The face of Israeli prostitution

In the aftermath of a sex worker’s suicide, ‘Metro’ takes a look inside the brothels of Tel Aviv.

September 20, 2015 05:07
Brothels in Israel

98 Hayarkon Street, the site of the brothel in which sex worker ‘Jessica’ committed suicide last week, sparking a protest and calls for reform. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

‘I don’t believe the story.

They say she was 20 years old and was in the country for 15 years... that she lived and worked at 67 Hayarkon [Street]. I think maybe she had many other troubles with family and money; it happens,” says Jenny (not her real name).

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This 40-year-old prostitute has worked for a year and two months at a brothel that is a five-minute walk from where another woman in the world’s oldest profession took her own life last month, sparking a 600-person protest.

The following day, police served the owner with a 30-day closure order, though they claimed it had nothing to do with the sex worker’s suicide and that they had been trying to shutter it for a long time, asserting it is a nuisance that operates at all hours in a residential neighborhood.

On condition that we not reveal where she works, Jenny agreed to sit down with Metro to discuss life in Israel’s sex industry.

“Some days I only have two customers, others as many as 10,” she reveals. Along with four other women, all in their mid- 30s to early 40s, she works from 10 or 11 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. The women watch Russian- language TV and smoke cigarettes on a small patio; another woman works the phones, providing details to the johns: “NIS 200 for half an hour, erotic massage, shared shower.” She advertises the prostitutes’ supposed attributes: “Young girl, hard but large breasts.” Which girl that refers to is not clear, since none of them match the glowing description.

According to estimates, some 15,000 women are involved in sex work in the Jewish state. A recent report found that 1,000 girls under the age of 18 are involved in some form of prostitution here.

The Elem NGO notes there are also underage boys and transgender teens involved.

Reports on prostitution tend to focus on exceptional cases, such as dozens of men arrested for using the services of an underage sex ring in which a 17-year-old boy was accused of procuring teens. Others focus on human trafficking, a phenomenon of the 1990s in which thousands of women were trafficked via Sinai from the former Soviet Union.

They concentrate on neighborhoods, such as 1 Finn Street, a “notorious drug and prostitution den,” which was recently torn down next to the central bus station.

We hear stories about the Hasan Arfa area near Yitzhak Sadeh Street, a warren of tin shacks and garages supposedly overrun by drug users and sex workers.

When Emese Benko did a photo essay on prostitution, he concentrated on the most gritty area around the bus station. He maintains there are 300 brothels in Tel Aviv.

Rebecca Hughes of social action organization Atzum’s Task Force on Human Trafficking writes, “There is a dangerous gap between the glamorous depiction of prostitution in pop culture [such as in the movie Pretty Woman] and the reality that prostituted women and minors are forced to contend with on a daily basis.... Most women do not choose to be prostitutes.”

The actual face of prostitution is more nuanced. There are hundreds of brothels in Tel Aviv. Many of them operate openly, advertising their services on the street with business-sized cards scattered on sidewalks throughout the city by young men.

These vividly colored cards usually include suggestive photos or graphics of women and advertise a variety of difference services. Some claim to offer a “touch of class” and that a phone call away is a woman who will visit your “home or motel.”

Others claim to offer “all varieties of massage, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.” Some even specify “no sex.” “Not for everyone, for wealthy people only, VIP models!” Brothels and massage parlors are located everywhere in Tel Aviv, from Hamasger Street to Ben-Yehuda and Allenby. There is not a neighborhood that doesn’t have them. A website that offers “sex-finding” services even has a locator feature that will tell you where to find the closest service.

Sipping a Bloody Mary at a bar near the beach during a happy hour this past Sunday, I gave it a try.

You can choose from “erotic massage” or “discreet rooms.” According to the app, just 0.3 kilometers from me in poorly worded Hebrew was “Tantra [ancient Eastern sexual practice]; if you haven’t tried tantra, you should find out what it is.” For NIS 350 from 10 a.m. to midnight, one could find out. Four hundred meters away in another direction was “the nicest place in Tel Aviv near the sea,” where “four young, beautiful women give a spoiling massage.”

In all, there were 44 massage parlors within 10 km. from the beach. They offered every type of woman, including a “22-year-old Moroccan student girl.”

Calls to some of the places revealed them to be closed or at least not answering.

Those that did promised “full-body nude massage” for NIS 200 for 30 minutes.

The age range of the masseuses seems to be about 21 to 34, according to the women who answered the phone (all calls but one were answered by a female).

Most places had similar hours: open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with three to five women, then from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. with a new shift.

Outside 98 Hayarkon Street, an ugly, dilapidated building in an area undergoing gentrification, signs had been pasted to the sidewalk protesting that women worked 12-hour days and serviced 20 to 30 men a day. They were left over from the Saturday-night demonstration, outside the building where a woman named “Jessica” had committed suicide. “A house of prostitution is a rape center” some signs said, while others proclaimed more starkly “Prostitution = rape.”

Laws in Israel, which seem to be rarely enforced, have criminalized solicitation of prostitution – but not being a customer.

The protesters alleged that women were forced into prostitution, that brothel security guards had supplied them with drugs. In other reports, heroin addiction was given as a reason for women entering prostitution, or staying in it.

IN 2011, then-MK Orit Zuaretz tried to introduce a bill to make it illegal for men to be clients of sex services.

“If you buy a blood diamond, it is criminal; if you buy the body of a woman, it should be criminal, too. I don’t understand why this is tolerated by the public in a Jewish state,” the Kadima MK told the press at the time.

The legislation, which never passed, led to a strange incident in Ashdod, in which a 56-year-old man turned himself in to police to protest the issue, claiming he often frequented brothels.

Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On, who has been active on the issue of prostitution for years, has plans for a bill of her own. She points to a larger problem of women’s inferior status in Israeli society, stressing, “The consumption of prostitution is a crime against women’s rights and human rights, and it’s time the state recognized it as such. The bill I am promoting – the criminalization of clients of prostitution – will send anyone caught for the consumption of sex services to training programs that explain why prostitution is a really serious, dangerous and demeaning phenomenon. People who are caught again will be convicted and punished. I’m going to fight so the bill will pass, in spite of the major political and economic forces that oppose it.

“I am aware of the criticism – criticism that also comes from sex workers themselves, who speak of severe economic distress and the economic inequality of women in society,” she continues. “It is clear that the way to work for women in prostitution is to fight poverty, to fund social services, to rehabilitate women involved in prostitution and develop alternative employment options. It can, and should, happen parallel to the criminalization of the clients.

“A society that allows the purchase of sexual services – from both women and men – reinforces the inferior status of women. Women are excluded from the public sphere anyway, discriminated against in their salaries and are not represented in the centers of power. The tragic death of the sex worker last week is a symptom of a phenomenon we cannot agree to live with.”

THIS YEAR, a woman who allegedly made NIS 47 million from running Tel Aviv brothels was arrested. According to sources familiar with the story, she had managed a brothel on Ben-Yehuda Street that is now a hotel, which was open seven days a week and charged NIS 270 for sex.

Another location on Wolfson Street, in a run-down area near the bus station, operated on the same grounds after her original location closed.

Police charges against this madam ran the gamut from pimping to creating a public nuisance and money-laundering.

But if police wanted to close these “houses of shame,” as they are called in Hebrew, a basic search of the Web, a perusal of the free Banana magazine that advertises sex services or simply picking up the cards all over the streets would make it easier to accomplish the task. Various attempts over the years to tackle the sex cards have not stopped their distribution.

Jenny says she has never seen a policeman bother her place of business. A mother of an eight-year-old, Jenny lived in a central Israeli town before moving to Tel Aviv. She was born in Donetsk, Ukraine, and came to Israel more than a decade ago. Prostitution became a relatively convenient way to make money.

With NIS 200 for a “massage,” she takes home half.

She describes an unfortunate daily routine, but one she accepts. She doesn’t use drugs or drink on the job. “Some of the men are nice, others are not. Some want me to be like an acrobat; it can be difficult. But most just want a nude massage and to ‘finish’ on me.”

Those who want “extras” pay more in tips. “I split the initial NIS 200 with the boss, but the tips I pocket myself. Why would I tell them about that?” It seems the story is a kind of wink-wink- nod-nod, with the “boss” who isn’t on the premises, and the madam who works the phones and knows the girls engage in oral or actual sex, though that’s not on the menu of offerings.

“Extras, you should talk to the girl,” the woman explains over the phone. “Massage, we offer massage,” she has to clarify.

Men who pay for sex are expected to bring their own condoms, and the women dispose of the condoms after each act.

“We don’t keep them on the premises; that way, if police come, it looks like a massage parlor.”

Rooms are decorated with ugly wallpaper and air-conditioning units. A small personal shower is in one corner, with a chair, a place for the john to hang his clothes and a massage table. Towels are stacked in another corner and there are candles, oil and a clock.

At another location, the so-called massage parlor is undergoing renovations.

Workmen, seemingly oblivious to the sexual encounters taking place in the rooms, are tearing out plaster and putting in new mirrors and air-conditioners. This more upscale look – replete with posted architectural schematics, approved by the municipality – doesn’t seem to increase the price much.

“NIS 200 for massage, NIS 300 for full service [sex],” explains a young woman in her 20s who claims to be from Beersheba.

She began her career in prostitution while in the IDF, working on the weekends, soldiering during the week at an army canteen at a base in the South. She is also from Ukraine.

But not all the girls were Russian. A phone survey indicates about 20 percent are Sabras; the rest are described as “Europeans,” a euphemism for the former Soviet Union; and about 10 percent are Ethiopians, or black women described as “Brazilian.”

One woman characterizes herself as an Arab from Haifa. “I work from noon to 4 a.m., which isn’t normal, but it’s once a week.” She says she can make as much as NIS 1,600 a shift.

Another woman was more negative about the situation. “This is a crap country.

The men are crap; they don’t treat you like a person, they just want the service and to leave. I hate working here, but I have huge bills, I can’t afford my apartment or my cellphone, and I am helping my brother and father pay for things.”

If these women were all addicted to heroin being forced on them by thugs guarding the door, it was not evident.

The premises we visited had no men in them at all. “Sometimes we have a guard at night on Thursdays because the crowd of men can get drunk and violent.”

Some of the women describe having worked at several places. “I used to work in Nahalat Binyamin, but there were no customers.

I worked in Petah Tikva, and then my girlfriends told me about this place.”

Despite the stories of customers primarily being Arab or haredi, it seemed at most places the customers were Israeli Jewish men in their 30s and 40s; none of them were religious. At one all-Russian massage parlor in south Tel Aviv near the beach, most of the customers appeared to be Arab men who had just gotten off work, with a few tourists poking their heads in.

“A lot of French are coming now, so we get tourists also,” details a sex worker, clad in a red tutu and tube top.

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