It’s hard not to be impressed by the precise timing of this particular coincidence. The law which criminalizes consumers of prostitution was ratified by the Knesset in December 2018 but was scheduled to take effect on July 10, 2020, two days ago. The decision to postpone implementation of the law was meant to allow the government to “coordinate and prepare,” as well as to embark on an “information campaign.”
Apparently, the only one to utilize the time “to coordinate and prepare” was the muse of history, who arranged for some poverty, unemployment and hunger, which would put the standards held by eradicators of prostitution to the test.
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No one imagined in the winter of 2018 that the world would be in the grip of a pandemic requiring measures that paralyze the economy, measures which would engender an unprecedented crisis with one million people being put out of a job. The possibility that an existential condition entailing a lack of choice seemed hypothetical to legislators a year and a half ago.
Just as dire economic straits caused by the coronavirus may drive ordinary people to break laws in order to feed their children, so too could men and women be driven to prostitution for lack of choice, just in order to survive, to eat. This won’t be a choice made by satiated people choosing between two dishes they’d like to eat, or between two university courses. It will be a choice reflecting life’s realities, choosing between different ways of dealing with a lack of real choices.
Prostitution is not a choice, explain those espousing its eradication. They cannot envisage a person willingly choosing to barter his or her body. It often seems that the proponents of eradication don’t truly understand the meaning of the word choice. Shuli Mualem, a former lawmaker from Habayit Hayehudi, who promoted this legislation together with former Meretz chairman Zehava Galon, defended it by saying that “embracing prostitution occurs over a short period of time, but leaving it takes years.” Her words imply that entering the world of prostitution is the first time a woman is using her body as part of a commercial transaction. Such a description ignores a chain of circumstances, a long and tangled highway, with interchanges and junctures of no-choice, which begin at a much earlier stage of a woman’s life, possibly even before she is born, all of which lead her to prostitution.
One should not be impressed by Mualem and Galon working hand in hand. This will not be the first time in history where religious and socialist-progressive moralizing collaborate in an effort to eliminate social phenomena (such as in the Prohibition years), ostensibly with the aim of protecting “the poor” and fixing society, under the illusion of pursuing moral progressiveness while being blind to the real hardships of life on the margins.
The only way to prevent people from sinking into prostitution is to create choices for the destitute, from the moment they’re born, to avoid their lives being subject to a world without choice and prostitution as a way of life. Anyone who cannot commit to this cannot take away what may be the only way for men and women to survive without hurting others. Women in prostitution must be helped. Their safety must be ensured, and their health and welfare, by institutionalizing prostitution, not outlawing it. At least until poverty is outlawed as well.
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It’s no coincidence that prostitutes themselves oppose this law, and organizations representing them are asking for a delay in its implementation. Perhaps when existential hardships and dilemmas become more common, the eradicators of prostitution will finally understand that the question we need to ask is not whether we want to live in a world with or without prostitution, but rather, what is worse: that a woman on the brink of starvation becomes a prostitute or that she dies of hunger?