A new bill penalizing those who hire sex workers, which passed Monday is a step in the right direction but there is still way to go, legal experts say.
Sponsored by three female legislators: Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (New Right) and members of parliament Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) and Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (New Right), The Prohibition of Consumption of Prostitution Services Bill passed its final readings in the Knesset earlier this week.
Attorney Nick Kaufman, a former longtime prosecutor who serves as a defense attorney, said that “people who consume sexual services are now guilty of a criminal offense, as are the people who visit a place of business that offers sex services.”
The law carries penalties ranging from $500 to $20,000. In addition, the government will allocate some $8 million a year over the next three years to rehabilitate sex workers who want to leave the industry. The Justice Ministry will also be permitted to send offenders to “john schools” – institutions that reeducate those arrested for soliciting prostitutes.
Israel is the tenth country to implement what is known as the Nordic Model – an approach which decriminalizes sex workers and instead makes buying sex a criminal offense. The effectiveness of the Nordic Model has long been a subject of debate, with some health professionals and sex workers arguing that only full decriminalization can effectively reduce harm to those involved, including lowering the spread of HIV.
However, Lavie, who heads the Subcommittee on Combating Trafficking in Women and Prostitution and who helped write the original legislation, maintained that the new law stops short of what she had originally proposed over a year ago.
“This legislation is not enough unlike my version of the bill, this legislation, doesn’t include a budget for rehabilitation, education, public housing and therapy for women (involved in sex work),” Lavie said, noting that effective bills against prostitution must offer an “out” for the women involved. “You can’t do this without a budget... But we have to start somewhere.”
While prostitution is legal in Israel, brothels and pimping are not. The legislation is slated to come into effect in roughly 18 months in order to give law enforcement ample time to prepare.
“We passed the law but we need time to study all the tools and prepare,” Lavie said, adding that she intends to push for full decriminalization of prostitution.
Shulamit Almog, a Law Professor at the University of Haifa and Co-Director of the Gender, Law and Policy Center, is disappointed by the new law.
“The message the law sends is a slap in the face to those it is supposed to serve,” said Almog, who has researched law and prostitution in Israel for over a decade. “The law is not strong enough to properly address needed educational or practical reforms. Moreover, it does not offer enough support to the victims.”
One of the main points she took issue with is that the law classifies purchasing of sex as a civil rather than a criminal offense, something she argues “sends a message of sympathy to johns.”
“Sexual harassment is an offense that is often much less serious than the hiring of a prostitute, in terms of the damage it inflicts on the victim,” Almog said.
She insisted that the State of Israel should provide a generous budget and supply a wide range of tools and services to women involved in sex work, but said that the law lacks the necessary budget and services.
“Ultimately, this law is sending mixed messages: It’s saying it’s no longer legal be a client, but on the other hand it’s watered down in terms of how it addresses the problem.”
Kaufman opposes the bill, saying, “is it the law's objective to clean up the streets? I’m not in favor of it. If the law is meant to end ‘curb calling’ and activity in the public eye, there are less draconian ways to accomplish this. Should you deny a woman her right to do what she wants with her body?”
According to the Israeli Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services, more than 14,000 women, men and transgender people work in prostitution, including 3,000 minors. It also found that 62% of female prostitutes are mothers of children under the age of 18 and 76% have expressed an interest in leaving the sex-work industry if they could.
In fact, the World Health Organization has argued that decriminalizing the industry could lead to a 46 % decrease in HIV infections among sex workers and decrease violence.
Article written by Maya Margit
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line