Prostitution in post-lockdown Greece is 'Russian roulette'

Athens (AFP) - A central Athens brothel was buzzing with clients on a recent hot July afternoon, and its Venezuelan workers were relieved to have the business.

Sex workers there have had a steady stream of customers since mid-June, when they were allowed to reopen their doors after a three-month ban to control the spread of coronavirus.

While most Greeks are social distancing and keeping their contacts to a minimum, many prostitutes have little choice but to return to work.

"I tried to sleep as much as possible in order to forget my hunger during these three months," said Bella, who has a child, as another woman cleaned and ventilated her room for the next client.

A list of strict hygiene and safety rules were announced by the Greek authorities to protect clients and the workers, who are more exposed to the risk of infection than those in almost any other profession.

But the measures are unrealistic, the women told AFP.

"They are ridiculous," said Dimitra Kanellopoulou, president of Greece's sex workers' association.

"They tell you not to have a handshake in the waiting room, and then you go inside the room and everything happens," she said. "What is the point?"

Sex workers are advised to "ensure distance" and avoid "face-to-face contact", while wearing a face mask "could be introduced as part of a game", the rules suggest.

- 'Worst time for profession' -

"It's a joke. How is a girl going to please a customer with a mask on? Should she put a zipper in the mask?" wondered Katerina, who runs another brothel in downtown Athens.

She laid a new paper sheet on one bed, which she said would be destroyed immediately once the client entered the room.

The list of measures also includes an obligation to keep all clients' contact details in a sealed envelope for four weeks for tracking and tracing.

Sheets of blank white paper are taped on the sofas in the waiting room to remind clients to keep their distance.

One client entered the building wearing a mask around his neck, a reminder that the pandemic is not over.

"Our job is basically Russian roulette. You put yourself and your family in danger, but either way you would starve," said Anna Kouroupou, a transgender woman who heads Red Umbrella Athens, an initiative supporting sex workers.

"This is probably the worst time ever for the profession," she said.

"Things were really bad when AIDS broke out, but back then after a few months we knew that wearing a condom would keep us safe. Now there is no way to protect ourselves," she added.

- Legal limbo -

The pandemic has laid bare the legal limbo in which brothels operate in Greece, where the majority of them have been left without state aid.

Under Greek law, in order for a brothel to operate legally it should be at least 200 metres (650 feet) from public spaces such as hospitals, parks, churches, schools and stadiums.

In a dense city, that restriction makes virtually any existing brothel illegal. According to Red Umbrella Athens more than 600 brothels operate illegally in Greece.

"There is basically no building that meets the requirements of the law throughout Athens," said Dimitrios Moraitis, a lawyer for the sex workers' association.

"There are more than 100,000 people working in the sector and only those with an active cash register and a licence to operate were able to get financial aid from the state, and this is less than 10 percent of total," he said.

Making matters worse, as part of the protection measures Greek authorities suggest that clients use credit cards to pay for services -- an impossible request for establishments operating illegally.

In what could be seen as a silver lining from the pandemic, officials at the Ministry of Civil Protection and the municipalities have said that they are beginning to register illegal brothels with the aim of making them legal through legislative amendments.

In the meantime, many women have been forced to break the rules in order to feed their families, working illegally in the streets without any protection.

To support prostitutes working in the open, Red Umbrella Athens has raised around 7,000 euros ($7,900) in supermarket coupons, and distributes hydroalcoholic gel and tissues to the women.

"I'm not afraid of the pandemic, I'm more afraid of the possibility of a new lockdown," said Linda as she prepared to start her shift.