Sex industry row divides Athens ahead of Olympics

With five months to go before the Olympics bring millions of visitors to Athens, the city is preparing to showcase the best it has to offer in wine and song, while wondering what to do about the women. A row about regulating the country’s sex trade has reached an impasse as politicians, prostitutes, feminists and priests wait for next Sunday’s elections to throw up a new government, all the while at each other’s throats over how to deal with an industry that feeds around 70,000 people across Greece. While authorities, led by Athens’s first female mayor, Dora Bakoyannis, say they want to impose tighter restrictions on registered prostitution early to avoid a Games boom, critics say a crackdown will only feed the much larger illicit trade. «Are we legal prostitutes the problem, when we represent 9 percent of the business out there and the rest is illegal and uncontrollable?» said Dimitra Kanelopoulou, president of the Movement of Greek Prostitutes (KEGE). «All over Athens there are signs for strip shows and live sex, and our little white light over the door is an issue?» The rows center on a 1999 law which made prostitution a legal profession for men and single women, specifying permits and health checks for sex workers, as well as tight rules on location including a 200-meter distance from civic buildings such as churches or schools. The law was not enforced until the middle of last year, when officials revived it for a pre-Games cleanup, saying enforcement would cut the 600-odd brothels operating in the city to 230. KEGE countered that all prostitutes in the known brothels had permits and health certificates, and it was only the unworkable location restrictions of the 1999 law that made their houses illegal. «We pay taxes, 200 euros in social security every month, issue receipts and get health checks and still the police come and drag us to the station every other day,» Kanelopoulou said. «Some might soon not bother with permits, post an ad and do it on the sly. They are pushing us to illegality.» Prostitutes strike The Church of Greece was outraged at what it saw as a bid to license more brothels, finding unlikely allies in Nordic governments and feminist groups, which wrote to Greece protesting what they called «Olympic Prostitution.» Denying the charges, the city tried to close down 15 brothels for zoning violations. Prostitutes went on a three-day strike, draping black flags over their windows and threatening to throw themselves off balconies. A deal was reached when the government pledged to relax the rules, tabling an amendment to ease zoning restrictions, scrap a clause that only single women could get permits, and allow more than one «house» in one building with more than the previously allowed three employees. Fearing the city might issue permits for larger brothels in hotel-like complexes to cope with demand during the Games, Greek feminists lobbied and finally stopped the procedure in its tracks. An estimated 10,000 sex workers plied their trade during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, many imported from abroad. «We want to see the 1999 law annulled. We are seeking legislation that protects sex workers and sex work but does not define it as a profession,» said Kety Costavara, co-ordinator of the National Observatory for Combating Violence against Women. «I mean, what’s next, suggesting it to kids in school as a possible job?» According to lawyer George Fotiadis, implementing the law is problematic and this leads not just to illegality but lawlessness. «Many sex workers, especially from the former Soviet bloc, do this job without even thinking of getting these permits,» he said. Underground trade Curbside soliciting is illegal in Greece, but a late-night walk round the capital’s main Syngrou Avenue area shows the law to be widely ignored. Hundreds of advertisements in the press offering a good time in bars or in-home visits from Eastern Europeans also hint at the mass of illegal immigrants who work in the underground sex trade. KEGE estimates that illegal prostitutes number more than 60,000 across Greece, against 7,000 registered. The group says it will continue demonstrating and pushing its case with whichever government comes out of the election, and take the case as far as European Union courts. «We are one of the oldest professions. We are fighting for our right to work and our prerogative to choose this work,» Kanelopoulou said. «As opposed to many of the foreign girls who are victims of trafficking, for us legal Greek prostitutes, this is a choice.» «I personally have not regretted any of it. And when someone shouts at me, ‘You big whore,’ I don’t hear it as an insult, I hear it as a badge of honor for the ability to cope with the tough things in life.»

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