In January Israelis flocked to the polls to elect the 19th Knesset. The result was a serious shaking up of the government. The elections ushered in 53 new MKs, a record number of women, and Yesh Atid, a party registered a mere nine months before the elections which is suddenly a major player in Israel’s government.
So what can we expect from this new and unanticipated government? People have speculated about what it will mean for the conflict, matters of security, and the majority of ultra-Orthodox who currently do not serve in the armed forces. In Israel’s political scene these questions occupy the majority of space in our newspapers and Shabbat dinner conversations.
While I too have wondered how this government will address these issues, I find myself asking another question: “What will this government mean for the 15,000 prostituted women and children in Israel?” People may argue that this is not a particularly pressing question, but I would disagree.
According to Saleet, a Tel-Aviv shelter for prostituted women, Israel’s average age of entrance into prostitution is 14. While it is obvious that children are incapable of consenting to prostitution, there is some debate when the conversation turns to adults. However, decades of research demonstrate that consent is absent in all forms of prostitution.
In Israel, as in the rest of the world, the vast majority of prostituted persons do not consider their entrance into prostitution a choice. Rather, they are forced into the sex trade by physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, poverty, homelessness, and other forms of oppression. The conditions that make genuine consent possible are absent: physical safety, equal power with customers, and real alternative forms of employment. People do not consent to sell their bodies for sex; they are coerced into it. Another name for sex that is obtained through coercion is rape. By legalizing prostitution, Israel has legalized a form of rape.
Yet, does the legal rape of 10,000 women, affect enough people to be considered a major concern? Clearly the sex trade profoundly traumatized those who are prostituted, but does it impact the rest of us? Most of us would like to believe that if we are not directly involved in prostitution then we are immune from the harm that it inflicts. However, as long as a state sanctions this form of abuse against some women, all women are in danger.
Legalization fosters a culture of prostitution and further enables the spread of sexual harassment and violence. Various international studies show that men who purchase sex are more likely to justify the rape of women both in and outside the sex industry; research accordingly indicates that where there is legal prostitution, there is a higher rate of rape. For example, Nevada is the only state in the USA that has legalized prostitution, and it also suffers from a rate of reported rapes a fourth higher than the US average. Legalization also has implications for other forms of gender-based violence; for example, the province with the highest rate of domestic violence in Australia is Victoria, the only province in which the sex trade is legal.
The sex johns purchase is typically violent and degrading, as one john remarked: “Lots of men go to prostitutes so they can do things to them that real women would not put up with.” Research also shows that sex buyers are scattered throughout all levels of society. In Israel where sex is purchased an estimated 750,000 times a month, we unknowingly encounter johns daily who believe that they are entitled to purchase the right to abuse women.
Perhaps the john is our boss, from whom we are hoping to get a promotion. Maybe he is the judge delivering the verdict on a rape or domestic abuse case. He could also very well be our daughter’s teacher or army commander. Every day we entrust him and thousands of other johns to uphold values of equality. Jean D’Cunha, Global Advisor on Gender and Migration for the UN, once asked, “What will be the… outcome of struggles against sexual harassment and violence in the home, the workplace, or the street if men can buy the right to perpetrate these very acts against women in prostitution?”
Most people value living in a country where rape and sexual harassment are taken seriously and where women are not treated as objects. It is impossible for these values to take hold if the law does not protect them. As long as men have the ability to purchase the right to rape and abuse women, equality between the sexes on the most basic level will remain unattainable. No matter who we are, prostitution affects us all, and I for one hope that the new Knesset will address the issue accordingly.