Suicide at brothel highlights the status of sex workers in Israel

Governments unsure how to deal with the “flesh trade.”

A prostitute waits for customers along a road. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A prostitute waits for customers along a road.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
More than 600 people protested in Tel Aviv following the suicide of a woman who lived and worked at a brothel nearby. The woman’s death and the demonstration, a rare sign of support for sex workers, have brought the legally gray area of prostitution in Israel back into the spotlight.
The woman, who has not been officially identified is believed to have been in her 30s and originally from the former Soviet Union. Activists stated that there are more than 200 brothels operating in the city of Tel Aviv alone.
“Selling or purchasing (sex) is legal – well it’s not illegal – but pimping, running or owning a brothel, (or) advertising the sale of sex” is criminal, Michal Leibel, a lawyer and the director of the Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution, an Israeli NGO, told The Media Line.
The Israeli legal system is based on the idea that if something is not forbidden then it is not illegal. This leaves prostitution “not legalized and not regulated,” with the actual act not a crime but most activity surrounding it illegal, Leibel said. This is a similar position to the law in several European countries, as well as England or Canada, the advocate explained.
Many commentators consider there to be three basic models for dealing with the question of how a legal system views the sex trade. Traditional criminalization has been practiced in much of the West in the past and continues to be the norm for law enforcement agencies in many parts of the world. Critics argue that among other problems this unfairly criminalizes the sex workers themselves, pushing them underground and leaving them open to abuse from pimps and customers.
Some countries, most notably Germany and the Netherlands, have taken the opposite approach, deciding that the protection of sex workers is better achieved by allowing them to operate legally. Such policies have led to Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District, where scantily-clad prostitutes stand in windows surrounded by red lightbulbs to offer their wares to customers.
A third option, a compromise of the previous two, is known as the Nordic or Swedish model, and involves legalizing the sale but not the buying of sex. By tackling demand it is hoped that supply will also be reduced. It is this method that the Israeli Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution is advocating. The organization is pushing for the implementation of a change to the law which would allow police to charge an individual found buying or attempting to purchase sex. Several members of the Knesset from across the political spectrum have expressed support for such reforms, including Zehava Gal-On from the dovish Meretz party, and Shuli Moalem Refaeli from the hawkish Bayit Yehudi party, Leibel said.
Legalization has been shown to increase demand for prostitution, as the trade becomes legal and therefore no longer taboo. It also fails in its attempts to improve the lives of sex workers, Leibel argued. Additionally the sale of a person’s body is “degrading (to) human dignity,” she added. Violence and sexual attacks towards prostitutes, and women as a whole across society, may increase in a culture where women can be purchased freely.
“Treating women as a consumer product for sexual consumption embodies the message that it is possible to purchase women (like) any other product. This… reinforces and even increases the inferior status of women,” MK Zehava Gal-On, the chairperson for the Knesset Subcommittee on Trafficking in Women and Prostitution said. But it is unclear how precisely sex work and human trafficking, and other forms of violence against women, are linked.
“Today very few of the women are trafficked… most of (those) in prostitution in Israel are local,” Tali Koral, CEO of Machon Todaa, an awareness center for combating prostitution, told The Media Line. “Israel combated trafficking in women in the early years of the 2000s and did good work on this matter,” Koral explained.  She argued that prostitution was a crime against humanity and as such should never be legalized but other commentators, pointing to a perceived differentiation between sex work and violence against women, have suggested alternative policies.
Such advocates, among them a number of academics and sex workers’ rights organizations, state that traditional feminist arguments against legalization of prostitution completely exclude sex workers’ voices from the debate.
“Many people conflate human trafficking for sexual exploitation with prostitution or, as I would rather call it, with “sex work” (paid sexual or sexualized encounters among consenting adults of all genders),” Sonja Dolinsek, a blogger who focuses on sex workers’ rights wrote in an article for the Council of Europe. By interfering in private consenting sexual encounters between adults the state jeopardizes sex workers’ rights and security, Dolinsek said.
The Nordic model, it has been argued, can have a similar impact on sex workers safety as criminalization. If clients are driven underground by the law then prostitutes servicing them will also have to go out of sight, placing them in danger. A safer model for governments to follow, Dolinsek suggested, is a fourth option known as the Merseyside model.
Following the death of a female sex worker in 2006 the police service in Liverpool, England, implemented a shift in policy by which any crimes committed against a prostitute in the course of her job would be considered as hate-crimes. Accordingly punishments for such crimes would be far harsher, similar to sentencing for crimes motivated by racism or homophobia. Advocates of this policy suggest that sex workers are victims of rape and violence far more commonly that the rest of society, not because they are women, but because they are sex workers – and the law should therefore reflect this.
Since the implementation of the Merseyside model the police force in Liverpool have reported dramatic rises in the conviction rates of attacks against sex workers.
For more stories from The Media Line.