A “major advance” for human rights and women’s rights was how French Prime Minister Manuel Valls described the law passed by his country’s parliament on Wednesday, making it illegal to pay for sex in France. From now on, engaging the service of a prostitute is a criminal offense that carries a fine.
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The goal of the law is to discourage prostitution by penalizing the clients rather than the prostitutes. Sweden was the first country to adopt this approach, passing a similar law in 1999. Other countries with laws of this kind include Norway, Iceland, Canada and Ireland.
The law that outlaws prostitution and shifts the criminal burden to the customers has drawn international attention, particularly in light of the failure of regulation of the industry in the Netherlands. The trafficking of women has increased, together with organized crime. In Sweden, prostitution has not been eliminated, but studies show that the number of female sex workers in the country fell by two-thirds and the law has stopped women from entering the industry.
Legislation criminalizing the clients represents a revolutionary approach to prostitution. First, it declares that prostitution is a form of violence against women. In addition, there is increasing recognition of the criminal responsibility of the client in contributing to the success of prostitution. He collaborates with the pimps and crime organizations that use his money to grease the wheels of the industry. Customer demand shapes and influences the sex industry and the characteristics of the victims of prostitution, including their young age.
Criminalizing the client changes the entire legal and social approach to the phenomenon; the social and legal disgrace moves from the prostitute to the client, and it is he who is now subject to sanctions, condemnation and public criticism. It stresses the harm done to women who engage in prostitution, to all women, and to society as a whole, and it makes the debate over illusions of “choice” and “consent” superfluous by acknowledging that those caught up in the cycle of prostitution don’t have real choice. The discussion is focused on the damage prostitution causes and how to prevent it.
A bill in the spirit of the Swedish legislation promoted by Meretz party chairwoman Zehava Galon was passed in a preliminary reading in the Knesset in February 2012. Galon and MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi) will resubmit it when the Knesset convenes for the summer session, with added provisions for rehabilitating sex workers.
We can only hopes that Israel will demonstrate ethical and social responsibility for human rights and women’s rights and join the global trend of adopting the Swedish model. The time has also come for Israel to clearly declare, like the other states that have adopted this approach — the customer is the criminal.