Prostitution in the Holy Land

Some men are deterred by fines that Israel now imposes on those who hire prostitutes, but others struggle to overcome the addiction.

DRESSED IN gold bikinis, the sex workers solicit clients in Tel Baruch (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
DRESSED IN gold bikinis, the sex workers solicit clients in Tel Baruch
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
We were three 15-year-old guys with raging hormones. Our fathers were anxious for us to “know a woman” and so offered to help us with that endeavor. We decided, however, to go it alone.
So on Purim night, armed with silver clown trumpets made from paper, the three of us set out for Jaffa. While we were sitting on the bus from Rehovot, Carol the Romanian climbed onto the bus, too. Carol, who was a few years older than us and who was more seasoned in the field of prostitutes than we were, volunteered to be our mentor. We wandered around the dimly lit alleyways and peeked into dark corners, but found no trace of the type of women we were looking for. So we gave up and went to eat falafel. At this point, a woman approached us and let us know that she was available.
Carol took charge and as a confidence-building step asked her if she’d like to try out our trumpets. She smiled and gave a good blow on one of them. Confident that the negotiation was going well so far, Carol asked her, “How much?” 
“I’ll take all of you for 20 lirot,” she responded.
An embarrassed silence ensued, until Carol finally admitted, “But we only have 10.”
“With 10 lirot you can go f--- a chicken,” she said, and then made some clucking sounds.
We returned home with our tails between our legs. Crushed like the trumpets we’d left behind on the ground.
This story and many others like it are the basis for legends about female students who choose to sell their bodies in order to pay for the doctoral studies they’re doing in life sciences. But newspaper articles about women like Annette Peretz, who had been beaten to death by a client, or the movie Or by Keren Yedaya, have left enduring marks on our psyches. Now the law that was enacted to punish consumers of prostitution has made its mark.
After visiting Tel Baruch, the central bus station and a women’s hostel, any ideas we had that “the world’s oldest profession” was exotic have dried up.
The notorious pussycat strip club in Tel Aviv's Atrium Square has faced prostitution allegations (Yossi Aloni)
The notorious pussycat strip club in Tel Aviv's Atrium Square has faced prostitution allegations (Yossi Aloni)
It’s not a profession. It’s not about the sex, and there’s certainly no erotic aspects about these encounters. It’s purely a financial interaction, business deals that involve blood, sweat, tears and semen. In our movie, the pimp doesn’t get shut up with a billiard ball as in Irma la Douce. The policeman doesn’t marry Irma – he throws her in jail.
Dressed in gold bikinis, the “Irmas” walk around Tel Baruch, waiting. Other women wait at the Safari for dark to descend. Then the hunters begin to approach in their Toyota minivans and their Hyundai Crossovers. Slowly they cruise by, headlights blinding the women as they search for their prey. The hunters feel a sense of control as they strip the victims of their dignity, their humanity. And of course the men must handle the goods before deciding on which one they want to spend 100 shekels.
One seeker is an older man with a big white mane of hair and red cheeks. He probably just picked his granddaughter up from her piano lesson and then took her home and made her an omelet for dinner. Now he’s here in his white Mitsubishi browsing through the women in Tel Baruch. He’s not feeling very decisive. He slows down, stops for a moment, then drives on and disappears.
On another street near the central bus station, just 50 meters from the local police station, a red light glows. I hop over a used syringe and come upon two women. One is wearing old army shorts, the other overalls with a leopard pattern. There are eggshells on a plate, leftover from dinner, and they’re watching Rambo with a Russian voiceover.
“We only offer the regular stuff, sweetheart,” the one in the overalls tells me hurriedly.
“What’s considered regular?”
“A f--- or a blow job.”
“How much?”
“One hundred.”
“Is there a discount for soldiers?”
“Not at your age, sweetheart.”
Their pimp sees that this negotiation isn’t progressing and so tells me, “You either go up with her to the room, or you move on.”
In the meantime, Messi is taking a beating from Croatia. People around me are speaking in languages I don’t understand. There’s a stench of cheap whiskey and sweaty armpits.
On Naveh Sha’anan Street, in a dark room with a low ceiling, a woman sits on a worn couch. Her hair is dyed blonde and her lips painted red.
“Oui, mon chéri,” she says into her phone. “Life is good, after all,” she tells me. When I ask her if the new law will affect business, she laughs and says, “Everyone will still want to f---, sweetheart.”
Faceless females: 'Maybe we are all to blame for this situation, by calling women by the name of female genitalia, [providing] the ecuse to treat them like commodities.' (Yossi Aloni)
Faceless females: 'Maybe we are all to blame for this situation, by calling women by the name of female genitalia, [providing] the ecuse to treat them like commodities.' (Yossi Aloni)
YOAV (NOT his real name), 27, who’s religious, married and has a two-year-old daughter, comes from a well-todo family. He currently works in real estate, and used to work with at-risk teens. Until recently, he would compulsively visit prostitutes.
He experienced his first sexual experience at the age of five. A family friend who was living with them at the time would take him down to the basement where they would touch each other. He remembers it as being thrilling. He felt like he was a partner in this secret activity. Later, Yoav began doing the same things with all the kids in his class at school.
“I would feel an overwhelming sense of light over my head each time I engaged in these acts. It was like I was in an animated film.”
Yoav’s first encounter with prostitutes took place during a business trip to China, when he was 20 and already married. When the massage therapist offered to have sex with him for an extra charge, he immediately agreed. Afterwards, he told himself, ‘What happens in China stays in China.” After he’d returned home he promised himself, “Okay, just one more time,” but it never remained the last time for long. Sometimes he was searching out prostitutes up to three times a week, and for a period it increased to twice a day. He spent upwards of hundreds of thousands of shekels on prostitutes.
How were you able to have a normal life with your wife with such an addiction?
“My daily schedule was something like this: I’d open my eyes in the morning and turn on my phone with a secret code. I’d watch a little porn and masturbate. Then I’d look for girls in places I went for work. I’d have sex with one or two of them and then go home and have sex with my wife. And after that I’d masturbate again.”
Didn’t it bother you that they had sex with you only because you were paying them?
“I’d tell myself all sorts of stories – that they were enjoying their time with me, that I wasn’t harming them, that in effect I was helping them make a living.”
Did you ever try to figure out what this obsession had stemmed from?
“It’s something that was inside of me. I had no power to stop. I would try to control myself – for example by not taking any cash with me, but nothing helped. I was miserable. I would yell at myself, I would pray.”
What would you say to God?
“I would say, ‘Please God, tell me why you are doing this to me. God, I want to stop.”
After a while, Yoav stopped enjoying sex and suffered through every encounter. He began feeling suicidal and even wrote a suicide note. He never actually tried to commit suicide, though. One night his wife came home and asked him outright about his behavior. He finally felt like he could open up to her and the release he felt by telling her his dirty secret was immense.
“All of a sudden I felt so much lighter. I no longer had to hide my phone and worry that my wife would find out.”
So he cut off the Internet connection on his phone and stopped watching porn. But he kept communicating with women – from his wife’s phone. One time, the night before Passover, he fell asleep with her phone in his hand. When she woke up and saw the texts that had gone back and forth, she went ballistic, and said she couldn’t do this anymore.
Yoav believes that this new law is a very important move in the right direction. But it’s certainly not foolproof, since it’s extremely hard to overcome addiction.
“When I was in the midst of my addiction, I would have continued going to prostitutes even if I’d known I could get put in prison for it.”
How long has it been since you went to a prostitute?
“Four hundred and ninety-five days [as of the day of the interview]. I also don’t masturbate or have sex with anyone other than my wife.”
Are you sure you’ll never go to a prostitute again?
“Today I won’t. I have no idea what tomorrow will bring.”
John Schools
In the US, there are 48 John Schools – classes where men who were caught going to prostitutes hear lectures about STDs, jail time and the harm caused by prostitution. In Israel there is one – and for now it’s purely virtual. It’s headed by Idit Harel-Shemesh, who’s been spearheading the struggle against prostitution for 13 years. 
Maybe we are all to blame for this situation, by calling women by the name of female genitalia, which gives men the excuse to treat them like a commodity. Men calling the John School hotline (050-300-0702) will be referred to as zana’im (adulterers). According to Harel-Shemesh, the new law will require men to participate in John School workshops where they will hear about the health and legal ramifications of prostitution. They will also have to listen to women who were lucky enough to escape this world, in the hope that this will deter them from returning to prostitutes in the future. 
This sounds like a superficial solution. These classes don’t include treatment of the deep reasons that lead men to visit prostitutes.
“There are different situations. Sometimes there’s a group of guys going out for fun, other times we’re talking about a sex addict. The latter must be referred to a sex therapist and to Sexaholics Anonymous meetings. Our goal is to reduce the demand.”
In Sweden, they’ve succeeded in outlawing prostitution by legalizing the selling of sex, but banning the purchase of it. And so men in Sweden now have to cross the border to find prostitutes.
“That’s true, but up until 20 years ago a Swedish man could stop at a prostitute on the side of the road for a blow job and then continue on to work. These days, he needs to take vacation from work, lie to his wife about where he’s going and pack a suitcase. All they’ve managed to do in Sweden is make it more difficult to find prostitutes.”
Harel-Shemesh rejects the premise that the regulation of prostitution would remove the pimps from the picture, reduce the use of drugs, and legalize women’s work. It won’t prevent the women from feeling that their bodies and souls are being destroyed.
At the end of the 19th century in England, almost the entire British army was infected with syphilis and women were forced to undergo aggressive testing for the disease. Those who were cleared were marked with a physical label that said “clean” that was pinned to their skirts. Unbelievably enough, none of the men were checked and so healthy women continued to be infected by sick men.
Women’s health continues to be an important question in modern times. The question remains: Who’s going to protect the women? 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.