednesday morning. Anybody caught with a prostitute can ask to be tried rather than pay the fine, but it's a risk: the court is empowered to increase the penalty to 14,400 shekels.

"Today we are sending a message: trafficking in women and using prostitution services are out of bounds," Shaked said at a meeting of the Knesset sub-committee on human trafficking and prostitution. "Using prostitution services is immoral and offensive, objectifying women's bodies in Israel. Prostitution needs to be handled much more broadly, which we will be doing in the months to come."

Shaked had decided that customers would be pursued through administrative rather than criminal enforcement: the offender would not be considered a criminal with a criminal record. The logic is that if the offense is criminalized, it would be less likely that it would be enforced.

The minister herself explained that the draft bill fining customers is not the core of the fight against the sex industry. It is part of a wider plan she intends to bring before government in the months to come, Shaked explained, which will include healthcare and counseling for prostitutes and their customers, rehabilitation programs for prostitutes, the establishment of emergency shelters, detox centers and sex clinics.

The fine on johns will only apply if the prostitute is an adult, as soliciting sex from a minor still remains a criminal activity. With the blessing of the welfare minister, the justice minister may substitute the fine with counseling.

The law against customers who procure prostitutes, if it is enacted, will limited to a trial run with maximum of five years, during which time enforcement and the law's efficacy will be studied.

Fine-tuning the ban on ads

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the Knesset approved a bill banning advertisement of prostitutes.

A Knesset committee forwarded a bill for a final vote on Tuesday, which would forbid advertising to hire prostitutes. Individual advertisers could be fined as much as 226,000 shekels ($63,000), while a company breaking the law could be fined double that amount. Also, for the first time, the prohibition will apply to the printing shop that printed the ad.

The maximal penalty includes three years' prison, or five years, if the ad was designed to attract minors to work in the sex industry.

The legislative proposal would amend two existing laws, so that offending internet sites and phone numbers involved in promoting prostitution services could be blocked.

The proposal is sponsored by a small coalition including Dov Khenin (Joint Arab List), Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi), Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), Michal Rozin (Meretz) and others. Khenin said he hoped the bill would successfully address “the key problem, which is the economic mechanisms behind prostitution.”

Prostitution exists in a legal grey area in Israel. Even before this Tuesday proposal, it was against the law to attempt to solicit or persuade a person to work in prostitution. In practice, authorities have avoided penalizing advertisers unless the authorities learned that an ad actually managed to recruit a person to engage in prostitution.

Having been approved by the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the anti-advertising measure will go before the Knesset next for its final vote into law.

Advertisements for prostitutes regularly appear in the want ads and on internet sites, using euphemisms such as “profitable work” for “enlightened, liberal” women. These ads are a key means through which criminals recruit new victims into the world of prostitution.

“Many women, especially young women, have gotten into prostitution because of seemingly innocent ads offering work with easy money,” Moalem-Refaeli said at Tuesday’s committee meeting. “Anyone who publishes ads to recruit prostitutes is playing a significant part in the exploitation industry and must be called to account for it.”

“This bill closes a loophole on the issue of banning ads for prostitution,” Rozin said. “It will also stop the trafficking in foreign countries for Israel.”

Meanwhile, shutting down sites

Also on Tuesday, the state prosecution urged the Tel Aviv District Court to remove five Israeli prostitution websites from the internet. All the sites, including Sex Adir, one of the biggest of its kind, are allegedly owned by Sharon Degani.

The State Prosecutor’s Office is also seeking a court order ordering internet service providers to limit access to a site called Sex Forum, which hosts discussions in which prostitutes’ customers “review” them.

In one such review, a client complained that the prostitute's newborn baby didn’t stop crying in an adjacent room, and added that the new mother had a “flabby abdomen” that detracted from the sexual experience. The prosecutors told the court that the request to limit access to Sex Forum included internet service providers because the hosting service for the site is located outside of Israel and not run by Israelis – meaning it cannot be totally shut down from Israel.

Degani bought Sex Adir in 2011, the same year it became illegal in Israel to advertise prostitution services. Criminal charges were filed against him four years ago for violating the law. He pleaded guilty as part of a plea agreement in which he was fined 85,000 shekels ($23,700), but allegedly continued to break the law after his conviction.

In its request to the court on Tuesday, the prosecutor’s office acknowledged that Degani’s conduct may be a criminal nature, but explained that it had opted instead to exploit a new law that came into force in Israel last year, authorizing courts to shut down websites that promote criminal activity or terrorism. Since the law took effect, 15 other requests have been filed to either remove or curb access to websites. All of them were granted.

The prosecutor’s office further stressed the importance of its request by stating that the websites in question provide specific information concerning the addresses of houses of prostitution or of the prostitutes themselves, and generally serve to increase the demand for prostitution.

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