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From the March 2021 issue (128) of Aleph Bet Gimmel

For the last decade, Dr. Lahav-Raz, a member of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at BGU, has been researching sex work regulations and politics, mainly in Israel. Her studies extend to topics such as youth and young adults involved in prostitution; the masculine repertoires of sex industry clients; technological developments and their ramification for sex work; the history of prostitution policy and regulation in Israel; the impact of digital media on sex work activism; and perceptions of sex workers towards legislative models. “Paradoxically," says Lahav-Raz, "for centuries, the consumption of prostitution has been perceived as a marker of normative masculine identity, a part of male adolescents' sexual education  ̶  something that men do  ̶  while simultaneously teaching them to be silent about this practice." The silence surrounding the topic has focused the research gaze primarily on sex workers rather than on their clients. “The few studies that do examine the consumption of prostitution were located in geographical venues rather than the online world," she explains.

Yeela was born and raised in Kibbutz Merhavia in the Jezreel Valley. At the age of 17, her future was clear to her: she knew she wanted to become an anthropologist and all three of her degrees are in sociology and anthropology. Her BA is from the Jezreel Valley Academic College, her MA from the Hebrew University, and her PhD from BGU. "I chose to study at Ben-Gurion University for my doctorate because I was inspired by my advisor, Prof. Niza Yanay," she says. "I find the department here wonderfully supportive and professional – my faculty colleagues, the administrative staff, and the students. In my experience as a doctoral student and then as a teaching associate for three years, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is unique, and this is why I am so happy and proud to return to the place that was always a home to me."

Dr. Lahav-Raz's doctoral thesis focused on Israel's sex industry clients. It used the sexual script theory, which offers insights into how sexual behaviors of Israeli consumers turn into metaphorical scripts that draw from both local and universal repertoires of manhood. The study provides novel insights into how digital technologies are shaping the commercial sex industry in the 21st century. According to Lahav-Raz, sex industry online communities' power is threefold: They serve as confessionals (confession booths), as a breeding space for new consumers, and for active players whose power extends outward into offline worlds to the point that one blends into the other. They have enabled the transformation of isolated individuals into active communities of anonymous members acting together. For example, the so-called 'Four hundred Protest' brought together consumers who sought to cap the rates for sex services at NIS 400.

Israel's legislative approach to prostitution took a dramatic turn recently. In July 2020, the law forbidding the consumption of prostitution came into effect, making Israel the eighth country in the world that has adopted an 'end-demand' approach in its efforts to eliminate prostitution. Lahav-Raz has traced this law to global (Euro-American) pressures and local initiatives by politicians from both sides of the political map, in collaboration with civil society aid organizations. Through a nuanced investigation of the regulation of prostitution, of sex 'workers' interpretation of this legislation, and of online activism on the subject, Lahav-Raz found that elements from the religious right joined forces with the radical left over the questions of women's bodies to advance this legislation successfully. This kind of collaboration is not unique to Israel and can also be seen in Northern Ireland, the US, and other places when it comes to prostitution, sex work, and pornography. It reflects a debate that focuses on issues of morality and is often far from responsive to the varied and actual life experiences of people in the sex work industry.  

Following postdoctoral fellowships at Rhode Island University (2017) and the University of Leicester (2018-2020), Lahav-Raz is researching sex tourism in the Middle East and the impact of the global North policy regarding human trafficking on the development and adoption of prostitution regulation in the Middle East.''. Most recently, she also began a project with colleagues at Tel Aviv University that looks at how the coronavirus crisis has affected the work of aid organizations that support people in prostitution.

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Let's Get Personal 

Question: can you share an insight from your research?

Answer: “As an anthropologist, feminist, and activist, I believe that a researcher should be humble and approach each project with the knowledge that she doesn't understand anything: that the people I encounter in my research are the real experts. They have the knowledge and experience. Ethical research is research that respects them: It not only gives them a voice but also makes room for them as equal partners and allows them to enjoy the fruits of the research."

Q: A source of inspiration?

A: “Lots of people inspire me. I want to mention just a few of the amazing women who are my colleagues and friends: Dr. Tamar Arev, Dr. Tamar Tauber-Pauzner, Dr. Inbal Wilmowsky, and Inbal Faran-Perach. They inspire me with their actions, with their capacity to support, encourage, love, and view reality with a critical eye. Everyone should form her own tribe of good, wise women. I am lucky to have them as my tribe. The women in my family are also part of this, including my two clever and brave daughters, who teach me fascinating lessons in life." ​