Prostitution and Public Health in Israel


Written by Joseph Dunsay. After earning a Masters of Science in Ecology and Evolution, Joseph Dunsay became a science writer for international audiences. Find more Jewrotica writing by Joseph here.

Rated PG-13

Advocates for sex workers in Jamaica and South Africa are fighting prohibition there on moral and public health grounds. Sex workers in those countries would have an easier time defending themselves against violence and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases if they did not fear getting arrested for their career choices. Crusaders against sex work vainly try to reform women who are not asking for anyone to change them.

Meanwhile, legislators in Israel want to earmark funds to reform sex workers and make it a crime to hire sex workers. To justify the bill, one sponsor cited the number of customers a sex worker might have in a shift. Like American politicians who target businesses that employ illegal immigrants, these members of the Knesset expect to save women by making their careers impossible. Israeli politicians would do better if they let historical precedent and modern research guide Israeli sex worker policy.

Prior to World War I, legal sex work was possible inside the Ottoman Empire, and non-Muslims dominated the industry. Protected by the Capitulations, foreign nationals set up brothels that Ottoman officials could not enter without permission from their homelands. France, Russia, Italy, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire permitted health inspections of those brothels, provided doctors were in charge of the visits.

After war broke out, the Ottomans replaced a brothel regulation from 1884 with a new set of policies that focused on sexually transmitted infections, although some rules unrelated to health were part of the package. The law defined a prostitute as someone who earned income by having intercourse with more than one man and a mistress as someone with only one client who had sex in exchange for compensation. Both categories of sex workers needed to be officially registered. Prostitutes had to work in a brothel and undergo health exams. Any prostitute with a venereal disease had to treat it with a trip to a hospital at the brothel’s expense. The declaration of martial law in certain territories ended tolerance for sex work later in the war.

Current research suggests that the regulation of sex work is healthier than prohibition. An Australian study found that decriminalization did not increase the number of men paying for sex, which means prohibition is likely to push the industry underground rather than stamp it out. A report about HIV among sex workers in 27 European countries found higher rates where sex workers feared prosecution. Sex workers were less likely to have HIV if they worked in countries that legalized at least some aspects of sex work. This relationship was strongest in nations where law enforcement was most effective and fair, indicating that fear of prosecution makes HIV more prevalent among sex workers.

Members of the Knesset were elected to protect people from harming each other, not to legislate the number of sexual partners one may have. Health inspections can make working at a restaurant about as safe as being a personal chef. Regular exams can make being a prostitute about as safe as being a mistress. The latter roles the dice many times with one client who might have an infection or an unpleasant disposition. She or he must choose between keeping that client and being unemployed. The former puts eggs in many different baskets to hedge against any risk and can afford to turn down specific customers. Israeli law should continue to respect the career choices of sex workers by keeping sex work legal, safe, and voluntary.

After earning a Masters of Science in Ecology and Evolution, Joseph Dunsay became a science writer for international audiences. His LGBT erotic e-book launched in the summer of 2015.