By Dana Levy
I’ve been waiting for thirty years for this moment. The Prohibition of Consumption of Prostitution Services Act will be enforced in Israel on 10 July 2020.
The law imposes fines for consuming prostitution and attempting to pay for it. The aim is to reduce prostitution by prohibiting the purchase of sex as part of an integrated process that includes public education, and the expansion of services for the population in prostitution – including trauma-informed care and practical help to rebuild their lives, while recognizing the harmful nature of prostitution and the damage it causes.*
According to the law, a first-time offender will get an administrative fine of NIS 2,000. A repeated violation of the law will result in a fine of NIS 4,000. The law allows criminal charges as well; the court can impose a penalty of up to NIS 75,300.
The law doesn’t require a punter to be caught in the middle of a sexual act. Just being present somewhere that is wholly or partially used for prostitution is an offence under this law. So, you can risk being caught if you simply sit in the lobby of a brothel – unless you can show that you were legitimately there for some other purpose – like waiting to fix the plumbing.
In 1999 Sweden was the first country to enforce this approach to prostitution, now often referred to as the Nordic Model. Since then, similar legislation has been adopted by Norway (2009), Iceland (2009), Canada (2014), Northern Ireland (2015), France (2016) and Republic of Ireland (2017).
The battle for the Nordic Model in Israel was long and hard. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Israel became a destination country for sex trafficking of women from the ex-communist countries. The authorities were mostly indifferent to what was going on and generally people incorrectly saw the trafficking victims as women who were voluntarily in the sex trade because they were seeking to improve their standard of living.
Only a small coalition of feminist activists, in collaboration with some members of Parliament, worked to eradicate this explosion in sex trafficking. They utilised international pressure and exposed the situation to the rest of the world. This led to Israel’s downgrading to Tier 3 in the US ‘Trafficking in Persons’ report – and subsequently to the Israeli Anti-Trafficking Law, which came into force on 29 October 2006. This prescribes penalties of up to 16 years’ imprisonment for sex trafficking of an adult, up to 20 years for sex trafficking of a minor, up to 16 years for slavery, and up to 7 years for forced labour. As a result, Israel has been associated with Tier 1 in the ‘Trafficking in Persons’ report now for many years.
Halting the sex trafficking did not satisfy the feminist activists, however, and they decided to continue the fight against the domestic commercial sexual exploitation industry.
In 2008, the MP Zehava Galon (Meretz) first proposed a Sex Buyers Act. At first, the bill seemed unlikely to ever pass. The left-wing parties that backed the law did not have enough support in the Parliament, and the public saw the Nordic Model as something very extreme. So we put our efforts into public education and establishing support and rehabilitation services for those in prostitution.
Gradually governmental, municipal and private funding was secured for NGOs that provided these services and our efforts in education and advocacy started to bear fruit. Female journalists began to cover the issue in the mainstream media, and the public gradually learned what was happening in the backyard of Israeli society. Gradually, the attitude towards prostitution changed. The women in prostitution were no longer seen as promiscuous and greedy, but as hurt and exploited.
In 2013, the anti-sex-trade coalition, made up of aid workers, activists, survivors of prostitution, journalists, politicians and others, decided to change its approach. Instead of relying solely on the left-wing politicians, we approached MPs from all corners of the political map.
We presented the struggle against the sex trade as a humanitarian issue, which has no connection to the right or the left. This approach worked well. The first to support us were the women MPs, but many men were eventually convinced. And less controversial laws, such as the Web Blocking Act, were passed. This enables the government to take down websites whose content promotes terrorism or criminal activity. In the first-ever use of this new law, the state prosecutor’s cyber unit has asked a court to block 600 sites that deal in prostitution or human trafficking.
As the Prohibition of Consumption of Prostitution Services Act neared its entry into force, the voices in opposition grew louder. As in any other country, the ‘sex worker lobby’ in Israel consisted of a majority of liberals, upper-middle-class academics, and quite a few men. The lobby tried to delay the law, hoping eventually to cancel it. They said it should be delayed because there was a ‘lack of adequate rehabilitation services.’ This was strange coming from a group, who claims prostitution is a job like any other job. The move was unsuccessful, but until the last moment, supporters and opponents argued whether an additional NIS 30 million a year, more than doubling the existing budget, was enough to provide adequate services to those involved in prostitution.
I know the answer: the budget is not enough. Some women will never cure their bleeding wounds created by the sex industry. And precisely because of that, I am happy it’s happening now. We should struggle to end the horrors of prostitution, for the sake of future generations of girls, who have a chance to grow into a more equitable and compassionate society.
* There is no provision in the Act for the decriminalisation of those involved in prostitution, because this was not previously a crime in Israel.
Dana Levy is an Israeli prostitution survivor and abolitionist activist. Follow her on Twitter: @DanaLevy__