Exporting Israeli Prostitutes
The state’s first convicted female pimp calls herself a pioneer as the Knesset considers outlawing prostitution
By World War I, prostitution was an active industry in cities like Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Ramla, with brothels owned by both Arabs and Jews. British soldiers joined a growing client base during the 1930s and 1940s, and Tel Aviv was considered the industry’s capital in the Middle East. After the establishment of the State of Israel, prostitution was not forbidden by law, but anyone caught working as a pimp was subject to prosecution. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the industry grew, with the influx of immigrants creating an increase in demand.
Starting in 2000, increased awareness of human trafficking led to the introduction of legislative measures to combat prostitution in Israel. But today, the numbers remain high: Police estimate that there are nearly 10,000 sex workers in Israel. Organizations designed to help those working in this industry put the number closer to 20,000—equal to the population of an Israeli city like Zikron Yaakov. According to those same sources, brothels receive 3 million visits each week.
Israeli police report an increase in instances of Israeli women arrested abroad in the last two years, though police officials won’t give exact numbers. However, once the Prohibiting the Consumption of Prostitution Act passed the first of three necessary rounds of Knesset approval earlier this year, police amplified their attention to the issue. The proposed legislation also received attention from Israeli media outlets as the discussion shifted to focus on customers worried about getting caught paying for sex.
The law is expected to pass after the January election. One of the bill’s sponsors, Member of Knesset Orit Zuaretz, who heads the parliament committee to fight human trafficking, and who will also likely continue her role in the next Knesset, says she has no doubt the law will pass.
Yet even legislators who support the bill admit that its passage will likely result in more sex workers following Gautiller’s lead and leaving Israel to find work. Zuaretz told me she was surprised by the bill’s vehement opposition, particularly from sex workers. “I received multiple threats from women who said that I was taking away their livelihood,” Zuaretz explained. “Some threatened to burn down my house if this bill passed.” But she maintained that the strong reaction was a result of confusion surrounding the nature of the bill: “They didn’t quite understand the bill’s purpose, which wasn’t to deprive prostitutes of income but to provide them with an alternative, to help them find other occupations and apartments and help them break the vicious cycle in which they’re trapped,” she said. “My role as a lawmaker is to refuse to let them come to terms with this reality, to show them that other realities are possible.”
Zuaretz estimated that prostitution has become a billion-dollar-a-year industry in Israel. “We’re not just talking about the money the client pays the prostitute, but the apartment rentals, the cabs, and the hotel rooms,” she explained. “It’s all part of a larger industry that thrives on prostitution and lives off the back of these miserable women. It’s a dangerous situation.”
According to Zuaretz, the bill sparked a notable increase in the number of women calling the various help centers sponsored by the state. Several government ministries have since started providing mental and financial assistance to sex workers, helping them find homes and new jobs. But there are many more women, like Marina, who want to be left alone by the government, arguing that the money is worth it.
Prominent Israeli civil-rights activist Shabi Korzan explained that it’s rare to encounter a sex worker who is not, in some way, used or abused. “It sounds very nice and liberal-minded to paint this as a story of an economic opportunity,” she said, “but it is our obligation as a society to give these women a choice and not to justify the act as the outcome of free will.” She is wary of Marina’s tales of endless financial opportunity. “The problem is that if we believe that all prostitutes are like Marina, we lose our capacity to be outraged by the more common stories of prostitution, and we should absolutely be outraged.”
Surprisingly, Gautiller echoed that very same sentiment when we last spoke. “When I was in Ireland, I felt the most horrible loneliness imaginable,” she told me. “Today I regret getting into this world, because even if everything is good economically, emotionally it’s all screwed up. I shouldn’t have given other women the opportunity to get into it, because you become addicted to it, to all this easy money, and you find some justification,” she admitted. “But it’s an addiction. No girl ever dreams of being a prostitute.”
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