In the years 2000-2009, just 35 police records exist for trafficking of minors for sex and 19 of them were closed due to lack of evidence. Yitzhak Kadmon, the chairman of the National Council for the Child, told the Knesset committees that a police unit investigating computer crimes – which include both sex crimes and financial crimes – numbers just 12 detectives despite a 2007 state order that stipulates it must have 200. "The unit was established, among other things, to enforce laws against online sexual harassment of minors. What is going to be done in order to focus detectives on sexual criminals online?"
Hiding in the shadows
Thousands of teen prostitutes ignored by social services, says organization for youth in distress
Noam Barkan • Ynet
On a Tuesday night at around 10 pm Tel Aviv's Hashmal Park appears deserted, but appearances can be deceiving. Out of the shadows suddenly a man emerges, and then the shadow of a teenage boy wearing a hooded sweatshirt and backpack. Money changes hands and the two disappear again behind the trees.
When Doron (alias) was 15, he too was such a shadow. He would wait for men at various parks in the city in order to fulfill their sexual requests for money or anything else he desired.
Three years earlier, Doron traveled the Dead Sea with a group of friends. "I went to shower," he recounts. "The man in charge of the facilities came up to me and offered me a can of coke, and free entry to the showers. I agreed and did everything he asked.
"When he went away I was confused. I didn't know if what I had done was good or bad. I didn't know if I could talk to anyone abut what had happened. I withdrew into myself, but the incident stayed in my mind."
No one noticed the change in him, and when he went to a boarding school at age 15 he became accustomed to trading sex for material goods. "I don't even know how it happened," he says.
"I was in the public toilet at the mall with my friend. Maybe I made a movement or something that made an older man offer me to go with him. I was afraid, but I went… When it was over he paid me NIS 150 ($40) and returned me to the mall. I didn't tell anyone what had happened, and no one asked."
After that, Doron began meeting with the man's friends, too. "Even when I tried to disappear, he would find me, so I decided to make the best of it" he recalls. "I realized there were some advantages to it – I got money and he would drive me from the boarding school to Tel Aviv, buy me cigarettes and drop me off at the parks. He taught me everything."
Our meeting with Doron was held at the Erim Balayla (lit. "Awake at Night") center for damage-control, where volunteers from an organization called ELEM – Youth in Distress in Israel try to nip teen prostitution in the bud.
Average age of 13
Hundreds, or even thousands, of girls and boys are abused for prostitution purposes in Israel each year, sucked into a dark world from which they often cannot escape. They sell their bodies online or become trapped in apartments owned by pimps, where they are often abused by "clients". They all have a history of abuse, often of the kind not reported to social services.
According to worldwide surveys, the average age in which prostitution begins is 13. "Prostitution of minors is one of the most serious problems we face today, despite the fact that it is relatively hidden," says ELEM Director General Efrat Shaprut.
"Teen prostitutes are transparent. It can be a girl or a boy who goes to school in the morning and apparently functions normally. Prostitution is also spurred by the internet. Once, teens would stand at the beach or darkened parks to wait for customers, but today most of this takes place online or in private apartments."
Two Knesset committees – the Sub-Committee on Trafficking of Women and the Committee on the Rights of the Child – have been hearing from social services on the matter since 1997, and various plans have been constructed. The committees have recommended programs for finding and treating the teens, enforcing laws against pimps, legislation against customers, and even just measuring to what extent teen prostitution exists in Israel, but none of this has been implemented, despite support from various MKs.
Perhaps most disturbing is that no one knows whether to measure the phenomenon in the hundreds or thousands. Volunteers and ELEM employees on the ground estimate that thousands of Israeli teens are trapped within this vicious cycle, but social services can only point to a few hundred cases.
This data is needed in order to create the proper response for the teens. There are currently many programs for teens in distress, but teen prostitutes require different care, ELEM employees say. Unfortunately, they receive little help from social services.
"The Welfare Ministry is not responsible for data published by various organizations or its reliability," the ministry said in response, adding that programs exist for prostitutes of all ages.
Accepting without judgment
Asaf Rajuan, who manages the Erim Balayla program, says three different factors contribute to teen prostitution – the pimp or the first person who offers the teen to exchange sex for material goods, the teen, and the customer.
In Israel, the latter is in violation of the law. But according to a report published by the Sub-Committee on Trafficking of Women, in the years 2000-2009 just 35 police records exist for trafficking of minors for sex, of them 19 were closed due to lack of evidence. Only two were against customers, and they were both closed.
Yitzhak Kadmon, the chairman of the National Council for the Child, told the Knesset committees that a police unit investigating computer crimes – which include both sex crimes and financial crimes – numbers just 12 detectives despite a 2007 state order that stipulates it must have 200.
"The unit was established, among other things, to enforce laws against online sexual harassment of minors," Kadmon said. "What is going to be done in order to focus detectives on sexual criminals online?"
Meanwhile, ELEM tries to offer the teens as much assistance as possible. "Volunteers at Erim Balayla accept the teens without judgment and try to help them find out what their interests are in order to find employment that will gradually replace prostitution," Rajuan explains. The damage-control centers, located in Tel Aviv and Haifa, offer teens a place to stay, do laundry, eat, shower, and talk.
The customers: Councilmen and celebs
Doron, who is now 21, abandoned prostitution after five years thanks to the program. He now works and studies, and recalls the old days with horror.
"The customers came from every possible sector – even regular people who work and have families," he recounts. "There are doctors, lawyers, press agents, cops, and criminals… There are famous customers, too. I had a returning customer whose face looked familiar but I couldn't understand where I knew him from. Then, when I was taking a bus to some town, I saw his face on a sign. He was running for chairman of the local council."
Doron also felt threatened numerous times. "Some customers would ask me to do horrible things. Some wanted me to strangle them, some to beat them, and this is where it's easy to lose control. How do I know he won't hit me back? Or maybe he has a heart disease and could die if I hit him?"
As a final word, Doron wants the state to tailor programs to boys. "There are many teen prostitutes who are boys. I know some who worked with me and committed suicide, or got horrible diseases," he says.
But teen prostitution is very difficult to find, mainly because no one will admit to either being a minor, or having sex with minors. Magazines sold at every street corner advertise "18-year old girls", which is often code for minors.
Sex for clothes, jewelry
Much of the clients' search for minors takes place online, which makes enforcement even more difficult. When we enter an internet chat-room as "Noa15", within seconds we are bombarded with messages from users named "supporting daddy", "warm", and "married religious man", to name a few.
Noa15 tells "warm" she likes expensive clothes, and he asks what they will do afterwards if he takes her shopping. "What do you like in sex?" he asks. Noa15 answers, "Whatever you like. But don't you care that I'm 15?" "No problem," is the response. In the end, "warm" agrees to pay Noa15 NIS 1,000 ($280) for a night, but demands that she arrive by bus.
ELEM is currently in touch with many teenaged girls whose behavior mimics Noa15. They are registered at schools and often live with their parents at home. "In the earlier stages of teen prostitution, teens are not aware of what they are getting into," says Reli Katzav of ELEM. She cites cases of girls who perform sexual acts for new jeans and jewelry, often leading their friends and younger siblings onto the same track.
All of the investigators and professionals who deal with teen prostitutions agree that it is closely linked to sexual abuse – by parents, relatives, or authority figures – who introduce children to sex in exchange for goods. "No girl suddenly decides to stand on the street and look for clients," Rajuan says. "She will always be someone who has had the idea of sexual favors planted in her head since childhood. It could be an uncle who touched her and then gave her ice-cream, and when she grew up the boy she let touch her in exchange for alcohol and cigarettes. Now this girl knows about the possibility of selling her body."
"Prostitution is one of three survival strategies – in addition to drugs and crime – used by teens who have been abused," explains Rajuan. "Teen prostitution is not about money. If it were, they would go steal. These teens come from all socio-economic backgrounds. Some of them come from 'good homes', study in schools, and basically lead a double life."
ELEM is currently the only organization trying to find these teens wherever they may be hiding, before it's too late. "Our treatment approach is to combine warmth and support on the side of the employee or volunteer – to give the teens a place to rest from the life of prostitution – with development of motivation to get out," says ELEM's director-general. "The process of leaving this lifestyle is long and difficult."
Erim Balayla hotline: 0549773666.