Stopping prostitution

Logic dictates that if demand for prostitution can expand, it can also contract.

February 12, 2012 22:10
3 minute read.
Prostitute [illustrative]

Prostitute hooker street walker 390 (R). (photo credit: Edgard Garrido / Reuters)

Prostitution is violence against women. Everything should be done to diminish, if not completely eradicate, this horrible phenomenon, dubbed inappropriately “the world’s oldest profession,” as if its long history somehow gives it respectability.

The Ministerial Committee on Legislation took an important step toward achieving this goal Sunday when it unanimously passed a bill by MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima), who chairs the Knesset Subcommittee on Trafficking in Women.

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If ratified, Zuaretz’s bill would make it illegal to buy sexual services but not to sell them. The legislation’s eminently reasonable underlying assumption is that prostitutes – mostly women – are victims of an industry said to generate revenues of $2 billion a year in Israel, while those who solicit, pimp or facilitate sexual favors – primarily men – are the ones guilty of exploiting, raping and abusing those who are weaker and more vulnerable, and therefore, deserve to be singled out for punishment.

Critics of the bill argue that targeting prostitutes’ clients will make an already dangerous work environment even more hazardous. Those who disregard the new law will tend to be more dangerous, violent types. The decrease in the number of clients will lead to cutthroat competition among the remaining prostitutes, who will earn less and might be put under pressure to have sex without protection. And the entire industry will go underground.

But thousands of prostitutes are already working in horrid conditions, forced to maximize profits by working long hours with as many as a dozen clients a day. Some prostitutes live under constant physical threat. Others are addicted to heroin or other drugs, while still others were victims of sexual abuse as children and found their way to prostitution due to low self-esteem or other psychological problems.

Legalizing prostitution and regulating the industry to protect women from exploitation is not an option. Experiments in Holland and Germany have proven a failure. Criminal activity, human trafficking and the abuse of women continue despite regulatory actions. Besides, such legislation would never have a chance of passing in a government dominated by conservative-minded lawmakers from Shas, United Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and Likud. Could a state that defines itself as Jewish justify the legalization of prostitution?

While critics of Zuaretz’s legislation might be right that in the short-term the situation for some prostitutes might get worse, in the long-term the inevitable decrease in demand – assuming the law is enforced by police – will gradually force many women out of prostitution.

The new shelter for prostitutes built in Beersheba and the existing one in the center of Israel will most likely be overcrowded with women seeking protection from the pimps, massage parlor owners and other go-betweens who pocket the vast majority of the profits from prostitutes’ hard work. These existing shelters will need to be augmented.

So will the number of social and psychological support givers and job training programs.

Kayla Zecher, Project Coordinator for ATZUM – Task Force on Human Trafficking, an organization that helped Zuaretz draft her bill, estimates that there are 15,000 prostitutes – a third of whom are minors – currently working in Israel. These people need to be helped to weather the transition from prostitution to an occupation that does not involve degradation and abuse.

Critics also claim that before a law can be passed, a public education campaign should be launched to teach the public about the dark side of prostitution. But we believe there is no better way of conveying the message that prostitution – and the criminal sub-culture it sustains – is morally reprehensible than by criminalizing it. Indeed, the sort of callous men who frequent prostitutes – particularly those held in sub-human conditions – need the added incentive of a possible prison sentence to improve their learning curve.

Prostitution has existed since Israel’s founding – and before. But it was not until the 1990s, with the huge influx of immigration from the former Soviet Union, that the industry really began to take off. Demand increased with supply, and even after a crackdown on human trafficking significantly reduced the number of women smuggled into Israel from Ukraine, Moldova and other countries in eastern Europe, local women – including migrant workers and asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea – quickly filled the vacuum.

Logic dictates that if demand for prostitution can expand, it can also contract. Zuaretz’s bill is designed to do just that. Let’s hope the Knesset passes it.

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