When the Customer Is a Criminal

Criminalizing the consumption of commercialized sex seems such an obvious step that it's not clear why it has not long been part of our law.

During my first visit to the bustling red-light district around Tel Aviv's Old Central Bus Station, the expensive SUV's couldn't be missed. The drivers behind the dark windows honked their horns to summon the prostitutes, blind to the black and blue marks on the women's bodies from shooting heroin, impervious to their suffering. An entire cross section of the Israeli population was represented by the "clients": migrant workers, soldiers, Arabs, elderly gentlemen in suits and high-techies in cars bearing the logos of their companies. In broad daylight, some went into the squalid massage parlors, while others took homeless minors, most of them addicts, into their company cars.

Some time later, when a brothel opened in my apartment building and customers sometimes came to the wrong floor, reality finally knocked on my door, in more ways than one. Again, I saw religious and secular people, men from the middle class and up, veterans and new immigrants, a veritable melting pot. Young men 25 to 35 arrived together, in pairs and groups, demonstrating that in Israel whoring is not a lonely activity but a social pastime, part of the culture. Like going to the movies or having a date at a pub.

Last week, MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima) submitted a bill supported by 25 other lawmakers providing for six-month jail terms for people convicted of purchasing sexual services, with first-time offenders able to enter an educational rehab program instead of going to prison. The bill was formulated by attorney Naomi Levenkron, director of the College of Management's legal clinics. In the past, former Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On tried to have a similar bill enacted.

The measure is based on the understanding that prostitution is a crime, that prostitutes inhabit a living hell in which their "human dignity and freedom," to use the title of one of our Basic Laws, are trampled into dust. In Sweden, which was the first country to enact a similar law, in 1999, the number of women working as prostitutes shrank by two-thirds.

Criminalizing the consumption of commercialized sex seems such an obvious step that it's not clear why it has not long been part of our law. In other criminal areas such as gambling and drugs, the law has seen the purchasers as offenders from the start, even if not the main culprits. And gamblers and drug users harm themselves and their families first of all, while the purchasers of sex harm an often helpless stranger. Still, they have avoided prosecution, and it's the victims who are frequently arrested in brothel raids.

The double standards are nicely illustrated linguistically, with the pejoratives "prostitute" or "whore" used for the women, while the men are called "customers" or "clients." The new bill would put an end to this kind of sanitization of language; the purchasers would be tagged as criminals, not clients. The bodies of human beings, be they women, men or children, are not just another commodity; anyone who traffics in them in any way should be liable to punishment.

The Knesset inquiry committee that examined trafficking in women in 2004 estimated that each month about 1 million acts of prostitution take place in Israel. From the scores of interviews I have conducted with men and women who work in the sex industry, it emerged that many of these transactions are accompanied by violence, debasement, rape and other abuse. There is no price for these "extras," and there is no compensation for the psychological damage suffered by those condemned to work as prostitutes.

If there is any place the free market cannot be left to set prices, this is it. In March 2008, the price for certain sexual services around the Old Central Bus Station, set by supply and demand, fell to NIS 5. The time has come for the "customers" to pay the true price for their dehumanization of sex workers and to be marked as criminals in every sense of the word.