ATHENS, Greece—As anyone who’s read a newspaper over the past few months knows, the Greek economy is in the toilet, with 25 percent of adults and 50 percent of youth out of work, and “austerity measures” sparking frequent massive demonstrations around the country. So it’s with some puzzlement that sex worker websites are reporting that for the past six weeks, Greek police have been systematically arresting prostitutes and requiring that they undergo HIV testing, then posting the names and photos of any that test positive for the virus on official police websites. Perhaps worse, some of the HIV-positive sex workers are being charged criminally with “intentionally causing serious bodily harm,” even though some of those charged were unaware that they were HIV-infected before the forced tests.
And of course, when police come upon a prostitute with a john, it’s the women that get busted and the johns go free—even though the police claim that the reason for the testing is to protect public health after an alleged increase in AIDS cases over the past year, and even though it’s easier for women to contract the disease from men than vice-versa.
After testing hundreds of women under the new program, 31 were found to be HIV-positive, while calls to a hotline set up by Greece’s version of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention led to over 100 johns being tested, five of whom were found to be positive—but as of mid-May, the police had not decided whether to put those johns’ names and photos on the police website.
One organization that’s stepped in to support the sex workers is Amnesty International, which on May 17 issued a statement condemning the police action.
“Publication of names, photographs and positive HIV status is a fundamental breach of confidentiality and exposes sex workers to stigma and violence,” Amnesty International said in its statement. “The measures adopted by the Greek authorities are completely misguided and ineffective.”
Those sentiments echoed those of the Greek Ombudsman, who opined that “public health concerns cannot violate the rights to privacy of people infected with HIV.”
Worse, research by staffers at the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights in Melbourne, Australia, have noted that similar “arrest and test” programs have begun in other countries, and that “‘naming and shaming’ of HIV positive sex workers occurs n cities and towns across the world, including in the UK and US.”
“A randomised controlled trial may not be possible,” wrote researcher Cheryl Over, “but there is sufficient research and experience to compare the results of ‘rights based’ approaches with heavy handed tactics like those used in Greece that have been shown to drive sex industries underground and reduce the number of sex workers reached by HIV prevention services. Thus it is clear that repeatedly testing a few ‘legal’ sex workers while alienating ‘illegal’ sex workers from services and testing them forcibly in the wake of sporadic raids is not good public health.”
Of course, condom use is the best method to prevent disease transmission in situations where one or more of the sex partners have not been tested for STDs, and Greek Health Minister Andreas Loverdos has warned of an increase in cases of prostitutes offering condomless sex for an additional fee—something they would be less likely to do absent the current economic crisis. Loverdos said he would push for a law to criminalize unprotected sex in brothels after the Greek elections, which took place over the weekend. There are reportedly at least 315 brothels operating illegally in Athens.
“This is an exploded bomb,” he said. “It is a problem that should have been limited but it now involves Greek society. It’s a problem that we cannot erase but only try to contain.”
Hopefully, the Greeks can figure out a way to do that without stigmatizing sexual service providers.