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Interview

Inside the mind of Greece's growing sex industry

As the demand for prostitution rises, one photographer seeks to understand why economic decline and paid sex have gone hand in hand

Photojournalist Myrto Papadopoulos has spent many nights sharing the lives of prostitutes in Greece. Her brief? Not only to capture stunning images but also to document a cultural phenomenon where the economic crisis and an ever-growing sex industry appear interlinked. In an interview with EnetEnglish, she outlines her experiences and ambitious plans to help the victims of a society she is trying to rediscover

It wasn't just Myrto Papadopoulos, a photojournalist with a sharp eye and a deep desire to understand a society she grew up in but no longer recognised, who was enraged at the sight of 12 HIV-infected women plastered over the front pages of Greek newspapers and labelled prostitutes in April 2012.

The names, faces and personal information of the women – mostly Greeks, with some Russians and Bulgarians – had been distributed by the police after the then health minister Andreas Loverdos had used the last few days before a general election to make grand statements about somehow containing the "exploded bomb" of HIV spread by sex workers in Greece.

From the 620 brothels – or studios, as they are known – only seven were legal, he said. And of around 20,000 sex workers in these brothers, only 1,200 were registered with the ministry.

He added that the names of the women – most, if not all, drug addicts and among 26 who had undergone forced screening by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO) and tested positive for HIV – would be handed over the citizen protection ministry in the interest of public health. The immigrants among them, he added, would be deported.

Human rights groups called it "an appalling violation of rights and medical confidentiality" and "an unprecedented action stigmatisation", adding that it was unclear whether the women had been told they were infected.

In the end, charges that they intended to cause grievous bodily harm to their clients did not hold up in court.

Most were not even prostitutes.

"I got so angry by the manipulation of these girls," Papadopoulos, who had only recently returned from a stint living in Italy, told EnetEnglish. "It told me everything about how Greek society works; the difference between men and women. It wasn't just brutal. There are no words to describe what Loverdos did. One of the girls committed suicide because she couldn't face her family. I get goosebumps when I talk about it… So frustrated. It is a power game. And at the end of the day, the women are the victims on so many levels – of trafficking, pimps, often of sexual abuse as children."

Most of the estimated 20,000 prostitutes in Greece work illegally and have caused a sharp rise in sexually transmitted diseases Most of the estimated 20,000 prostitutes in Greece work illegally and have caused a sharp rise in sexually transmitted diseases

The production company that made the Julia video now has thousands of applications from girls in Greece who want work within the porn industry

It fuelled what Papadopoulos calls "a lifelong project" to capture, document and understand the lives of sex workers in Greece… the legal and illegal, the trafficked and the pimped, the local girls and the growing number of immigrants who nightly trade in what is referred to as the world's oldest profession.

"I particularly wanted to understand why the market in prostitution was rising at a period when people were beginning to lose their jobs," she says. "It was a really intense time [December 2009]. You could feel that things were changing. I was pitching the story to editors at newspaper magazines. But I started working on it anyway, meeting women to try to understand why they do it, and what made them so vulnerable."

It was, after all, the time of the now-fabled Julia Alexandratou sex video that went a different kind of viral. Overnight Alexandratou was transformed from celebrity to a porn star.

The point, Papadopoulos observed, is that the these two worlds she was looking into – economic decline and an ever-growing sex industry – appear to be interlinked.

"The production company that made the Julia video now has thousands of applications from girls in Greece who want work within the porn industry," she says. "It's a bigger industry than that of drugs and just as addictive. When you're in it, there's no way you can leave without help."

According to the Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the rate of HIV/Aids in Greece has gone up 60% since 2010 According to the Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the rate of HIV/Aids in Greece has gone up 60% since 2010 According to the National Centre for Social Research (EKKE), the rate of prostitution in Greece has soared 150% during the economic crisis.

And so Papadopoulos began visiting brothels in Athens and striking up a relationship with the workers, photographing them when she had built up the necessary trust. She spent hours, nights even, just talking. When she can, she speaks to their clients, the majority of whom are married, she stresses.

The worst thing I heard is not what the clients ask her to do. It's that she says she hates having sex and that it always hurts. For me that's very painful, knowing that this person has been doing it for 30 years. She's afraid to do anything else. It's as if she's raping herself daily

She has been introduced to pimps and traffickers working in what are euphemistically called love hotels that do a solid trade in hourly-room rentals ("Not that you'd know they were traffickers from their looks.") And she's struck up a deep working relationship with the national coordinator of the foreign ministry's human trafficking department, Iraklis Moskof, and Greece's nascent Salvation Army. 

But it is the women she has – literally – focused on.

"Going into brothels wasn't so difficult for me but building a relationship has been," she says. "I was with one woman [a 48-year-old for whom prostitution has been a solitary profession for three decades], for five months without using my camera. I go literally every week and it's as if we're having a session. I just listen to her."

The day before this interview, she noted, she took her first photos of the woman.

"I feel she's ready for it," she says. "Last night we were both lying in bed and we were talking in a very natural way, like she's a friend. I'm there if she needs me… on the phone, with messages, if she's in a bad mood, if she's ok. And these girls are so much stronger than I am. She wasn't trafficked or pimped, which is a huge difference. They deal with all the shit that's happening on the street and with crazy people. Stuff I can scarcely imagine."

It is both insightful and heartbreaking.

"Most of her clients insist on not wearing a condom," she says. "And she tells me stories about how they're asking her to do the craziest things. It's become more hard core. Violently hard core.

"I was driving with her and she turned to me a said: ‘F*** it, Myrto, do you know what I've got in my car? … Vibrators, whips.' She was getting angry about how things have changed. But the worst thing that I heard from her is not what the clients ask her to do. It's that she says she hates having sex and that it always hurts. For me that's very painful, knowing that this person has been doing it for 30 years. She's afraid to do anything else. It's as if she's raping herself daily."

And yet Papadopoulos notes that when she asked the same person about the growing number of foreign sex workers in Greece, she got a very different answer.

They're taking our jobs, she was told.

"Greece isn't just any country. It is a main hub for migrants entering Europe, and many migrants end up in the sex industry," says Papadopoulos. "You have the trafficking and you have women beaten up, raped and forced into the profession. But the methods have changed in that many of these women have come here of their own will because they believe they'll find a job. The system is so smart now… false job ads in newspapers lure them here."

The nightly routine of makeup as rouge for an ever more demanding clientele The nightly routine of makeup as rouge for an ever more demanding clientele Talking to girls that have been trafficked it is a totally different story, she says. They live prostitution in a very different way. They have pimps, who might even be their husband, possibly with children.

"And then there's the African girls," she points out. "Sometimes I think they have pimps and sometimes I think they don't. Because of their religion – Juju – and the way it links in with the families. The girls will work as a prostitute until they pay off their debt, whatever that might be. But they'll talk to you for hours with a smile."

As for Papadopoulos' plans with all this material?

"It's big," she says. "A trans-media project [called The Attendants] illustrating the issues of prostitution in many different ways: photography and a character-driven documentary to be presented in the European Parliament in November, a book, workshops and seminars in schools."

She is also collaborating with the Salvation Army to open a safe house for sex workers in Athens where she plans to offer what she calls phototherapy techniques for the women.

"Documentary photography is an amazing tool to build self-esteem, to learn," she says.

"For me, entering these people's worlds has made me stronger, more open, able to combat my own fears. It's a journey."

More than anything, her camera lens has opened her eyes to a very different Greece to that she once knew. Or perhaps to aspects of her country she was simply experiencing for the first time.

She notes with obvious frustration the culture of fathers taking their sons to brothels to lose their virginity. And on the insistence of men on not wearing condoms. It made her confused and angry until she concluded it was their idea of being liberal.

"I don't think they have a sense of what can happen or what's happening in the country, in the world," she says. "That's how closed-minded they are and – believe it or not – not wearing a condom is perceived to be open-minded.

"It's typical of Greek society, if you think about it. You had Loverdos parading these women as if he was offering something new, not protecting them at all. He was treating them no differently."

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