Hell Du Jour: Meet Israel's Daylight Prostitutes

It's just turned 10 A.M. and escort parlors, strip joints and discreet apartments have already opened their doors for business. Many of the women who work in them are mothers.

The dazzling light of the sun slowly fades. An almost hidden stairwell, at the side of a respectable-looking but colorless building on a busy street in central Tel Aviv, leads down to a cellar. I knock on the door. The lens of a tiny camera, inserted in the wall, flashes phosphorescent green. I am being scanned by closed-circuit television.

A door buzzes and opens. A young woman approaches, expressionless. She is wearing a very short nightie. For a moment she looks at me suspiciously, but slowly her gaze thaws, as though emerging from a deep sleep. A mechanical smile appears on her face.

Atmospheric chill-out music is playing. Up and down a long, narrow, stylish-looking corridor, women wrapped in skimpy, snow-white towels skitter, giggling, only to be swallowed up behind loudly shut doors. A man of about 30, comely and elegantly attired, is leaning on a bar counter situated next to the front door. He glances at the passing women and shifts a drink from side to side. The soft, dim lighting and the rhythmic motion of the women make it easy to forget that it’s the middle of the morning. I am in one of the city’s leading and most popular escort parlors. Even at this early hour, the six rooms in the building where sex services are provided are fully occupied. There are enough women on the day shift to cope with the demand.

“It’s an open secret,” says Rona, the woman who opened the door for me ‏(the names of the women have  been changed‏). “People know that these places operate during the day. Okay, except maybe for the married women,” she adds, smiling mischievously. “The men know,” she asserts. “We open at 10 A.M. and, believe me, if we opened at 9 the clients would show up then. And if we opened at 8 they would come then. Whenever I’m here in the morning, there is a line of men in the stairwell waiting for the place to open.” A man emerges from a nearby room. He casts a nervous eye down the corridor before scuttling to the door and leaving.

Rona takes me to an empty room. It’s furnished in a rural-wooden style. The walls are covered with stylized paintings. A small shower stands next to the bed, whose sheets are tightly drawn. “Sit, sit,” she says, removing cloth towels from an old wooden crate. Rona removes her dress and wraps a small towel around her body. Her protruding belly is revealed.

Are you pregnant?

“Yes,” she smiles. “I do five or six johns, maybe seven,” she says, but breaks off the rush of words when she sees my stunned expression. “It’s all right, it’s not considered serious,” she tries to reassure me. “For me it’s not a lot. I don’t know, maybe it’s a lot for you?” she says defiantly. “I choose what I do and I choose the clients,” she says, adopting a tough tone and repulsing every attempt to go on talking about the subject.

How many shifts a week?

“Three or four, it depends. From 10 in the morning until 6 in the evening. It’s better than a night shift.”

What’s the difference?

“A night shift is not convenient for me as a mother. At night there are more clients. Even though the equation is that more clients means more money per shift, the work only ends just before dawn and can last 12 to 14 hours. That doesn’t go well with motherhood. There is also a difference in the type of the clients. They are night types: partiers, potheads, men who arrive in groups, men who come to hunt. More drunks and junkies, more violence. The night clients are also not especially clean.”

And the daytime clients?

“Working men: high tech, doctors, businessmen, lawyers.” A note of pride creeps into her voice. “They are almost all married. They show me pictures of the wife and kids on the mobile. They are on the way to work or have popped out for a meeting or for lunch. They don’t reek of alcohol, they are very clean and tidy, are more focused and short of time,” she laughs. “They are clients who know what they want and have to hurry back to the office.”

Why are you working in prostitution in an advanced state of pregnancy?

“I am the provider,” she says laconically and encloses herself within a hard protective wall.

Does anyone in your close surroundings know you’re here?

“No way, no one knows anything,” she says, appalled at the idea. “I invest a lot in my child. He is gifted,” she adds, quickly shifting the conversation and immersing herself in talk about her son. Suddenly she breaks off and phones the nanny. “Tell me, is he all right?” she asks. “What’s he doing now? Let me talk to him and remind him that he has an after-school class this afternoon.” She gives her son instructions. Afterward, a smile crosses her face. “I have a gifted child,” she says again.

A hard-luck story emerges in the short talk with Rona: abandoned by her partner, debts to pay, constantly fighting depression. “At first it was very hard for me to work in prostitution,” she says.

“There were days when I crawled across the floor, crying.” Rona withdraws into herself. She smiles to herself, nods her head from side to side and declares: “Never, ever, ever will I go back to minimum-wage jobs. Unlike before, now I can buy my son everything, enroll him in a top school, give him the education I didn’t get and be the best mom.”

Her face darkens, but a moment later she is smiling again. She wraps the towel tighter and leaves to service the clients.

Extracurricular meetings

Throughout the summer I accompanied members of aid organizations on visits to escort parlors, discreet apartments where organized prostitution takes place, massage parlors and striptease clubs across Tel Aviv. All of these institutions open for business in the morning.

I spent the sun-drenched days visiting residential buildings and multilevel business establishments with more stairs than one would care to count, and hidden courtyards concealing places of prostitution that strive to create a nighttime atmosphere under the blazing sun, for the greater enjoyment of the clients.

Most people associate prostitution with the dark of night, but it has long since emerged into broad daylight. The Israeli sex industry wakes up every morning from a night that ends between 4 and 5 A.M., and by 10 A.M. the secure doors are open once again. The clients get a cuddly welcome from half-naked women. Every morning, before the eyes of everyone, the sex industry becomes more of a routine phenomenon, almost normative. Just another work shift.

Maya Paley, a counselor at the mobile unit of the Health Ministry’s Levinsky Clinic in south Tel Aviv, has been visiting places of prostitution for four years as part of her job. She finds the addresses and enters them, together with social workers and nurses. The team conducts tests for sexual diseases and makes personal contact with the sex workers, which in time leads to therapeutic rehabilitation. “Personally, I find it harder to enter places of prostitution during the day,” Paley says. “You go into a place that is disguised as a respectable work space and creates the impression of being a genuine office. Doublespeak terms are used, such as ‘shifts,’ ‘work,’ ‘clerk’ or ‘worker base.’ The idea is to normalize prostitution and make it routine, like regular work, and camouflage the exploitation that is taking place.”

What characterizes the daytime clients?

“Many of them are regulars. It’s totally their routine: to leave work in the middle of the day and visit a place of prostitution. On the face of it, they are decent clients − clean, established. They are quiet and don’t want to get involved in violence. They give the impression that visiting an escort parlor is perfectly natural for them, an everyday occurrence.”

The women in prostitution and the clients both share the same fear: that they will be shamed if those close to them discover that they are part of the sex industry. Both groups have discovered that daylight provides the perfect cover. The “morning shift” in massage parlors begins at 10 A.M. and ends at 4 or 5 P.M.; in the escort parlors and the discreet apartments it ends at 6 P.M.; while in strip clubs it lasts until 8 P.M.

Mothers who work in prostitution find the day shifts more convenient, as they can more easily be kept secret. First thing in the morning, they take the children to kindergarten or school, or leave them with a nanny. They tell everyone they are going to work. “About 90 percent of the daytime workers in prostitution are single mothers,” says Rani Halabi, the director of Levinsky’s mobile clinic. “These women are fighting to raise their children on their own. They work in prostitution during the day because those are convenient hours for them as mothers: the children are in educational institutions, so there is no need to spend money on babysitters or nannies. They try to arrange their day so they can pick up the children and spend the evening with them.”

Emotionally withdrawn

The age of the mothers in prostitution ranges from early 20s to 45-50, Halabi notes, adding, “They are mothers of young children, kindergarten- and school-age children and even of soldiers in the army. Many of them say they are working in prostitution because of poverty and financial necessity. The economic vulnerability of single mothers and their limited options to earn a salary are certainly significant reasons for turning to prostitution. However, in therapeutic conversations with them, it turns out that economic distress is never the only reason. You will always discover that their past includes sexual abuse, brutal violence or acute emotional neglect.”

Tal Levin-Rotberg, a social worker at the Levinsky Clinic who provides psychosocial therapy for women in prostitution and for women undergoing rehabilitation, adds, “Our culture encourages self-sacrifice by mothers. In the world of prostitution, that role takes on deeper meaning. These are often women who were victimized in childhood and are now sacrificing themselves for their children. They want their children to have what they did not have. To provide the basics − food, education, hobby groups, economic well-being − they are willing to become victims and work in prostitution.”

Most of the women working in prostitution in Tel Aviv are from other cities, so as not to arouse suspicion that this is their occupation, or for fear that someone they know will show up as a client. They tend to use public transportation, to help create a working-woman image and from a genuine desire to economize. To avoid attracting attention they leave home in modest, simple attire; hair pulled back or carelessly combed. They carry flamboyant underclothing and revealing items of clothing in their handbags. At work they put on heavy makeup, emphasizing the lips, and sometimes wear a wig or other hair additions to prevent being identified by the clients.

“At the end of a day spent working in prostitution, many of them try to leave behind what they underwent and connect with their second identity, the domestic one,” Levin-Rotberg says. “They perform ritual-like acts before leaving for home: they shower and scrub their body to remove the filth and drink a great deal of water, like in a purification ritual. Some of them throw up in order to eject everything. They put on clothes that are not identified with their occupation − simple jeans, a buttoned-up blouse. Nevertheless, many mothers who work in prostitution say that when they come home, they find it difficult to touch their child. It is hard for them to hug the child, who symbolizes something pure for them.”

Paley: “Women who work in places of prostitution during the day are more severely withdrawn than the night workers. Many of the night workers are addicts who need substances to detach themselves from their surroundings. Somehow, I get more of a feeling of being cut off from the women who work during the day. They project total numbness. They don’t remember anything; they have a very high capacity for repression. They do errands during the middle of the day at the escort parlor. Sometimes you see them go out for half an hour from the agency to shop for the house, or they call their child at home between clients and conduct conversations as though everything is normal. Through making emotional contact with them in order to help them leave prostitution, I find that they are the most cut off from themselves.

“It’s heartbreaking to enter places of prostitution,” she continues, “to hear bits of conversations of mothers and see them sitting there, waiting for a client, only to earn money to buy food for the family.”

How would you say they function as mothers?

“They talk a lot about the children, but you feel a strong mental severance. They are very materialistic when it comes to the child. Money is very central in these mother-child relations. They perceive giving in material rather than emotional terms.”

The corridors of the apartments used for prostitution are dimly lit to create a nighttime effect; heavy curtains that block the outdoor light add to the effect. There is an obvious effort to create a feeling that time has come to a standstill, to cover up traces of the day, to make the client forget that outside the sun is shining. Doors open and close − creaking and slamming are constant sounds. Often, a feeble ray of sunlight that somehow manages to enter exposes the shabbiness inside: filthy, neglected apartments that sell cheap glamour and pretend to crude artificial prestige. It’s like a dusty, worn theater setting.

There is a revealing contrast between the slight effort made to accord the rooms a “sensuous” appearance, and the waiting room that the women who work in prostitution use in the breaks between clients. Here, the curtain is lifted and the face of the sex industry is exposed for what it is. In contrast to the rooms earmarked for clients, the working women’s waiting room is cramped and unabashedly squalid. It’s here that the women seemingly metamorphose from being in suspended animation to a state of “heat” when a client arrives, the unfeeling body and mechanical expression putting on the appearance of arousal, in a swift transition from unresponsiveness to fake pleasure.

Living differently

Early in the morning I arrive at an apartment in the north of the city, run by a woman named Chen. Outside life goes on: children run around noisily, stores and businesses open, people walk in the street. The building I have come to looks empty. Chen runs the second-floor apartment with three other women, independently. They rent the place and work there in prostitution from early morning until after midnight.

“After years of working with pimps, each of us understood that there is really no need for a man to manage our lives,” Chen smiles. The apartment is cramped and dark. The few windows are heavily draped. Chen is wearing jeans and an everyday jersey. “I haven’t yet started the day, I am still in full dress,” she explains. “Soon I will change clothes, but coming here I dress almost conservatively. You will never see me in the street with a short blouse and cleavage.” She goes to the kitchenette to make us coffee. We sit in the living room. It’s littered with empty liquor bottles, cups with coffee dregs, cigarettes, packages of condoms, overflowing ashtrays, purses and money lying on the coffee table.

The first time we met in the apartment, Chen had to abruptly stop the interview. “I have to go to my son right away,” she apologized. “He is sick, with a high fever. I called a woman to replace me and I absolutely have to go.” This morning, a week after that truncated session, she is relaxed and more amenable to conversation. “This is my son,” she says and with motherly pride shows me, on a computer in the living room, photos of a gorgeous, nattily dressed boy. Next to the computer is a split-screen closed-circuit television. Its four sections show the activity at the entrance to the building, on the stairwell, in the area of the front door and in the interior of the apartment. The screen catches the image of a white-haired man. He rings the bell and waits. Anastasia, a young woman in a short skirt, stubs out her cigarette, quickly opens the door and leads the man to a dimly lit room. After the man leaves, to resume his daily routine, Anastasia returns and sits with us.

Chen has been working in prostitution for 10 years. “There were always breaks and attempts to get out, but I didn’t manage and somehow I always came back,” she says. Unemotionally, she recounts a hard life: an alienated mother, a sense of solitude from an early age and a sequence of tragic events in the family. Before turning to prostitution, she ran a family business with her husband. Her father’s death shook her and fomented a serious psychological crisis. She chose to get a divorce and the assets were divided; her share consisted of debts.

“For a year and a half I fought to pay back the debts and wore myself down completely,” she says. “I took my son and moved in with my mother. I worked all day in the nursing field and lived modestly. After a time I rented an apartment and everything started to go haywire. There wasn’t enough money for anything. My husband wasn’t paying child support at the time and the bills piled up. I was making NIS 4,500 a month, which wasn’t enough for anything. Every month I piled up new debts instead of paying back what I owed.”

How did the idea of prostitution come up?

“My son had a friend who came over to our place a lot, and I met his mother. One day I told her frankly about my financial distress. I was desperate. She cut me off and said, ‘Tell me, are you normal? You will never pay off your debts even in a hundred years.’ She told me that her husband had run off abroad with the money they got for selling their apartment and left her with three children, and since then she had been working in prostitution. ‘What do you think?’ she said. ‘Where does all the money for clothes, for food and for rent come from?’ That’s how it started. I was so tired of life, in despair from the suffocating attempts at survival. You’re at the bottom and someone suddenly tells you a story, tells you that you can live differently.”

Chen managed to repay her debts. “I worked almost 24 hours a day in prostitution,” she says. “I would get up early in the morning, clean the house, cook and do all the household chores. Then I would go to an escort parlor, start my shift at 10 and get home at 4 in the morning.”

What happens to you when you leave here and go home?

“There is a barrier, a block. I don’t use alcohol or drugs. I am totally closed. I don’t talk to anyone about what I go through. At home I cook, and the laundry is waiting to be done. That helps you not to think about yourself.”

Her tone grows softer and more loving when she talks about her son. “I want you to know that mothers in prostitution are the best moms there are. They give their children everything. They are in prostitution to make a living and bring food home. Is there a greater sacrifice than that? I don’t buy jewelry and I don’t lead a showy life. I work to make a living. For my son’s education.”

What does this money mean to you?

“Nirvana. There is no pressure, no anxieties. You have inner quiet, you have security. You are not dependent on others. You don’t need to beg the husband to pay alimony, you don’t need to cry to the clerk at the National Insurance Institute or at the bank, or to ask family and friends for favors. The boy wants to go out with his friends? You have money to give him. He needs a new shirt? You can buy it. A computer? You can get him one. How best to put it? You have the feeling of leading a normal life. For a moment you feel like everyone else, you can give your son the same as every other parent.”

As we talk, I sometimes glance at the television screen, which shows the clients arriving. Climbing the stairs, they look tense, stressed, hesitant, sometimes sweating. I watch as they leave, too, tucking in their shirt, trying not to attract attention as they leave the building, looking from side to side suspiciously, trying to project respectability, and then walking away quickly.

Anastasia scurries between the clients. In between, she overhears fragments of our conversation and her face darkens. “She is a good girl, she really should not be here,” Chen says in a matronly tone. “I want to tell you about my first day here,” Anastasia says, and tears well up in her blue eyes. Her sincerity is irresistible. She looks gentle, fragile, vulnerable. “I got here five months ago, after a whole week of not having food to give my son,” she says. She lights up a cigarette but it cannot calm her inner tempest. “With my last shekels I bought food for my son. The food ran out, the money ran out. The first day of work here I couldn’t stop crying and my body shook. One client and another client and another client, and I am crying and shaking hysterically. Then my son suddenly called and said, ‘Mom, I don’t have anything to eat. There is no food in the house.’ I already had NIS 400 that I had earned. I started to cry and told him, ‘Don’t worry. Today we will have food. Today we will go to the supermarket.’”

Anastasia immigrated to Israel with her husband, who is not Jewish. “We were a working couple,” she relates. “He went for a long vacation to his home country and died there. It was very traumatic for me. It took a few months before the authorities agreed to give me widow status, and only after fighting them. You would think they are giving you property. I worked at two jobs in two factories. I made NIS 4,300 a month in one job and NIS 1,700 in the other one. I paid a nanny and I worked almost 24 hours out of the house and there still wasn’t enough money. I was traumatized from my husband’s death, in deep depression. I couldn’t look after myself and I was in a daily battle for survival. I applied to a large, well-known organization that promises to help the needy with bureaucracy and got them to deal with what I had coming to me. The organization then sent a letter to the National Insurance Institute. Instead of aid, I got a letter that my husband had run up a debt there during the years he worked in Israel, and I was told to pay. It was an astronomical amount.”

What is your situation now?

“The only important thing is for my son to have food. I am talking about a pastrami sandwich, not luxuries. I sit here with pen and paper all the time and calculate how much money I still owe. I believe that within a year of working in prostitution I will be able to cover the debts.”

Anastasia is concerned about the possibility that her close circle will find out what she is doing. “I hide it from everyone,” she says. “They would go into shock. It’s not something that connects with me. I am very shy, don’t drink and don’t go out. My home and my son are my whole life. When I leave here, the only thing that interests me is my son.”

Are you able to look after him?

“I am becoming a closed person. I am going through something very hard with myself because of the prostitution. I am becoming more introverted and closed. I sink into sad thoughts and many times my son sits next to me and caresses my head.”

So he is sustaining you?

“Yes, he gives me encouragement. His touch is the reason for life.”

Loss of faith

“It’s depressing to come to an escort parlor in the light of day,” says Aline, who works at one such place in the center of Tel Aviv. “The whole way here, I look at the people who are on the way to a regular job or are sitting in cafes, and I feel sad. There used to be only a few escort parlors in Tel Aviv, but today I can show you street after street in the center of the city where there is an unbroken chain of prostitution places.

“Before you have even woken up properly in the morning,” she continues, “you have to go into a room with a man, smile, project a feeling of ease, show happiness, be soft, laugh and give him the feeling that you are attracted to him and also tell him what kind of sexual acts you do and how much they cost. That stage kills me. It’s a game, a show. I die inside anew every time. How much can you lie? To be naked and smile and give a strange man the feeling that you are providing him with what he wants?”

Aline is a beautiful, sensitive woman, void of masks, sober-eyed; she whitewashes nothing when she talks about prostitution. Occasionally, as she recalls certain events from her life, her eyes well up with tears. It is an effort for her to speak: her voice is feeble and betrays mental weariness. After eight years of working in the sex industry she has developed a serious drinking problem ‏(“I drink before work, during work and at home”‏), suffers from depression and lives a grinding life of poverty.

Still, as she describes her former routine, when she worked in a household, when times were better, a gentle smile of remembrance lights up her face. In those days she got up early, sent the children off to school, took a bus to work and picked up the children at the end of the day.

What went wrong?

“I was barely holding out, and then my daughter was diagnosed with a rare illness. The medicine was not included in the ‘health basket.’ I had to pay for it myself. It’s not just the medicine, there are also special treatments, and you find yourself starting to run from therapists to doctors and paying privately. I fell deeper and deeper into depression. I felt that every road was blocked.”

How did you start working in prostitution?

“I innocently told a girlfriend what I was going through. She told me she worked in prostitution and said it could be a very good solution for me, too. That’s how it started.”

A week after she started to work in an apartment in the center of the city, the depression became more acute and she tried to commit suicide. “I was hospitalized, and after I was discharged my health maintenance organization recommended a psychiatrist,” she recalls. “I went to his clinic in Tel Aviv and said openly that I was working in prostitution and having a hard time coming to terms with that. He offered to treat me free in return for sexual services. Afterward he also came to the apartment where I worked.”

Aline looks at me, unable to continue. After a long silence she adds, “Finally, I came to my senses and stopped going to him. He ruined my faith in the establishment. I reported him but nothing was done about it. I suffer from serious depression now, but I only go to the psychiatrist I have now for prescriptions. He doesn’t know about the prostitution, and I am afraid to tell him and be exploited again.”

For years she tried to stop working in prostitution, but unsuccessfully. During the past year she has been treated at the Levinsky Clinic once a week. “Right now I work in prostitution and a part-time regular job,” she says, handing me a business card with a smile. “I am trying to stop, but economically I can’t. The years go by and you feel like you are being buried. There are periods when I am barely alive inside. I have no motivation to believe that I can change my life. I have no belief.”

Aline refutes the myth of the “big money” made by women in prostitution. “You work with your body and get NIS 250 in cash from every man, and about half goes to you. Think how many men I would have to go through in a day. Think how many men I have to satisfy to pay NIS 3,500 in rent, along with food, the family, taking care of the girls. There are days when our supper is a small container of cottage cheese. Some days we go to bed with an empty stomach,” she says.

“I am working in prostitution and also have a regular job, and the money is still not enough,” she adds. “Every month I fight for basic survival. Everything goes. Nothing is left. My drinking problem is getting worse and affecting my liver, and the depression is getting worse.”

How do you function now with your daughters?

“From 10 A.M. until 6 P.M. I am imprisoned between the walls of the escort parlor. I come out of there dead. When I get home I go to sleep. I sleep a lot. The girls see me in bed a lot. Later in the evening I get up, try to do things with them and go back to sleep. Women in escort parlors say they sit with the kids when they get home and devote themselves to them. I don’t have a clue how you can work a whole day in prostitution and then come home as though nothing happened and take care of the kids, without falling apart.”

The ‘secretary’

The entrance to the apartment in which Orna works passes through a side garden next to an old-looking building in Tel Aviv. The slightly concealed venue was probably chosen so that activity could proceed without interruption and forestall complaints from neighbors. The four-room apartment evokes a simple students’ flat. Despite the attempt to create a night atmosphere − by means of heavy curtains and lit candles − natural morning light bursts in. Quiet Indian music is playing, the better to cast a pleasant, laid-back atmosphere.

Orna’s body, lean and skeletal, bears the remnants of a recent pregnancy. “I gave birth not long ago,” she says. “I worked here until the ninth month, had the baby and now I am back,” she declares. Her face is expressionless. “For a few years I worked in occasional minimum-wage jobs. I could barely provide for my daughter. My husband left, took no responsibility and did not pay child support. When I became pregnant, no one wanted to hire me. It was the same everywhere I went: ‘You are pregnant, it’s not suitable.’ This was the only place that would hire me.”

Didn’t it bother the managers and the clients that you were pregnant?

“You’d be surprised. There is a demand for pregnant women. People have a lot of perversions,” she says, contorting her face. “I haven’t been in touch with my family since a young age,” she continues. She takes long pauses between sentences. “I wanted this pregnancy very much. I couldn’t give up the baby. No governmental agency helped me. I don’t get a thing from the state, not an allowance, no guaranteed-income payments. Every government office I went to gave me the feeling that I was a nuisance and was trying to take advantage. I saw how everything was shut to me and pushing me in this direction. So I told myself that there was nothing to be ashamed of, that the state should be ashamed for the way it treats single mothers.”

Where are your daughters now?

“With a nanny. That’s a serious financial expense for me, but I have no choice. I work three-four times a week and only in the day.”

Orna does not drink or take drugs. It’s noon and the weariness is already etched into her face. In the background, Natalia can be heard talking on the telephone: “We have very liberal girls. Blondes and dark-skinned. Yes, with big chest, very tall. They do everything. Very pleasant and not tough. They do what you want. Come see for yourself.” Natalia hangs up and hurries to answer the next call: “We have beautiful girls. Big breast, real broads, European. No, not Israeli, they cooperate, liberal, don’t make problems, open, will do everything.”

The physical description you give the clients doesn’t exactly match the appearance of the women here.

“Obviously,” Natalia laughs. “It’s known as marketing. Anyway, they probably have genes like that in the family.” She takes more calls. “NIS 200 to NIS 250, oral sex, anal sex, very liberal, skin smooth to touch, they are very open. Come have a look.” She gives the caller the address, describes the rooms and adds, “When you get to the area, call, and I will guide you so you don’t get lost on the way.”

Natalia takes her eyes off the chirping phones and casts a glance at the image of the man who has appeared on the screen of the closed-circuit television system. She buzzes him in. A woman in panties and a bra greets him, then leads him to one of the rooms. Fifteen minutes later she returns, wrapped in a small towel and with money in her hand. She gives Natalia NIS 100 and stuffs NIS 150 into her purse.

The small waiting room contains open laptops, magazines, crossword puzzle booklets and the purses of the working women. The women emerge from the rooms from time to time, count out NIS 100, 150, 200, 250, slip about half to the “secretary” and slide the remainder into their purse. They chatter and exchange experiences. “The summer brings all the perverts,” one of them complains. “My hand hurts from the slaps I had to give him,” another says, puffing on a cigarette.

“What is my role?” Natalia ponders my question long and hard. “Secretary,” she answers finally, and goes on answering the constant phone calls. The “secretary” is the feminine face of the pimp who runs the apartment remotely. She is, so to speak, his agent. In police raids, many of the secretaries are arrested and often charged with pimping and managing a house of ill repute. The secretary draws up the schedule for the working women, sees to the ongoing maintenance of the apartment and answers the phone. The “telephone marketing” they engage in is pimping in every respect − phone pimping. Their salary is double or triple the average wage paid to secretaries in the regular economy. “Better to be a secretary here than in a law office,” they like to say. Some of them are able to withstand the pressure and not slide into a life of prostitution, but others eventually cross the line.

Murky window

The light of day offers the opportunity to see the degree to which the places of prostitution are a seemingly normative business, openly engaging in barter alongside sexual services given in exchange for payment. In the morning, laundry services from all over the city enter the escort parlors and private apartments in the most natural way, bringing bags of clean laundry − towels, scented and impeccably folded − and taking away bags of dirty laundry.

Workers from pet shops arrive to take care of the aquariums that can be found in a number of places. Representatives of the country’s leading mineral-water companies show up to maintain and refill the coolers. And jewelry and clothing salesmen enter the apartments without interference to offer their wares to the women during their shifts. They all come and go frequently, in broad daylight. Could it be that in the eyes of many people, these escort parlors, massage parlors and apartments are legitimate businesses?

The Ramat Gan bourse district is teeming with people at 10:30 A.M. But in a small peep-show club on one of its streets, it seems to be evening. The appearance of the place, with its dim lighting, is deceptive. An emaciated young woman wearing panties and a bra sits and stares into an aquarium with murky glass. She rebuffs every attempt at communication. Her eyes are glassy.

Nearby, three women are working midmorning at a strip joint, to meet the demand. The entrance has a kitschy look. The workers, heavily made-up, wait for the clients in a dark inner alcove where sunlight is not an option. They are dressed minimally and walk about on stiletto heels.

“What does he want, for me to dance for him? Am I a dancer?” Nona hisses with contempt as she emerges angrily from one of the rooms. The girls guffaw understandingly. In the tiny, stifling “dance rooms,” the black walls seem to be closing in; a large, well-padded sofa stands next to a stainless steel pole. Stacked next to the sofa are paper towels and oils, which suggest that the dance pole is meant to be only a setting, or at most a starting point for the client-dancer interaction.

Dafna has been working at the club for three years. “We are all mothers here,” she says, and suddenly tears course down her face. Until 8 P.M., when her shift finishes, she is expected to handle 20 to 30 clients, she says. A security guard intervenes, saying that all the women in the club are there of their own volition. “They are all here by choice,” he says. The women lower their gaze. An oppressive silence ensues. “Not one woman chooses this and not one really wants it,” Dafna says rebelliously. “These are simply women who have no choice,” she adds, and the tears fill her eyes again.

I emerge from the club into the active commerce of the day. The sun-battered streets are packed with businessmen. Sounds of laughter and fragments of conversations of elegantly attired men fill the district. The sun beats down. Soon it will be the middle of the day: darkness at noon.    

‘At odds with reality’

Why does the Tel Aviv Municipality allow places of prostitution to operate without interference? According to a spokesman for the municipality, “Under the Business Licensing Law, brothels and escort parlors are not businesses that require a license and they do not undergo a licensing process, because they are illegal. Enforcement in their case is carried out solely by the Israel Police and does not fall within the purview of local government.”

Chief Superintendent Orit Friedman, a spokesman for the Tel Aviv District Police, stated in response: “Since the beginning of 2011, the Vice Squad has opened 99 files against pimping in brothels. The great majority were referred to the state prosecution with a recommendation to indict. The activity of the Vice Squad against the pimps and the brothels is carried out in conjunction with the tax authorities and the National Insurance Institute.

“From the beginning of 2011,” he continues, “14 administrative closure orders have been issued by the Tel Aviv District. Due to a judicial decision requiring the state prosecution to lay down procedures, we do not issue judicial closure orders. The procedures have not yet been formulated.

“Since the beginning of 2011, Tel Aviv police has opened 42 criminal files for offenses against the prohibition on publicizing prostitution and smutty material. The unit also conducted 13 criminal files related to sexual slavery; 22 suspects were arrested and indicted ‏(most of them were remanded in custody until the conclusion of proceedings‏).

“As is known, prostitution itself is not a criminal offense. Running brothels in places and at sites which constitute a public nuisance demands a response in the form of enforcement, and the difficulty in issuing judicial closure orders constitutes a limitation. In addition, it can be seen that in the past year and a half, Tel Aviv’s Central Unit opened 112 criminal files in this area. Therefore, the claim that prostitution is taking place without interference, without oversight and without an attempt by the police to shut these places down is at odds with reality.”

At the Social Affairs Ministry, we asked why Israel does not have a hostel for mothers who work in prostitution. Tzipi Nachson-Glick, director of the ministry’s service for adolescents, who has developed a program to treat women caught in the prostitution cycle, replied: “There is no hostel for single mothers, and it’s not certain that this is the right solution. It is not certain that placing women with children under a regimen of rules and regulations for a year would be good for the children. That solution did not have priority when we developed plans to rehabilitate women from prostitution.”

What is available for single mothers in prostitution who seek rehabilitation?

“At present we have day-care centers in Tel Aviv and Haifa for women who want to be rehabilitated from prostitution. A day-care center could also be suitable for single mothers. Those who apply will receive a guaranteed-income allowance, assistance in renting an apartment, reductions in municipal payments, rehabilitative therapy and professional training. The program and its development are still ‘in motion.’ If new, additional needs arise, they will definitely be examined. We have now started to conduct a national survey. In light of its results, we will examine the population distribution in the prostitution cycle and its needs, with the aim of making appropriate responses further down the line.”

Social aversion ministry

“The prostitution-motherhood nexus is a subject that is silenced,” say Tal Levin-Rotberg, a social worker at the Levinsky Clinic, and Yael Gur, the facility’s director general. In the past year, the two led a research group within the clinic’s framework, with the participation of social workers from the clinic who are mothers, and mothers working in prostitution. “We noticed that many of the women we know from prostitution are mothers,” Levin-Rotberg says. “Motherhood is very central in the life of the women in prostitution. Many of them are raising their children alone, though in some cases children have been placed in foster homes or put up for adoption.”

Where is the Social Affairs Ministry in this story?

Levin-Rotberg: “In practice, prostitution does not constitute a reason to take away the children of a nonaddict mother. But they are fearful that if the authorities discover they are working in prostitution, they will lose their children. As a result they do not turn to the Social Affairs Ministry for help. They don’t tell them anything. As far as the ministry is concerned, as long as the woman is functioning, there is no need to intervene. If she is not functioning − if the child does not come to school, for example − they start to look into it.

“As far as the Social Affairs Ministry is concerned, if this is how she makes her living, they have no problem with it. They do not intervene. The child is not necessarily at risk unless the mother is an addict. The ministry’s gaze is fixed on the child. They examine the hard facts: does the child get food and get up in the morning for school? They don’t look at the mother’s plight. These mothers are themselves [often] neglected children. What happens is that they are harmed again, by the ministry. Once again they are not on anyone’s radar, they are unseen and not cared for. Only the child’s condition gets checked.”

What about the rehabilitation of mothers in prostitution?

Gur: “Israel does not have an emergency shelter or a hostel that is geared toward mothers in prostitution who have children. We need those services like air to breathe, and I believe there would be a demand. At the same time, there are women who are currently trapped in prostitution who could make the journey to extricate themselves from prostitution and to rehabilitation even without a formal framework. They want to be rehabilitated, but without losing their sense of independence and control over their lives and their children. We believe that these mothers should be given tools for self-rehabilitation, oversight, support, empowerment, a temporary allowance, job training, genuine housing solutions and a supplementary, beneficial educational framework for their children. This will provide them with the space for rehabilitation without giving up their ability to function as mothers.”

In the past year, Gur and Levin-Rotberg have offered a rehabilitation model like this to seven women who work in prostitution, and they would like to extend the service. The project is called “Home support for mothers in prostitution and their children.”

Gur: “We are offering an alternative that will be accessible and available, and will be suitable for the needs of single mothers in prostitution. The project involves regular visits to the private apartments and escort parlors, during which a team from the mobile clinic makes contact with the working women. They become accustomed to talking about prostitution with a therapeutic worker from the clinic and they can also meet with us outside the escort parlor, in their home, at the clinic or in a cafe. They understand that they are not alone, that there is someone who cares about them, believes in them, listens without passing judgment and works with them at their own pace.”