Social Affairs: Cleaning up the streets

Lawmakers, activists believe bill criminalizing prostitution signifies breakthrough.

Prostitute hooker street walker 390 (R) (photo credit: Edgard Garrido / Reuters)
Prostitute hooker street walker 390 (R)
(photo credit: Edgard Garrido / Reuters)
Her voice was weak and faltering but her message to the Knesset panel this week was clear: No one becomes a prostitute by choice.
“I did not know there was another world,” the reformed prostitute, who gave her name as Yael, told lawmakers, officials and social rights activists that had gathered for a meeting of the Knesset Subcommittee on Human Trafficking on Wednesday.
“I did not know there was a sun, I did not see the mornings and I never believed there was anything else I could do in the world,” said the woman, who escaped less than four months ago from her life as a sex worker and is now receiving rehabilitation support from one of a handful of programs designed to help former prostitutes start a new life.
While Yael’s story is one that might have been told a million times before, on Wednesday it came as part of a discussion in parliament on the progress and the next steps of a bill that is aimed at seriously cracking down on Israel’s burgeoning sex industry. Cleaning up Israel’s streets might only sound like a metaphor for the legislation being proposed by committee chairwoman MK Orit Zuaretz, however, if it is successful then the provocative ads and non-stop business cards promoting “escorts” and “massage parlors” that often litter streets and the outright flaunting of sexual services may very well become a thing of the past in the Jewish state.
While pessimists have cautioned against premature celebration of a law that has yet to become reality – it passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset on Wednesday – the fact that Israel could become the fourth country in the world to hold only clients responsible for purchasing sexual services is already being hailed as a historic breakthrough for human rights here.
“It is a historic day not only for the victims of prostitution but also for society, which must stop looking at women as objects or as sexual services that can be bought and sold,” Vered Swid, director-general of the National Authority for the Advancement of Women, who commended all the efforts behind this bill, said during the Knesset hearing.
She added that it was about time that the sex industry, which rakes in millions of dollars, is placed outside the law and outside acceptable social norms.
ALTHOUGH THERE are no official figures, human rights organizations working to combat the sex slave trade estimate that there are currently more than 15,000 individuals working as prostitutes in Israel – and 5,000 of them are minors.
Furthermore, activists emphasize that many of those working as prostitutes or sex slaves are controlled by pimps and often experience violence at the hands of their clients. Research has also shown that the client base demanding this service comes from every segment of society and every ethnic, religious and social-economic stratum.
Estimates suggest that roughly 10,000 men each month visit one of the hundreds of discreet apartments or brothels throughout the country. Of those, around 25-35 percent are from the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community; 25-35% are Arab; 8-10% are foreign workers and the rest are from mainstream Israeli society.
“Society cannot hide from the reality of prostitution and we cannot be apathetic about it,” states Idit Harel-Shemesh, director of Machon Toda’a, a non-profit organization aimed at raising awareness to combatting prostitution and sexual exploitation.
“We really need to make change,” she continues, adding that the bill’s successful passage through the Knesset thus far is the “fruit of many years in which we had to persuade people to break away from the stereotypes.”
According to Harel-Shemesh, society is so caught up in stereotypes such as ”prostitutes are students who wants to make money,” or that “the services answer the needs of men” or that “the women chose to do it” that it is failing to recognize the reality of the situation.
“The issue of whether prostitution is really a choice is the biggest stereotype we have to break because if we recognize that these women have no choice then essentially we are admitting to the fact that there is a group of women who are being raped by men all day,” she says. “That is a concept much harder for society to accept.”
While there is still a long way to go, Harel-Shemesh notes that over the past week, since the legislation came up for public debate, there has been a slight change in the overall attitudes and the language surrounding the sex industry.
“Even though this process is still not completed, I really feel as though we have seen change in social attitudes even over the past week,” she says.
“I believe that all those involved in the fight for this legislation should welcome what has been achieved so far and be happy because this really is a historic moment,” concurs Rachel Gershuni, the country’s national coordinator for combatting human trafficking, who for the past three years has represented the Justice Ministry on an interministerial committee charged with researching the issue.
She emphasizes that even if this legislation does not come to fruition, a clear message is now being sent to the authorities and to the public that respect and honor for all human beings, even women working in such an undignified industry, is important and valuable.
“I did not expect to find such consensus, especially among the ministers,” admits Gershuni, referring to the fact that the bill received initial approval last Sunday from government ministers in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.
“Usually we encounter some negativity from lawmakers or responses such as ‘What can we do about it? Prostitution will always be there!’” she continues, adding “There seems to be another wind blowing about this issue and that shows that even though re-education might take a long time, it does work.”
While the political establishment certainly seems intent on pushing through this law, Gershuni expresses doubts that Israeli society at this stage is fully convinced of its necessity.
On Tuesday, even after the bill was approved by ministers, Channel 2’s main news broadcast aired a controversial segment on women who had apparently “chosen” to be in the profession because of its high payout and were scared their income could be in jeopardy if this law is passed.
“I am not sure that the entire Israeli public agrees that this behavior should be criminalized, and that raises question of when is it right to pass legislation that goes against the public views,” says Gershuni.
Despite the uncertainty, Gershuni says she is hopeful that as this legislation will move toward a change in social attitudes.
“Now that it is going to be debated by a Knesset committee, there is a chance that we will see in-depth research into this topic that will go a long way in convincing the public of the need for change,” she says, highlighting that on similar subjects, such as sexual harassment, there have been huge changes in society’s approach.
“I feel that we are living in a new period that recognizes the fundamental laws of human dignity and we will see a change eventually,” Gershuni concludes.