It started with a number. One morning several years ago, Dr Nivedita Prasad from Berlin’s Ban Ying Coordination and Counselling Centre against Trafficking in Persons opened a newspaper and panicked: a news report claimed that 40,000 ‘forced prostitutes’ were coming to Germany for the 2006 Football World Cup. ‘I thought, where are we going to put 40,000 people?’ Prasad recalls. ‘There are eight beds in our shelter, and only about 400 in the whole of Berlin!’
She needn’t have worried, since it turned out that 40,000 was a fictitious number. What was worrying, however, was the response: 71 police raids in brothels during the football month, compared to 5 to10 a month in ‘normal’ times. They resulted in 10 deportations of undocumented (migrant, not trafficked) sex workers. Nobody counted psychological damage.
Such enormous discrepancies between what’s predicted and what actually happens have reoccurred during major international sporting events, from the 2004 Olympics in Greece, where no trafficking cases related to the event were found despite fears of ‘sex tourism’, through Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics, the US Super Bowl and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa – where only a tiny increase in paid sex supply was observed.
It seems that in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, London is next in line. On a mission to find trafficked women, intensified police activity – crackdowns on brothels, frequent raids – in the capital’s six Olympic boroughs is creating climate of fear among sex workers, says Georgina Perry from Open Doors, an NHS outreach and clinical support for sex workers initiative. Marginalized, sex workers are also cut off from essential health and support services: raids lead to displacement – from a flat to the street – which makes it impossible for health workers to assist them. This crackdown strategy drives business underground, making it more dangerous for women, and they are also less likely to report rape or other forms of violence to the police. ‘This is collateral damage of a rumour,’ Perry says.
That rumour claims that big sporting events attract multitudes of men who seek paid sex, the increasing demand of which is supposedly met by trafficking. But governmental institution after institution, NGO after NGO, consistently don’t find any link between sports events and trafficking for prostitution. South Africa’s Department of Justice and Constitutional Development found no cases of trafficking during the 2010 World Cup; five were found in Germany during the 2006 World Cup (less than its monthly average); police didn’t notice anything ‘out of the ordinary’ during recent US Super Bowls. In fact, many sex workers actually take a break during such events. ‘I’m going on holiday,’ an experienced sex worker told Prasad before the World Cup. ‘Business is going to be bad.’
That’s because short-term events are not profitable for traffickers, Julie Ham argues in her report ‘What’s the cost of a rumour?’ Given increased police presence during sporting events and the fact that local markets usually meet the demand for paid sex anyway, criminal effort simply wouldn’t pay off. But despite all the evidence that there is no evidence, the rumour resurfaces over and over again. Why?
Ironically, it partly comes down to good intentions: media attention provides charities with a good opportunity for more successful fundraising and a good moment to push politicians to ‘do something’ about trafficking. But more sinister elements are at work, too: moral panic helps justify social control measures such as anti-immigration and anti-prostitution. Portraying women as helpless victims who need to be ‘saved’ from ‘wicked men’ upholds common sexist philosophy and maintains hetero-normative attitudes that prevail in our society: surely, the World Cup is a devilish alcohol-and-paid-sex feast for men-turned-beasts, is it not? And the only women present at sporting events are sex workers, right?
This doesn’t mean that trafficking should be written off as a problem solved – far from it. To challenge the alleged link between sporting events and trafficking is not to downplay the very serious issue of human trafficking but rather to see the wider picture, says Joanna Busza, senior lecturer in sexual and reproductive health. The worst is that, apart from harassing sex workers, the rumour results in diversion of much needed resources to deal with the real – not imagined – problems: prevention of human trafficking and rights of women as women, as sex workers and as migrants. Anti-trafficking efforts must be ‘proportionate, sustainable, evidence-based, cognizant of other sectors in which trafficking occurs, and done in consultation with groups affected by trafficking,’ Ham writes in her report. And certainly not only short-term.
Things can be different at London 2012 if priorities are shifted from sensationalism to consistent tackling of the root issues. As Catherine Stephens of the International Union of Sex Workers says, the rumour gets so much media attention because it involves four crucial elements: money, power, gender and sex. Mainstream media knows that all this sells, but remember: it only sells because we buy it.