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Knesset passes draft law to criminalize paying for sex

Spearheaded by Kadima Cabinet member Orit Zuaretz, a draft law was recently passed making the solicitation of a sexual act a criminal offense. First brought to the table in 2009, this law received its first green light on the path to becoming official.

Under this law, first time offenders will be sent to an educational program while second time offenders can be sentenced to up to six months for visiting prostitutes. This law follows the ‘Nordic model’, which was pioneered in Sweden and has since been adopted by many European countries.

Until now, prostitution has been legal in Israel; however, the de facto practice surrounding this issue is very complicated. The Hotline For Migrant Workers released a publication entitled The Legalization of Prostitution: Myth and Reality that was very helpful in my quest to understand the law on this matter.

It reads:

Israel inherited from the British Mandate a model based on the partial criminalization of the sex industry. Prostitution and its consumption were not criminalized (with the exception of the clients of minor prostitutes), and criminalization was applied only to pimps and brothel managers.

In reality, several “tolerance zones” for prostitution exist around the country. In these regions, which are usually poor areas on the outskirts of major cities, the police turn a blind eye to the sex industry. In this way, both the legal and illegal sides of the business go unnoticed or intentionally ignored.

If this law is passed by the Knesset, the entire industry, which brings in an estimated revenue of NIS 2 billion a year, will be further pushed into the gutter of society. Though the law does not officially criminalize the act of selling oneself, it places the consumer outside of the law. Thus, the government’s direct target is not the prostitute but the clients. However, prostitutes will nonetheless be the ones most dramatically affected by the legislation.

Ever since I caught wind of the new law being put into motion in Israel concerning prostitution, my mind has been ablaze with questions. As someone who has not followed prostitution laws before, I have been sent adrift in a labyrinth of opinions since taking interest in the matter.

The more time I spend with this topic, the more nuanced it becomes for me. First of all, I ask myself: what is the goal of this law?

Is the goal to protect women? To stop them from being forced into compromising situations associated with sex work?

Is the aim to stop men from paying for sex and force them to find more creative solutions for their desires?

Do Zuaretz and her supporters believe that this law will bring about the end of prostitution in Israel? If so, does anyone think that is remotely possible?

I think the main point of contention regarding this issue is: does Israeli society believe that the act of paying for sexual acts is inherently wrong?

If the government deems prostitution unacceptable, their interest should be to eradicate the industry. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

This is a topic that wears many masks.

There is such a negative haze surrounding prostitution it’s hard to understand what we are trying to fight. Is it really the act of selling and buying sex or the inherent connection to abuse that is so repellant?

It is no secret that prostitutes are victims of brutal attacks by customers. Many of these women are addicted to drugs and have no other means of providing for themselves. One of the many statistics going around is that 40% of men who visit prostitutes are married. And here we have three distasteful side effects: extramarital relations, drug abuse and violence. However, these unfortunate issues are not at the heart of this debate, nor should they be. What should be discussed is if pushing prostitution into the margins will make it stop or just make it more rife with all things evil.

I don’t believe that working women of this country will be deterred by this law. Rather, they will be forced to find ways of surpassing it that will further compromise their safety.

If the goal is to protect the women operating within this world, making everything about their livelihood criminal only increases the chance that they will get involved in or become victims of other outlawed activities.

Who does this law actually serve? The people directly affected by it or the rest of the population who will sleep a bit easier knowing that the government is “dealing with this uncomfortable issue?”

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    1. Presumably marriage contracts which involve a transfer of money will fall outside the reach of this law.
      (Seriously): An important and difficult matter. The USA tried “prohibition” as to alcohol and it failed, produced much crime, and was reversed. The USA tried “prohibition” as to narcotic drugs and it failed, produced much crime, but nevertheless has NOT been reversed, the enormous consequent international criminal establishment now close to rendering Mexico victim to well-financed (by the USA) lawless violence, filling USA’s prisons (mostly with “people of color”, perhaps an undeclared purpose of the laws) at enormous social expense, and providing a recurring occasion for police corruption.
      One thing to be said of this proposed law is that it criminalizes the buyers rather than the sellers.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Noam W

      Ori, I think this law, like all criminal prohibition, is intended to define a behavior that the society thinks is repugnant to its core moral understanding of what is acceptable, and punish those who transgress this violation.

      I don’t think that the people who supported the enactment of this law think it will make prostitution go away. But this is true for all criminal laws. People still murder, steal, rape, etc. even though these behaviors have been prohibited for ages. If you think the role of criminal law is to bring an end to crime, then it is probably the single biggest failure in the history of human culture (I do not think that is why we punish – but that is a different story).

      So who does this serve? Like all criminal laws it is supposed to serve the entire society by defining a behavior that that society (as per its representatives)as morally repugnant and unacceptable.

      Maybe this law over-reaches because using women for sex in exchange for money is not morally repugnant. That, to me, is the important debate. Because if it is morally repugnant, than I do not want to legitimize notwithstanding other considerations.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Piotr Berman

      Both buying and selling sex is illegal in USA with some very rare exceptions, I think Nevada without Las Vegas. Nice aspect of locating bordellos in the middle of a desert is that there are no neighbors to complain.

      There is a difference between “necessary” and “optional” criminalization. Nobody seriously advocates legalizing assault, murder or rape, etc. Here one can discuss how to penalize and not if it should be penalized. But for every prohibition there is (a) decrease in liberty and (b) extra scope of corruption (c) extra burden on law enforcement which is eventually spread to thinly to seriously take care of everything that got prohibited over the years.

      Another aspect is that undesired activities may “mutate” in undesirable direction when prohibited. For example, when marijuana is illegal then it makes sense to make it as potent as possible, and who knows what would happen if legal marijuana would be sold in correctly labeled packages showing the TCB content (the same argument applies to amphetamines and extasy). Perhaps like with alcohol, consumers would have an option of enjoying the drugs in a responsible manner. Perhaps “price taggers” could relax with a joint. Or they would used legalized speed to be even more agressive? Easy access to drugs may have consequences that are hard to predict.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Piotr Berman

      “Because if it is morally repugnant, than I do not want to legitimize notwithstanding other considerations.”

      Mixing law and morality is somewhat slippery. Some people find unpatriotic journalism like +972 deeply immoral. The regulatory model that was proposed was a bit similar: accepting the money to conduct such activity could be prohibited or surrounded with a red tape that could easily trip the perpetrators.

      Other people think that accepting money to be loudly patriotic is an immoral “love for money” scheme, not unlike “kept women” or “gigolos”.

      And we have immoral activities like blasphemy and heresy, incitement, reading and making pornography, posting software that makes it particularly easy to violate copyrights (bad in USA) or commit blasphemy (bad in Iran) etc. Authoritarian regimes usually put a very high priority on guarding the morality of the population.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Mareli

      I do not see how this law will address the issue of human trafficking, which is the biggest problem with prostitution from a law enforcement standpoint. Is this going to keep people from being smuggled into the country from Moldova, the Ukraine, and other countries where women make low wages and are victimized by people promising better money?

      Reply to Comment
    6. @PaulMSeligman

      This law hould be shown the red light!

      Reply to Comment
    7. Over the years I have thought long and hard about laws. And here is my conclusion. Authentic laws proscribe behaviors where one person inflicts harm on one or more others; that all reasonable people believe is unacceptable harm. In other words, if behavior A, such as two people desiring to have sex in a commercial manner (one pays the other), doesn’t cause harm to either person, that is an an invalid law, regardless of how many people desire it be passed; because no person has a right to impose his morality on others.

      Any non-authentic law will be ignored by all who want to act in opposition to that law. Plus all such laws breed contempt for the law in everyone (even if that contempt is mostly subconscious). And attempts to investigate and prosecute all such laws cost far more money then they provide in benefit to society, and so are a great waste of money.

      So any law regarding prostitution, other than laws that prohibit one person in that industry causing harm to one or more other persons, is exclusively being passed to fulfill the sponsoring legislator(s) personal desires / views or life; and is definitively not being sponsored out of a sincere interest in the well-being of that person’s constituents.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Philos

      Prohibition whether alcohol, drugs or sex is always doomed to failure, especially when the net is cast so wide. For example, anti-narcotics police must tackle a huge range of drugs with limited resources.
      If the anti-narcotics police could focus on one or two very dangerous drugs instead of all of them then it is reasonable to presume that they will have greater success in their job.
      Prostitution ought to be decriminalized but the trafficking of women and pimping ought to be severely punished with decades long mandatory sentences. Prostitutes should be encouraged into worker collectives that work side-by-side with a special branch of the police (who will provide the physical protection from violent and non-paying clients that pimps currently do), and social workers. The results in New Zealand have been quite astonishing. Prostitutes have reported to police violent clients that the police monitored and later apprehended, and guess what? These men were linked to unsolved rapes, domestic abuse cases and other forms of violent criminality.

      Reply to Comment
    9. sh

      Who’s going to monitor illegal payment for sex? Who’s going to monitor the monitors for corruption and connection to organized crime? Did the women  The Legalization of Prostitution: Myth and Reality report says were not interested in expressing their opinion on the pros and cons of criminalizing payment for sex remain silent in order to protect themselves? (Has anyone watched Amos Gitai’s movie Promised Land?)
      If she’s not going to draft anything about ending the occupation, Ms Zuaretz could consider drafting legislation imposing across-the-board equal pay in the workplace so that women in israel get an equal whack at earning a living. Then she and the Knesset colleagues who want to criminalize paying for sex as a next step could use our panoply of walls, checkpoints, airport security procedures, perhaps even skunk and rubber bullets, to fight the trafficking of sex workers into Israel.
      In short, I think Philos has it just about right.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Noam W

      How do you guys feel about minimum wage laws?

      Reply to Comment
    11. Magh

      The cancer of the swedish model of prohibitionism should be effectively dealt with. Enough is enough.

      Reply to Comment
    12. To give some context to this legislation, its passing came about in part as the result of lobbying by anti-trafficking campaigners – ATZUM’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, which has conducted an eight-year campaign against trafficking and modern-day slavery in Israel. The rationale behind the campaign was that if demand for trafficked women dropped (because of criminal penalties for using them) fewer women would be trafficked:

      ‘On Sunday, February 12, 2012, the Ministerial Legislation Committee of the Israeli Knesset passed this legislation dealing a blow to the ‘supply chain’ for sexual services in Israel and setting in place a proven deterrent (in countries such as Sweden, Norway, Iceland and most recently France) for human trafficking and prostitution. This decision represents a huge victory for Israel. The Israeli government made a statement that human beings are not for sale in our society, and that trafficking in sexual services is no longer a legitimate enterprise on our streets. Most importantly, women who are in this industry, will know that the Israeli government is no longer turning a blind eye to their suffering and has resolved to put an end to this societal malady.’


      Reply to Comment
    13. sh

      @Leila – “if demand for trafficked women dropped (because of criminal penalties for using them) fewer women would be trafficked”
      I don’t understand. Is there data showing that demand for sex that is paid for drops if the women available for it are home-grown (i.e. not trafficked)?
      “The Israeli government made a statement that human beings are not for sale in our society,”
      But they are, although this is not restricted to the sex industry.

      Reply to Comment
    14. @SH – I wasn’t involved in the Atzum campaign, only aware of it because of my work in Israel and the UK with trafficked women. Yours is a good question – I’d also be interested in knowing in more detail. Kayla Zecher at Atzum is involved in this campaign – the article at the link I gave is by her – so perhaps she would be in a position to comment in more detail.

      There is an important distinction to be made, when looking at this, between paying for sex with a trafficked woman, who is kept prisoner, effectively a slave, and does not consent to sex; and paying for sex with a woman who has not been trafficked and does consent (although, of course, in this context the socio-economic and political factors informing consent can themselves be questioned).

      There are punters who would never knowingly pay for sex with a non-consenting woman who had been trafficked, and who was clearly kept prisoner. Perhaps the intended target of the legislation is not these men – but rather than those who by their knowing participation in sex with trafficked women contribute to its perpetuation.

      I have heard anecdotal evidence from men who, on realising a woman was not consenting, perhaps through her own words, demeanor or clear signs of violence, refused to go through with sex – and here in the UK even reported suspected trafficking to police.

      Reply to Comment
    15. As much as I agree with most of your analysis, your statement that most prostitutes are addicted to drugs, and/or are being abused by clients is absurd. This isn’t always the case… There are woman who have low education and do drugs and get into this work as a means to support that, HOWEVER there are many woman who are educated and choose to do this work. I currently live in the us in California where agreeing to sexual favors for $ is illegal for the seller and purchaser, but it hasn’t stopped people from selling their time and you never can do that. But to assume that women are abused and hate what they are doing and are doing it for drug money is just part of the stereotype that’s created the stigma in the first place. I have 3 college degrees and have worked in the movies, but prefer meeting with people one on one. It’s only made me appreciate and value my time even more. As much as I think Israel is clearly mixed on the issue ( and my impression is that many people do not see sex as a commodity) I do believe that the stereotypes like that are what cause people to want to create laws against it. And married men, or unmarried I think it’s important for people to take responsibility for themselves in their marriage or otherwise. Excuses like availability or tv made me do it just don’t really stand up.

      Anyway that’s my 2 cents. However thank you for sharing the laws on this. But please don’t site studies that do not exist and if they do are biased. It’s just not an accurate stereotype.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Leila Korhonen

      Human trafficking is a racist concept which claims the immigrants are criminals and threat to the own societies. People who talk about human trafficking are xenophobics and same kind of racist as those who claim the immigrants are rapist.

      We should put a stop to this hate-speech against minorities and immigrants.

      Reply to Comment

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