On Thursday 2 June, International Day of Sex Workers, an event on sex work in Greece took place in the Hall of the Municipal Council of the City Hall of Athens organized by the Greek Association of People Living with HIV “Positive Voice” in cooperation with “Red Umbrella Athens” and under the auspices of the Municipality of Athens.

What became clear throughout the event is the need for a legislative reform of the incomplete and anachronistic Law 2734/1999 regarding sex work, as it does not correspond to reality. The current legal framework makes it extremely difficult for someone to work legally in sex work, especially in Athens, where the majority of brothels operate unlicensed which leaves people providing sexual services unprotected.In 2017, this legal revision was recognized as necessary by all representatives of the political parties (SY.RIZ.A, ND, KIN.AL, AN.EL, Potami) who participated in the workshop on sex work organized by Positive Voice. On May 25, 2020, the current government of New Democracy established by Act 1829/18-5-20a project team for sex work (Ministry of Citizen Protection). The relevant conclusion of the team reinforces the argument that the time has come to proceed with the corresponding actions.

Sabrina Sanchez, Coordinator of the European Sex Worker Rights Alliance on the occasion of the day and the event states:

“[…] all of us who fight for human rights, for labour rights, for the rights of LGBTQ+ people, must defend the decriminalisation of sex workers, next to the defense of all other rights. Only when we are considered workers, […] only if we have all our legal documents and join a legal status will we be able to have the right to a pension for the future, a mortgage, or access to any other right enjoyed by workers anywhrere but in sex work. For, sex work IS work.”

In her message welcoming the initiative, Catherine Healy, a sex workers’ rights activist (Sex Workers’ Collective New Zealand) explains what has changed in New Zealand since sex work was decriminalised in 2003, in terms of working conditions, relations with the police and media attitudes, but concludes that despite positive developments, the New Zealand model still needs improvements: migrants and refugees are not entitled to practice the profession and continue to suffer discrimination and stigma.

Katerina Gagaki, Deputy Mayor of Social Solidarity and Civil Society, opened the event by stating that “it is an honour to be here today and to create a contact space for all the actors who have been working for years in sex work”.

Nikos Dedes, President of Positive Voice, said that there is an urgent need for a new bill, stating that “even if the 1999 law was perfect, it could not meet the needs of today. In reality, however, it is a failure, since […] it fosters a framework of illegality”. In his statement, George Stamatis, Secretary General of Social Solidarity & Poverty Alleviation of the Ministry of Labour, stated that “Athens must become an inclusive city where all citizens have obligations, but also rights. And one such right is the right to work.” He also supported the self-determination of each individual’s body as it sees fit. Nassos Iliopoulos, SYRIZA’s Press Spokesman, noted that sex work is an issue invisible to the Greek State, and argued that the relevant processes should be coordinated by the Ministry of Labor instead of the Ministry of Citizen Protection.

Paola Revenioti, a candidate for MP for Mera25 in Athens, demonstrated the need to protect the rights, dignity and lives of sex workers, as well as to guarantee labour rights and health-work insurance, and spoke about the classist nature of the issue. The historicity of a trans woman with sex work experience representing a political party was noted by Anna Kouroupou, Director of Red Umbrella Athens, and was applauded enthusiastically by the attendees. The Communication Manager of the Active Citizens Fund Greece and the Bodossaki Foundation, Yiagos Antiochos, also addressed the audience, who referred to “the osmosis of individuals from the field and from the State” in a way that can bring a solution to important problems of vulnerable social groups.

Then Anna Kouroupou, presented the work of the structure Red Umbrella Athens, which is an initiative of Positive Voice and the empowerment services for people who work in sex work, while the legal advisor of Red Umbrella Athens, Angeliki Sougle, presented the project “Dana – empowering sex workers”, which is implemented under the Active Citizens Fund programme, with the Bodossaki Foundation and SolidarityNow as grant managers and Positive Voice as implementing agency.

The first session entitled “Labour Rights & Processing” started with the statement of the facilitator Eliza Goroya, Positive Voice’s Advocacy & Communication Officer, that “a feminism that does not include sex workers and speaks on behalf of others is a dangerous feminism”. Dimitra Kanellopoulou, President of the Association of Prostitutes in Greece, said that the 1999 law created a plethora of problems with no possibility of resolution and that a regime of lawlessness exists in Athens due to the conditions imposed by the current legal framework. Anna Kouroupou stated: “The state must protect and preserve, if anything, the mental balance of so many people. The State must give support to the weak”. Christos Sagredos, President of the Empowerment Network for Sexworkers (D.E.S.), referred to male sex work and online sex work. Referring to the necessity of disassociating sex as something that only is exchanged in brothels, the president of the D.E.S. associated the “brothel” with certain – usually economically lower classes, stressing that the elite – even from the world of politics or the church – tends to prefer the privacy of the home or a hotel. Christos Sagredos also stressed the importance of involving the working people themselves in any attempt at legislative reform, rather than experts who “know more about us, without us”. Athena Michalakea, Legal Counsellor of the D.E.S., emphasized the need for all forms of sex work to be recognized as work, with no special status, stressed that full decriminalization makes it easier for sex workers to report incidents of abuse they receive, and referred to the spatial and other limitations of the current law. At the end of the session, Anna Kouroupou noted: “We are asking for legalization, as in every work. Why is the state so indifferent?”

In his presentation, PhD Law and attorney Vangelis Mallios,reviewed all the laws that have existed in Greece on sex work and stressed that a long-standing feature of Greek legislation is the emphasis on public health and the link between sex exchange and the transmission of venereal diseases, while presenting the challenges that the legislation is called upon to face.

The second session entitled “The Next Day in Sex Work Legislation” was moderated by Gregory Vallianatos, member of the Board of Directors of Positive Voice. G. Vallianatos stressed that “politicians who do not legislate and leave loopholes are criminals and collaborators in trafficking” and asked the attendees to retain a moment of silence for the violence that sex workers face over time.

The positions of the representatives of the political parties on the issue were then presented. Pavlos Zorbas, representative of SYRIZA and Legal Advisor to two Ministers of Labour in the period 2015-2019, said that the SYRIZA government had drafted and almost completed a bill which was not submitted, due to the fact that changes in the penal code were deemed necessary and that there was not enough political time. The bill would have been radically different from the current one, with indicative variations in the licensing of professions by the Region, automation of the licensing process, anonymous work cards, protection of sensitive personal data, and the definition of a framework for advertising of services, less spatial restrictions, but also the provision for the phenomenon of non-consensual condom removal (stealthing) as well as for the legalisation of HIV-positive persons practising the profession, who have an undetectable viral load and are therefore non-contagious (U=U), as provided for in the ILO200 Recommendation. Next, Kriton Arsenis, MP for West Attica and representative of Mera25, stated that the law must be changed immediately, not to force illegality and to correspond to reality. He even referred to the shameful exposure of HIV-positive women in 2012, the perpetrators of which “must be punished” and pledged immediate action in the coming weeks. He was followed by Dimitrios Mantzos, Press Spokesperson of Kinal-PASOK, who said that it is clear that there are serious issues that need to be addressed with the main objectives of eliminating stigma, fighting violence and ensuring public health. He insisted that models from other countries must be taken into account in the reform of the legislation, that a certificate of indefinite occupation be granted with validity throughout the Greek region and that an organised psychological support line be set up by the state to deal with the psychological consequences of any violence or exploitation. Finally, George Stamatis, representative of the New Democracy, described the conclusion of the Project Group on CSE (Ministry of Citizen Protection) as a “victory for the community”, called for the empowerment of civil society organisations and agreed that the issue should be the responsibility of the Ministry of Labour.

The need for a new law on sex work was considered urgent by the representatives of all the political parties present, giving rise to expectations and hopes for immediate action and substantial changes to improve the lives and promote the rights of sex workers, one of the most marginalised and invisible – to the State – social groups.

As Positive Voice we welcome this historic meeting and we commit ourselves to continue our work until the announcements of the parties and the government are implemented – without any further delay – on the basis of urgency.

Finally, our standing is that there is no equality for women, LGBTQ+ people and labour without the rights of sex workers.

Moment of silence
Leda Polychronopoulou, StreetWork Project Coordinator – member of the Red Umbrella Athens team
Katerina Gagaki, Deputy Mayor of Social Solidarity and Civil Society
Nikos Dedes, President of Positive Voice
George Stamatis, Secretary General of Social Solidarity & Poverty Alleviation of the Ministry of Labour
Nassos Iliopoulos, SYRIZA’s Press Spokesman
Paola Revenioti, MP candidate for Mera25 in Athens
Yiagos Antiochos, Communication Manager of the Active Citizens Fund Greece and the Bodossaki Foundation
Anna Kouroupou, Director of Red Umrella Athens
Angeliki Sougle, Legal Advisor of Red Umbrella Athens
Eliza Goroya, Advocacy & Communnications Officer
Dimitra Kanellopoulou, President of the Association of Prostitutes in Greece
Anna Kouroupou, Director of Red Umrella Athens
Christos Sagredos, President of the Empowerment Network for Sexworkers (D.E.S.)
Athena Michalakea, Legal Counsellor of the Empowerment Network for Sewxorkers (D.E.S.)
Rafaella Annita
Gregory Vallianatos, member of the Board of Directors of Positive Voice
Pavlos Zorbas, representative of SYRIZA, Kriton Arsenis, MP for West Attica & representative of Mera25, Gregory Vallianatos, member of the Board of Directors of Positive Voice

Photos: Giannis Boziaris