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The Young Arab Sex Workers Making a Living in Israel

Arab men make up 19 percent of Israel's male sex workers, according to the Israeli government's first-ever survey on prostitution.

by Orli Santo
15 April 2016, 4:00am

Haifa, Israel, at night. Photo via Flickr user Mark Nakasone

Haifa, Israel, at night. Photo via Flickr user Mark Nakasone

Yossi works in a supermarket warehouse in Haifa, a city in the north of Israel. His father is a Christian Arab and his mother a Jew, but he lived most of his life following the Jewish part of his heritage: He celebrated a bar mitzvah, served in the Israeli army, and speaks flawless Hebrew. But online, his Arab side comes out: He's Yusuf, an Israeli Arab escort.

"Israeli [Jewish] gay men have a fetish for Arabs," he explained. "Sometimes they want to dominate me and sometimes they want to be dominated, but for a Jewish man, sex with an Arab is always about who has the power, the control."

Last month, the Israeli government released its first-ever survey on prostitution. The survey, conducted by the social affairs and public security ministries, found that annual payments to sex workers amounted to an estimated 1.2 billion shekels (about $308 million) in 2014. Of the roughly 12,000 prostitutes working in Israel that year, about 5 percent of them—between 550 and 570 people—were men. And of those men, 19 percent were Arabs, a larger percentage than the proportion of male Arabs in Israel's general population, which is around 9 percent in the mixed Israeli cities. This disparity was even sharper among young people, ages 18 to 25, where Arab male prostitutes outnumbered their Jewish counterparts by more than three to one.

Dr. Yoav Santo, one of the sociologists who led the study, cited several reasons for the overrepresentation of Arab men in Israel's prostitution industry: Arab men have a harder time finding jobs in the Jewish market, he said, and since Arab society generally has less tolerance for sexual variants, those who identify as gay or trans are frequently ostracized, increasing their social vulnerability and leading to even greater financial stress. Under these circumstances, the sex trade often becomes the only solution.

And then, of course, there's the racial component—the demand for Arab submissives. "The most recurrent impetus to hire a prostitute, whether male or female, is the desire to express dominance," said Santo over the phone from Israel. "The same rubric explains why Arabs seeking to hire a prostitute will often want someone dressed as an Israeli female soldier.

"Sexuality is the dark mirror of society," he added. "Whatever social or racial taboos a society harbors will inevitably come into play between a sex worker and his or her client."

Yusuf has become adept at fulfilling the fantasies of Jewish Israeli men. Per Israel's complex racial dynamics, these fantasies aren't as straightforward as one might imagine. "Sure, sometimes they will wear an IDF uniform and dominate me, but sometimes they will wear the uniform and pay me to dominate them," he explained in a phone interview. "Sometimes they want me to dress like an Arab woman, in women's lingerie and a hijab. There was one guy who wanted me to wear a keffiyeh, wave a fake Arabian sword, and yell at him in Arabic while I fake 'raped' him," he said, laughing. "It's like theater."

Yusuf has been on both the giving and receiving end of the bondage, degradations, and racial slurs often involved in nationalistic fantasies. For the right price, he is willing to do almost anything, save extreme pain, knives, or fecal play. He doesn't mind being called a "dirty Arab"—it's his most common term of endearment, he says—but he balks at the idea of having his face covered during sex. "As if I'm a Palestinian detainee, or a masked Palestinian terrorist... I don't like that. Why? Because I want them to see my eyes. It makes it harder for them to forget I'm human."

"Sexuality is the dark mirror of society. Whatever social or racial taboos a society harbors will inevitably come into play between a sex worker and his client." — Dr. Yoav Santo

Data from the Israeli government prostitution survey suggested Arab male prostitutes make roughly the same income as Jewish male prostitutes, but some of the Arab men said they get business specifically because of their ethnicity. Salah, a 19-year-old Muslim Bedouin who works as a prostitute in south Tel-Aviv, said generally he's picked up on the street.

"A car stops [and] I ask, 'Do you want to fuck?'" he said in a phone interview. If the driver asks if he's Arab, Salah knows the interaction will be about one of two things: "This is either about a man who wants to fuck a young hot guy, or about an Israeli who wants to fuck an Arab."

Salah was born and raised, along with his nine siblings, in a Bedouin village near the Arab city of Nazareth. Even before he realized he was gay, he was "the black sheep of the family," he said. At 17, an older man seduced him. "I didn't want to be gay," Salah said. "I told myself I'm not, but from that day on, I knew that's what I like."

When his conservative Muslim family discovered he was interested in other men, "they tied me up and tried to beat the gay out of me," he said. "It didn't help. The gay wouldn't come out."

Prostitution soon became his bread and butter. He finds clients near the old bus station and a public park called Gan Hachashmal, a popular gay hookup spot. "Men come here, ask me out for a drink, take me to a motel room, end of story," he said. "I have no home, no family, no help. What else is there for me to do?"

Many of the men pursued sex work because they had few other options.

Sami, who grew up in a traditional Muslim family in East Jerusalem, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 14. By the time he was 17, he was suicidal. He says a month in a mental institution and some "bad influences" led him to prostitution. "I came with friends to Gan Hahashmal in Tel Aviv," he said, recalling his first time. "They told me 'stand here, a car will come, a man will give you 100, 150 NIS [between $26 and $39]. Then go in the car with him.'"

The experience led him to discover a bisexual identity. He found entertaining men enjoyable, along with the newfound freedom and income the "hobby" offered. Though his family does not know he works intermittently as a prostitute, they were not willing to accept his attraction to men, so sex work became a way for him to express his sexual identity.

When he's with a client, he said, "I get to do anything and everything. Back home, I can't do anything at all."

The last names of the sex workers have been omitted to protect their identities.

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