Greece: Matthew Weait on the moral panic over the mass arrest of female sex workers with HIV

Matthew Weait, Professor of Law and Policy at Birkbeck College, University of London guest blogs on Wednesday's arrest of 17 HIV-positive women who allegedly worked illegally as sex workers.  Greek authorities are accusing them of intentionally causing serious bodily harm. 
 
The arrest in Athens of 17 female sex workers living with HIV this week is outrageous on many levels. It is not that a significant number of them have had their right to respect for private life violated (12 had their photographs published on a police website), nor that there is uncertainty as to whether the women concerned knew their HIV status, nor that the women were arrested after a screening process by the Greek Centre for Disease Control (how voluntary was that, I wonder?), nor that they have been charged with intentionally causing grievous bodily harm (a charge almost impossible to prove, and on the facts arising simply from having unprotected sex with clients – according to news reports it is unclear whether any clients have actually been infected as a result of sex with the women concerned). All these things are bad enough, but what is really appalling is the way in which it is the women who have been identified as the legitimate locus of control and the subject of punitive state response.

It is appalling, but it is entirely to be expected. There is a long and ignoble tradition of locating the source of STIs in women in general, and female sex workers in particular. In the context of HIV criminalization this tradition has reached a new peak (or, perhaps better, a new trough). Put simply, HIV criminalization has compounded, and added a new and frightening dimension to, the longstanding idea that female sex workers are a source of pollution threatening the cleanliness of men. It is not just that by identifying them as the risk and the cause of any harm men may suffer, the men concerned (and men in general) are able to divert attention from their own responsibility (though this is important), it is that criminalization has provided an opportunity, in this context, to reinforce the idea that women are inherently dirty, that HIV is dirty, and that cleansing (what a frightening word that is) through punishment, containment and deportation (the women in Athens were foreign nationals) is a reasonable and justifiable response.

Of this logic we should be very afraid. The elimination of dirt at a political level has found expression, at its most extreme, in the slaughter of the Jews by the Nazis, in the apartheid regime of South Africa, in eugenic science and rules relating to miscegenation. It is evident in any attempt by a society to maintain its ‘purity’ by imposing border controls that require would-be immigrants to undergo tests that filter out the sick and unhealthy.

At an individual level, the elimination or exclusion of dirt – or rather the practices, attitudes and response mechanisms that attempt to achieve this (prosecution, imprisonment, deportation) mirror a wider political project in which the HIV positive body is punished, marginalised and devalued because it represents everything that is feared in post-modernity. The HIV positive body is a paradigm site for repressive legal and political response because of its capacity to reproduce itself in the body of those for whom it represents a threat to physical and ontological security, and because that reproduction occurs – and can only occur – through the merging of bodies via the co-mingling of their ‘inside’. Elizabeth Grosz, an Australian feminist theorist has put this better than anyone else when she explains that:

Body fluids attest to the permeability of the body, its necessary dependence on an outside, its liability to collapse into this outside (this is what death implies), to the perilous divisions between the body’s inside and its outside. They affront a subject’s aspiration toward autonomy and self-identity. They attest to a certain irreducible ‘dirt’ or ‘disgust’, a horror of the unknown or the unspecifiable that permeates, lingers, and at times leaks out of the body, a testimony to the fraudulence or impossibility of the ‘clean’ and ‘proper’. (Grosz, 1994: 193-4)

For Grosz, it is women’s bodies, their unstable and destabilizing corporeality, that serve both to affirm men’s belief in their own inviolability and, thus, the bounded body (i.e. male bodies) as the normal, universal and legitimate form of subjectivity. The seminal flows that emit from male bodies, reduced to a by-product of sexual pleasure rather than conceived as a manifestation of immanent materiality, and as something that is directed, linear and non-reciprocal, enables men to sustain the fantasy of the closed body and of the possibility of control over it. The socio-cultural and psychological dimension of Mackinnon’s (in)famous assertion about the power necessarily instantiated in heterosexual relations (‘Man fucks woman: subject verb object’ (Mackinnon, 1982: 541), this fantasy is a prerequisite for the maintenance of masculinity, and of the mastery – over women, over nature – that masculinity enables, or which is its prerogative.

To receive flow, or to be in position where there is a risk of flow in the other direction, is to be identified with the feminine (whether as woman, or as passive homosexual) and to lose the phallic advantage; to acknowledge the essential materiality of the body, that its flows are not merely by-products of the body but constitutive of it, is an admission that strikes at the heart of masculinity, at the security which is its privilege, and at the legitimacy of the hierarchised and gendered socio-economic order upon which its privileged status depends. Understood in these terms, it is unsurprising that it is women’s bodies (despite the relatively low risk of female to male sexual transmission) that are – within the discourse that frames the heterosexual HIV epidemic– characterised as the source of infection. As Grosz explains, this discourse is one that makes

… women, in line with the conventions and practices associated with contraceptive procedures, the guardians of the sexual fluids of both men and women. Men seem to refuse to believe that their body fluids are the ‘contaminants’. It must be women who are the contaminants. Yet, paradoxically, the distinction between a ‘clean’ woman and an ‘unclean’ one does not come from any presumption about the inherent polluting properties of the self-enclosure of female sexuality, as one might presume, but is a function of the quantity, and to a lesser extent the quality, of the men she has already been with. So she is in fact regarded as a kind of sponge or conduit of other men’s ‘dirt’. (Grosz, 1994: 197)

 Given Grosz’s analysis it is hardly unsurprising that the Centre for Disease Control in Greece had 1500 calls from concerned men once the story about the brothels broke. Far from accepting any responsibility they might have for having sex which carried the risk of STI and HIV infection, it was entirely to be expected that their concern was whether the women might have infected them, and that the legal response was to round up the women. Patriarchy is, after all, a Greek word.

The response of the Greek health Minister, Andreas Leverdos, prompted in part by a massive rise in HIV infections in Greece in recent months (954 new infections were reported in 2011, a 57 percent increase from the previous year), and also – surely – by the political value in deporting non-nationals at a time when Greece is in economic meltdown, was to suggest criminalizing unprotected sex in brothels. He is reported as saying,

 Let’s make this a crime. It’s not all the fault of the illegally procured woman, it’s 50 percent her fault and 50 percent that of the client, perhaps more because he is paying the money. 

On the face of it this response suggests some recognition of shared responsibility. However, it is a pipe-dream – I suggest – to imagine that doing this (even if it were politically viable, which I doubt) would have the effect of eradicating the deeply entrenched view that female sex workers are to blame for their clients ills; nor is criminalization of sexual behaviour that carries the risk of HIV infection a productive or constructive answer to anything. It would simply perpetuate the idea that punitive laws are an appropriate response to what is properly understood as a public health issue that should be addressed through wider awareness, education and an affirmation of the importance of taking care of, and respecting, ourselves and others.

(Reposted from Matthew Weait's own blog, 'The Times That Belong To Us' with kind permission. You can also follow Matthew on Twitter @ProfWetpaint)

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