Culture of prostitution

Walking in my neighborhood was at times unpleasant, but it wasn’t frightening until March 19.

A prostitute waits for customers along a road. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A prostitute waits for customers along a road.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At least once a week, someone mistakes me for a prostitute.
It started two years ago when I moved to south Tel Aviv. At first I didn’t understand why cars were pulling up alongside me as I walked home, trailing me for a few moments and then driving away. After a few months I casually mentioned this strange behavior to one of my neighbors.
“They think you’re a prostitute,” she stated matter-of-factly.
I must have looked offended, because she quickly added, “Don’t worry, it’s not just you. It happens to me too.”
Eventually I stopped being shocked every time a man stopped me in the street. However, it troubled me that people could perceive a woman walking alone as a woman in prostitution, and it angered me that sex-buyers were permitted to purchase women who lacked my privilege.
Walking in my neighborhood was at times unpleasant, but it wasn’t frightening until March 19.
It was a Thursday morning on the corner of Har-Zion and Salame, less than 100 meters from my apartment. A 37-year-old woman was walking her dog when a man ran up to her, slammed her against a wall, threw her to her knees, pulled down his pants and sodomized her. For 10 minutes she tried to fight him off. She watched people walk by, look and continue along their way. She saw taxi drivers pull up next to where she was kneeling and then drive off. People passed her on their way to work and school. Buses drove by. One person stopped and called the police.
The woman who was assaulted is Israeli, white and Jewish, and the assailant was a man from Ghana, black and not Jewish.
The media has focused obsessively on the assailant’s otherness; strengthening the oft-repeated claim that Israel can rid itself of sexual assault in south Tel Aviv if we make our streets unwelcoming to African refugees and foreign workers. This narrative is a comfortable one because it enables us to pretend that outsiders, who are easy to identify and avoid, bring sexual assault into our society.
Yet, research shows that sexual assault is prevalent in every society. The calls to rid Tel Aviv of “black people” are founded on fear and racism. If we are serious about protecting women from sexual assault we must resist our prejudices and dig deeper.
Rather than focus on the color of the assailant, let us consider why dozens of people witnessed a sexual assault without intervening.
Researchers have long demonstrated that in areas where prostitution is legal or tolerated, a “culture of prostitution” takes root, promoting the idea that men’s “need” for sex entitles them to women’s bodies.
Yet, contrary to popular belief, most sex-buyers have access to sex; 86 percent are married or coupled. So what exactly are sex-buyers purchasing? Many sex-buyers are seeking violent and degrading sex acts that their partners will not consent to and complete control and power over someone who can’t say no. Essentially sex-buyers are purchasing the right to sexually assault, and women in prostitution experience it as such. Similar to survivors of sexual assault, women in prostitution have high rates of PTSD, depression, suicidal tendencies and disassociation. By permitting prostitution to take place, Israel has put a price on sexual violence and signaled to its citizens that it’s possible for sexual assault to be considered legitimate.
On March 19 a woman was violently attacked in broad daylight and dozens of witnesses did nothing.
Perhaps they assumed she was a woman in prostitution who was being adequately compensated for the assault, or perhaps they have come to think that if some forms of sexual assault are acceptable then all forms are acceptable. It is women, both prostituted and non-prostituted, who will ultimately pay the price for Israel’s misguided policy on prostitution. Israeli women deserve a Knesset that refuses to put a price on sexual assault, and that criminalizes the purchase of prostitution services. A Knesset that will make a clear statement with a client incrimination bill: women are not for sale.
The author is coordinator for the Taskforce on Human Trafficking.