What services does Israel provide to people in prostitution under the Nordic Model?

By Luba Fein

The Israeli sex purchase law finally came into force in July 2020 after a delay caused by Amir Ohana, the Minister of Public Security, who gave various bizarre excuses. Despite this, Israeli abolitionists were not overly disheartened, because a key focus of the Nordic Model has always been on providing aid and rehabilitation to those caught up in prostitution and this work continued in spite of the delays.

There has been a history of organisations providing these services in Israel since the early 2000s, when a network of NGOs emerged providing aid and rehabilitation to victims of trafficking and others from marginalized communities.

In 2017, the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Social Services estimated that there were at that time about 14,000 people in prostitution in Israel. This number included adults and children, and men, women and transgender people. According to this estimate, about 0.13% of the Israeli population is in prostitution at any given moment.

The Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Social Services recently published an activity report for 2020. Rather than the estimates that we had in the past, this provides hard data on the people who have experienced prostitution and are now receiving treatment or services from dedicated aid and rehabilitation NGOs. It shows how the Nordic Model budget for services (which was nearly triple the pre-existing budget for such services) was used in practice.

Service user characteristics

About 1,334 people have used the services. This is about 9.5% of the total (estimated) population in prostitution. Of these, 84.63% are women, 6.07% are men and about 3% are transgender. The sex/gender of the rest is not recorded.

Sex/gender of service users
Sex/gender of service users

14.32% are minors, 39.66% are aged 18 to 25, 21.51% are 25 to 45, and 8.7% are 45 or over.

Age distribution of the service users
Age distribution of the service users

The service users have a variety of mental health challenges: 27% have experienced psychiatric hospitalizations, 20% suffer from eating disorders, 31% have attempted suicide, 50% suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), 45% have undiagnosed mental health conditions, and 40% have diagnosed mental illness.

Mental health challenges experienced by service users
Mental health challenges experienced by service users

The service users also cope with a variety of physical health challenges. 11% had sexually transmitted infections, 2% had HIV, 11% had other infectious diseases (such as hepatitis or TB), and 22% were hospitalized with various illnesses.

Physical health challenges
Physical health challenges

It is not surprising therefore that many of the service users are in receipt of disability benefits:

  • 13% had temporary disability benefits.
  • 28% had permanent disability benefits.
  • 3% received unemployment benefits.
  • 12% were employed.

Service types

About 43% of all participants received the services for more than a year. The following table shows the most popular types of services among the entire population of service users.

 Service Uptake
Purchase of food 72%
Detection and making contact 62%
Hygiene and health 61%
Clothing 57%
Individual treatment 56%
Exercise of social rights 54%
Emergency accommodation 39%
Group treatment 36%
Personal mentoring 33%
Assistance in finding work 23%
Participating in day centre activities 21%
Vocational training 18%
Learning skills 15%
Psychological diagnosis 12%
Educational integration 10%
Job hunting skills 9%
Parenting guidance 6%

Types of prostitution

Types of prostitution that service users had experienced
Types of prostitution that service users had experienced

There are no strict criteria for receiving services. Aid workers clarified that no type of prostitution is excluded from the support and rehabilitation services: victims of webcamming, porn, strip clubs or OnlyFans can receive service just like individuals in street prostitution or apartment brothels. The only criteria for receiving services is that the applicant has endured economic sexual exploitation and needs help.

Nearly half of the service users (48.5%) were involved in informal sexual exploitation – typically involving the exchange of sex for money, rent, gifts or other necessities – making this the most common category of prostitution. Usually, these are teenagers or young adults.

The next largest type was street prostitution, which 29.7% of service users had experienced, followed by prostitution in apartment brothels (18.7%) and BDSM relationships (13.7%).

What we do not know

Many questions arise regarding statistics on prostitution comorbidities. The Facebook pages of the sex trade lobby NGOs have quickly posted that no general assumptions about the sex trade can be based on the data in the report. I tend to agree with this.

We are not justified in claiming that 50% of sex trade survivors suffer from CPTSD just because 50% of service users have this condition. Moreover, we cannot tell from the data whether CPTSD was a cause or consequence of the person’s prostitution.

However, I disagree with the sex trade lobby’s conclusion that individuals in prostitution are necessarily healthier if they don’t seek assistance. We simply cannot be sure about that either. People may have a variety of reasons to avoid seeking help – such as extreme distress, mistrust in institutions, low self-care, major depression, or even being held hostage or threatened.

Another vital question that stems from the data is, how many of the 14,000 people in the Israeli sex trade are in informal prostitution settings and how many are in the more organised commercial trade? Are 48% enduring informal sexual exploitation and 13.7% BDSM relationships like the service users? This question is crucial because the more nebulous informal sector provides far more challenges to the police trying to enforce the sex purchase ban than the more commercial sector on the street and in apartments.

The Brookdale Institute has been commissioned to carry out further research into the sex trade in Israel and the implementation of the Nordic Model law here. The research is to be divided into five key areas: police enforcement; reducing prostitution; rehabilitation and the functioning of the NGOs that provide services; evaluating the workshops for sex buyers; and assessing the public education campaign and any change in public attitudes toward the sex trade.

I hope that this research will shed more light on the characteristics of the population in prostitution who are not accessing the services.

The Brookdale Institute is due to submit its findings a year before the law’s formal review is to take place five years after it was passed.

The services

Below I provide a brief outline of all the organisations that are funded by the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Social Services to provide services to people who have experienced prostitution in Israel.

Some of the organisation listed offer additional services that are not detailed. For example, “Lo Omdot” provides additional private assistance for sex trade survivors, “Turning the Tables” provides fashion design courses and a counselling centre in Haifa, and “Todaa” runs school workshops.

There are also additional services that are not included, such as mobile clinics for women in indoor and on-street prostitution that are funded by the Ministry of Health. These mobile clinics offer medical tests, psychosocial support, and help with accessing social security and disability benefits, public housing, etc. There are currently mobile clinics operating in Tel Aviv and Haifa, and more clinics are expected to open in other cities soon.

In addition to services for survivors of the sex trade of, and in accordance with the law and its regulations, workshops for sex buyers are planned as an alternative to fines. These will be funded by the Ministry of Welfare.

Halev (The Space for Treating Prostitution Victims) (Existing Service)

This uses a therapeutic model and focuses on girls and young women, aged 13 – 25. The services provided include harm reduction, shelter, food, showers, hygiene products and clothing, assistance exercising social rights within various institutions (for example, help with applying for Social Security benefits and housing), trauma-focused care, integration in educational institutions, vocational training and integration in work with a supportive employer.

The organisation has 14 centres for girls and young women and another one, in Tel Aviv, for both sexes. The centres are scattered across the country, including in ultra-Orthodox and Arab localities. Seven centres operate three days a week, ten hours each day, five operate five days a week, ten hours each day, and two operate 24/7.

Rehabilitation centres for sex trade survivors (Existing Service)

These provide emergency shelter for several months, until a woman can find a long-term housing solution.

Day and evening centres provide:

  • Therapeutic response during the day.
  • Vocational workshops.
  • Treatment groups.
  • Assistance in exercising rights and more.

Hostels provide long-term communal facilities and include an intensive treatment programme.

There are centres in three cities: Tel Aviv (“Saleit”), Haifa (“Ofek Nashi” – “Female Horizon”) and Beer Sheva (“Bishvilekh” – “For You”).

Apartments for mothers and children (New project)

Three apartments opened in 2020 for mothers in the process of exiting prostitution and their children. Each apartment has five rooms that can accommodate two or three women and their children. The exact numbers that can be accommodated depend on the number, age and sex of the children.

The mothers receive individual trauma-focused care, parenting guidance and vocational training. The children also receive care and advice.

Flexible Basket (New service)

Flexible basket is worth one average monthly salary. The recipients are women and men in the process of exiting prostitution. The basket is given through the local authority, and its purpose is to purchase equipment and furniture for home, food and clothing, transportation, and more. In 2020, 144 applications for a flexible basket were approved.

“Paving a way with you” (Forthcoming project)

Currently, an NGO that runs an “Every Right” website has a page, “A Guide for Women, Youth and Men in Prostitution or Recovering from Prostitution,” that provides valuable information about rights and services for people in prostitution. However, it has limitations and there are plans for a more sophisticated digital system.

The Ministry of Welfare has integrated into the incubator programme for tenders of the Prime Minister’s Office and the JDC to develop a dedicated bid to focus on support services for women in indoor prostitution. The bid will be published in June 2021 and include:

  1. Web-based search system for inquiries and offers of rehabilitation programmes.
  2. Digital services that will enable independent care and exercise of social rights.
  3. An array of individual assistants nationwide who can escort survivors when approaching government institutions.

Education and Prevention (New programme)

An experienced NGO, “Todaa” (“Consciousness), will carry out a national programme for prostitution prevention, via workshops. It will focus on early detection and prevention among young people. The target audience is educators and social workers.

Holistic Counselling Centre in the Central Area (New Programme)

A well-established NGO, “Turning the Tables” will develop a holistic counselling centre for women in prostitution. This will provide various types of support, including: legal assistance and bureaucracy, psychiatric / psychological counselling, individual/ group therapy/ parent training, exercising rights, workshops for financial management.

“Beneficial Employment” (New programme)

The “Hope centre” association will run a “beneficial employment” programme for women who want to return to the labour market. The programme will include a three-month training and mentoring process, including preparatory workshops for the labour market and individual and group mentoring. The programme will find supportive employers and provide follow up after women gain employment.

Lo Omdot – Assisting Women in Prostitution

Some individuals in prostitution are not ready for exit and rehabilitation or are not interested in help contacting the local authority to exercise their rights. The same individuals can turn to a complementary assistance system through the “Lo Omdot” NGO. This offers emergency help, including:

  • Basic furniture and appliances.
  • Dental care.
  • Psychiatric help.
  • Assistance in scholarship.
  • Assistance with rent.
  • Mentorship and social support.
  • Purchase of food and cooked meals.

Over the Rainbow (New project)

The transgender population has unique needs. The “Transitions” NGO that focuses on this population will address these needs. The programme includes:

  • Assistance and counselling for service users on the trans spectrum, via social workers.
  • A network of national aid and counselling for social workers who assist the trans population.
  • An online training system for professionals who deliver services to the trans population.

Her Academy (Existing project)

Her Academy is a private college that provides vocational training for sex trade survivors. The college has various courses, including cookery and confectionery, home-styling, administrative management, building websites and more. The classes are focused and last about ten weeks, to enable the participants to find a job quickly and efficiently.

Hostels and Day Care for Men and Transgender people (Forthcoming project)

A bid has been placed for two projects, which will be launched from May 2021:

  • Men’s project: Hostel, transitional apartment, day and evening centre.
  • Transgender project: Emergency accommodation, four transitional apartments and four transitional apartments with intensive treatment.

Ongoing risks and concerns

Although the generous funding allocated for services for those involved in prostitution is an enormous achievement, there is concern about how funding will be allocated in the future. Currently most of the projects are operated by established NGOs that have successfully provided services for a number of years. However, the funding allocated so far is for a fixed period only. After this, the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Social Services will put the contracts out for tender again.

Some of the established NGOs were founded by private individuals, who acted out of profound empathy towards survivors of prostitution, and provided sensitive, warm and personal care. Even the state-run organisations have been run for many years by skilled professionals, with unique knowledge and insight.

There is concern that the organisations that will win the contracts in the future may be very different. The Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Social Services tends to award contracts to large companies. Any change of supplier will jeopardise the success of the system and lead to a loss of knowledge and continuity.

Another issue is uncertainty around the enforcement of the sex purchase ban. No matter how much money a government spends on prostitution prevention – if there is no reduction in men’s demand, sex buyers and pimps will find ways to solicit girls and young women to meet those demands.

To reduce the size of the sex trade, we need effective enforcement of the sex purchase ban. Otherwise, we will have a sliding door, where the state is healing the harms of prostitution with one hand, and pushing new victims into the sex trade with the other.

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