Photo: Nadir Noori
Translation: The Language Project
“In 1835, Piraeus was a little harbour with no traffic, a few fishing boats, some huts and a thousand inhabitants. From time to time, the occasional ship would throw anchor, to sail again after a few hours. […] The brothels were among the houses […]. Family men would always complain about their mandatory coexistence with the underworld. The city council debated on the problem and decided to isolate all the unregistered prostitutes of Piraeus in a large house outside the city plan. Thus, a part of the underworld would be shifted out of the city. As for the prostitutes, they would practice their profession in a controlled area and, at the same time, they would have medical supervision. That was the plan of the city council. The state did not want to be mixed up in such a story, lest it be known that it was in favour of building brothels. However, in 1873 it gave to the municipality of Piraeus a piece of land in an area called Vourla […]. Vourla was a huge public brothel in Drapetsona, built by the municipality of Piraeus and operated under the protection of the state and the police. It was surrounded by a tall wall, it had wings with uniform cells and looked like a prison. During the occupation, it was turned into a jail and finished its “career” as a prison in 1970, when it was eventually demolished.” That’s what Teti Solou wrote in her research (which was later turned into a book) about Vourla.
Today, prostitution in Athens is interwoven with other locations, but never lost its social stigma and targeting. Recently, sex work has emerged as a topic of discussion in the more progressive Greek media, as organizations claim equality in the rights of sex workers, arguing that this work can also be a choice, as part of a person’s right to self-determination.
A first way to eliminate misleading speech and stigmatization is the words themselves. Thus, the term “prostitution”, which refers to negative cultural stereotypes, is now replaced by “sex workers”. Let us emphasize here that trafficking, exploitation and violence are the most obscene and inhuman part of the sex industry, mainly against women, but that’s a different story. International organizations, such as Amnesty International and civil society organizations, accept that sex work is not always equated with trafficking of human beings and seek to improve the current law in Greece for people exercising this profession, as, under the current conditions, sex workers are very vulnerable to verbal violence, beatings and insecurity of a life without social insurance and insurance benefits.
Sexual work is dominated by two approaches: the Swedish model argues that the state must aim at combating prostitution and trafficking of human beings, judging that the commercialization of the body does not fit into a gender equality society. In the Swedish model, paying for sex services is legal, but buying them is illegal. By doing so, the client commits a criminal offense. The opposite is the German / Dutch model which recognizes sex work as a free choice of the individual, with the right to pay, to enjoy state protection, insurance, stamps and pensions, like any employee.
In Greece, sex work is legitimate, but the legislator sets limits that make it difficult, prompting sex workers to live and work illegally. In Athens, for example, it is estimated that there are currently about 525 brothels, only ten of which are legal.
According to Law 2734/1999, sex employees should be “single or widowed or divorced, not married”, a provision that directly challenges equal rights at work. They should also “not suffer from any form of mental illness and not be drug users”. “Unions and various labour rights organizations in our country often claim better working conditions by reporting cases of employee exploitation, but no one is dealing with the labour rights of those working in sex services,” says Maria Xanthaki, Communications & Claimant Rights Officer for Red Umbrella Athens (RUA) to Solomon magazine.
Red Umbrella is the first organization in Greece that, since December 2015, has been working as a Primary Body for Prevention and Empowerment for Social Inclusion of Sex Workers. The organization provides psychological and legal support, condoms and pregnancy tests, screening for HIV, hepatitis B & C and direct interconnection with health services. In their facilities, sex workers can talk freely about their problems, get clothes, and even put on their makeup before work. The red umbrella is an international symbol adopted in 2001 when, during a march in Venice, sex workers crossed the city by holding red umbrellas to attract attention: red is for love and the umbrella is for protection.
“We are demanding legislative reforms that will protect and support all victims of human trafficking, while these protection measures will not criminalize, but support the labour rights of sex workers which are not victims of trafficking. As to how society sees us, I would say that we are a “paradox” society: there is a portion of very conservative people with fascist tendencies, while at the same time there is a significant number of very progressive people who support equality and egalitarianism for all. We reluctantly began in 2016 to openly support the rights of the shadowy and stigmatized group of sex workers, and with great joy we gradually found that there are many who agree with us: individuals and groups from civil society, journalism, the scientific community, and government agencies and institutions. We still have a long way to go to equalize our work with other occupations on the labour rights level, but statements like that of Ms Giannakaki (Transparency and Human Rights) that “we should regulate insurance, security and labour exploitation issues, as for any other worker”, make me hope that there may be a stronger political will at this time, more than any other time,” says Ms Xanthaki.
As for the legislative model, she states that “There is no perfect legislative model that we have seen from the study of research and official positions of collectives working in sex on an international level. We need legislation that will adapt to the existing socio-political conditions of sex workers, and of course co-formulate this legislation with sex workers themselves, and not on their behalf. Criminalization leads sex workers to poverty, reduces their ability to negotiate with their clients, they are persecuted because they work in groups (for their safety), they are being monitored by the police authorities and illegal immigrants who work in sex are often deported”.
This subject needs to be discussed publicly, and not only in Greece. In the United Kingdom, in June 2018, there was a call for a trade union for sex workers’ rights, and on 8 March 2019, on World Women’s Day, sex workers went on strike and protested in London, asking for society not to treat them like forgotten shadows.
Is it not problematic as a society to normalize the mentality that sex is paid and that the female body is a commodity? This view is shared by many feminists who consider prostitution as violence that has its roots in patriarchy, which earns a lot of money from this exploitation of women. Manolis* rushes to answer this question, a volunteer at RUA and a sex worker himself: “We do not legitimize any form of exploitation of a woman who has not given her consent to have sex. My body is mine and I do what I want with it. The porn industry is largely responsible for this condition, as the woman is the object of every man’s fantasy. Even lesbian films are there to satisfy men’s appetites. The sexist lookout that a woman must always be beautiful and available to arouse a man is responsible for this perverted perception.”
Since March 2016, more than 700 sex workers (cis, trans, women, men, immigrants, Greek women, etc.) have come to the Red Umbrella Athens home. Because of their constant contact with the workers, I ask Ms Xanthaki how they treat those who would like to escape prostitution. “We work with institutions and organizations that provide services to victims of trafficking, abused women, homeless people, immigrants and other social groups, and solutions can be found only in a collective way. The most important problem, which often remains unsolved, is to trust the person itself and to believe that we can help them in the long run to get away from this job and to find work somewhere else. Unfortunately, in reality, there are few choices due to educational level, gender identity, undocumented immigration or unemployment.”
“Lalun is a practitioner of the world’s oldest profession” began Rudyard Kipling’s story, On the City Wall (1888), which narrates the story of a young Indian prostitute, and coined the phrase “the oldest profession in the world.” Rarely, however, we hear first-person narratives from sex workers and, rather, narratives that speak of “choice.”
The sidewalk, brothels and ads: Stories of sex workers
Irene*, 36 years old
I came to the capital to find work as a hairdresser after school. I arrived with 150 euros in my pocket, the first month’s rent was paid by my parents and I know no one there, I didn’t have any friends. After a long search, I had to survive somehow. So one September night, I went out on the sidewalk.
I would say it was a fateful choice. This job provides me with a decent living standard – I can pay my rent, bills, social life, etc. I’ve been on the street for 16 years, in the sex industry and it’s very hard to find anything else because of lack of experience.
I remember that I had called my friends and, crying, I announced that I went out on the sidewalk. I asked them if they would still love me after that. They answered “yes” and asked me to look after my health and not lose my innocence. I have not told my parents, they’re old people and there is no reason for that.
I always work after midnight. The preparation takes 2 hours and it is like a ritual for me: I take a bath, I choose the clothes that I will wear according to the weather, I put on my makeup, fix my hair, dress up and go to my post – my office, as I like to call it.
Finding customers out in public (working the streets) is illegal. Previously we had the procedure for in flagrante offences. For a long time, we were getting arrested on a daily basis. This is still the case in some areas. They were treating us as something inferior, odd. They did not even explain to us why we were being held. We were packed like sardines in tiny holding cells and the handcuffs were so tight that the bruises remained for days like natural bracelets… Painful, soul-crushing, tragic. Now you go to the department, give out your details, they let you go and the ticket is then sent to your home address. The attitude of several police officers has begun to change for the better.
I don’t think I saw more women working the streets as sex workers during the crisis. However, the turnout of customers has been reduced considerably. Customers are 19-60 years old, of all nationalities – I work mostly with Greeks – of all social classes, education and culture. The majority are family men.
What I would like to see is recognition of sex work as a profession, the changing of the existing legislation and the decriminalization of sex work. I also wish that the world would stop thinking of us as abominations. We could have been their daughters, their children. It is also imperative that government agencies, journalists, etc., do not confuse sex work with trafficking.
Manolis*, 30 years old
I started working as a sex worker in 2012 when I was a student, to earn some extra money. Since 2015, this is my permanent job.
I chose it very consciously. I like to get in touch with people of different ages, perceptions and qualities. I like sex and the sense of satisfying other people’s needs. I did not choose a “conventional job” because I like to be my own boss, to pick my own work times, the place and quality of my work. Nevertheless, in the future I would like something more stable in terms of schedule, just to have a daily routine, which something I’m missing now.
My friends know about me, they support me and they have fully accepted me. I do not want to share this part with my family because I do not want to disturb the calm and the balance. They do not even know that I’m gay.
I have noticed that more people open up their hearts and share a sense of loneliness and frustration, which is a deep and inner effect of the crisis. The profile of the clients has not changed – they are mostly over 30, married, priests and people exploring their sexuality. What I often jokingly say to my friends is: I’ll fix a date with someone who can form a sentence with a subject, verb, object.
I recently watched an activist’s speech from abroad and Ι got a burning desire to organize activities on the streets and squares – maybe a graffiti with scenes from the everyday life of a woman or a man who are sex workers, but have a personal life to a show, even a theatre play – that will give food for thought to the average Greek.
I would ideally want for the physical and mental integrity of anyone who is involved in this job to be threatened, to be able to claim benefits through the Manpower Employment Organization (OAED) and to have insurance. The point is not to downgrade this work as inferior, but not to idealize it either. What counts are the basic needs and demands of each of us and how he will receive help and support to feel that we are not alone.
Marianna*, 45 years old, transgender woman
When I found myself without work, and without having any training, a friend of mine suggested me to work in a brothel. I think it is my choice, since I chose to do this, among other professions. The main reason is financial gain. Many times, of course, I feel a personal satisfaction because I make people happy, even for half an hour.
I did not reveal what I do to my family, for obvious reasons and because of the stigma. As you know, this job is a taboo, even about sex itself.
I’m mostly working through ads, which gives me the opportunity to use my time as it suits me, and of course according to my mood. If I do not feel good, I do not work that day. Otherwise, I will be burdened, and the customer will not be happy.
I work in my own space. I never go to an outside appointment. After I have my coffee, I activate my work phone and, at the same time, I prepare the room – especially the bedroom, and I have my underwear and other accessories on the bedside.
If, during the phone call, I feel like something might be wrong, I ask a friend to call me after 20 minutes to see if I’m okay.
Unfortunately, during the crisis everything changed. The number of regular customer visits has been reduced, and because of the fierce competition, prices have fallen steeply – customers take advantage and try to haggle the price or to ask for more services at a lower fee.
My constant fear is to book an appointment with a police officer, pretending to be a client. A “safety valve” is never to ask for the money up front, which has some risk, but it is better than to be charged according to the law in force.
I hope that the legislation, which is inadequate and chaotic, will be changed. While we are one of the few countries that allow a person to solicit themselves, the law itself makes its implementation unlikely.
* All three sex workers asked to speak to Solomon using aliases.