Prostitution is now a crime amid coronavirus unemployment wave

Despite having 19 months to prepare, Israel used only 30% of the rehabilitation budget meant to help sex workers out of this line of work.

A prostitute in Israel waiting for a client.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A prostitute in Israel waiting for a client.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The criminalization of hiring sex workers came into effect last week, 19 months after the Knesset approved the original bill.
Now the bill is being enforced as unprecedented unemployment and uncertainty sweep the country in time of the coronavirus pandemic, and little was done to help sex workers adapt to another profession.
Only 30% out of the original NIS 30 million earmarked to help sex workers out of their line of work was ever used. The Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry only published a tender to operate hostels to house those seeking to escape sex work on Thursday, Haaretz reported on Friday.
Additionally, social workers nationwide are on strike, making access to the aid and services even more difficult for those currently engaged in survival prostitution.
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana wanted to push back the date of the law coming into effect by an extra six months, saying it is unfair to criminalize paying for sex without offering those who do so treatment, but was overruled by Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn.
Roughly 14,000 people across the country were engaging in sex work last year before COVID-19 hit, with 3,000 being minors, The Jerusalem Post reported in March.
With increasing reports of Israeli families facing financial ruin, and even hunger, it seems likely that more people would opt to do whatever work they need to do to make ends meet during the pandemic. This wave of unemployment makes the enforcement of the act without offering sex workers a path out of the industry, as was originally planned, a startling case of the road to misfortune being paved with good intentions.
The Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry gave the Finance Ministry NIS 7m., which was never used after it received NIS 22m. to rehabilitate sex workers in 2019.
The hostels it now wishes to operate are meant to help teenage girls, young women and transgender people, demonstrating the ministry’s understanding that transgender people are among the most vulnerable in the field.
When completed, the ministry will have three centers where homeless sex workers can sleep at night, two centers for day time and evening time activities and two apartments offering stability to those seeking a new life.
The Education Ministry, then under Rabbi Rafi Peretz, was given a NIS 600,000 budget to create classes teaching healthy sexuality, but efforts were halted and the money was never used. The Health Ministry, at the time of this writing, used NIS 500,000 out of a NIS 7.4m. budget to create programs for sex workers, but the programs have yet to become operational.
Now enforced, the law will impose a fine of NIS 2,000 on those who pay for sex at first offense, double that fine in case of a repeat offense and up to a NIS 73,000 fine in case of repeated violations. While in Sweden, another country which adopted this legal model, clients are given educational workshops during which they meet former sex workers to learn about the humanity of those they used to hire, no similar workshops have been presented in Israel.
In 2019, the overwhelming majority of Israeli sex workers, 95%, were women, and concern was raised over women being forced by police to incriminate their clients, exposed as sex workers by careless police work, or going underground to continue to work below the radar.
Police, who are already facing accusations of brutality in enforcing the Health Ministry’s coronavirus regulations, will now face a very different challenge.