London Olympics: The sex-trafficking event that wasn’t

November 28, 2012

Media reports predicting that London would be overrun by women trafficked to Britain to service spectators with sex during the Olympics reinforced negative stereotypes and diminished the complexity of trafficking, an expert has said.

Georgina Perry, who manages Open Doors, a service for sex workers in London run by Britain’s National Health Service, said fears the Olympic Games would create a surge in sex trafficking were unfounded. The hype around this issue also drove vulnerable sex workers from health care services out of fear they would be treated as criminals, putting them at risk, she added.

Although London’s Met Police are investigating one case of trafficking for sexual exploitation linked to the Olympics, there was no rise in trafficking directly connected to the event, Laura Godman, a spokeswoman for the Met Police, said.

“It remains our duty and intent to prepare for any occasion which may instigate or facilitate trafficking,” Godman told TrustLaw. “Trafficking for sexual exploitation – or any other purpose – is difficult to measure, not only because of the way in which victims are trafficked and exploited but because quite often the victims do not realise that they are being trafficked, or that the life they have been coerced into is not normal.”

In October, Open Doors published a survey of 100 sex workers, which showed that 93 percent of them did not come to London specifically seeking Olympic trade and 58 percent of them reported having fewer customers during the Olympics.

In an interview with TrustLaw, Open Door’s Perry talked about sex trafficking and the myth that sporting events causes it to increase, among other topics.

Q: Why does every large sporting event become associated with stories about a sex trafficking influx?

A: Often police forces are allocated additional money to do something in relation to the potential influx of people who are going to be trafficked in regard to mega-sporting events. It’s about money and it’s about profile … (For example), many NGOs in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics used the idea as a way of raising alarm, raising the profile of their work, which is ostensibly usually around anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking — they tend to conflate the two.

Q: Who benefits from perpetuating the story?

A: The whole idea of trafficking internationally is definitely a repugnant one. The idea that people are victimised, abused, coerced, held against their will, financially exploited, sexually exploited – all of those things are absolutely repugnant, but a complex thing to do something about because trafficking reflects so many global and geopolitical issues. It reflects globalisation – the desire for people to move and seek a better life. It reflects poverty in-country due to corruption, due to in-country recession. It reflects a lack of migration opportunities … Promoting the idea that mega-sporting events prompt the movement and trafficking of individuals, particularly sex trafficking because it plays into a whole stereotype of who sports fans are – sex mad, rampant sports fans who are not indeed there for the sport, they are there to buy sex, have lots of sex, which is quite unfounded in terms of what we know about human behaviour – (is) most odd.

Q: Why do the two get confused?

A: Trafficking and prostitution always get conflated, purposefully in my opinion, and evidentially-so because if you talk about people coming to work in the sex industry of their own volition, it upsets an awful lot of people who have moral problems with anybody selling sex.

It’s a very gendered argument because they always have this discourse around trafficking and prostitution in relation to women. They don’t actually ever think of it in terms of men or transsexuals so it is a very gendered perspective.

We are quite legitimately able to say that we see very few trafficking victims in the sex industry. They (critics) conflate the two because it adds weight to their argument that everybody working in the sex industry is exploited, is coerced, is there against their will … I think it’s a ruse used by the moral majority to try to control adult sexual behaviour.

Q: How are you helping the people who come to your service?

A: Most of the time … it’s about support to access clinics, free sexual health services, termination of pregnancies, access to things like housing, drug treatment … It may also be that women are depressed … so we also support them with counselling. It may be that somebody comes to us because they’ve experienced violence, rape, sexual assault in which case we would work with them and support them to press charges if that’s what they want to do.

It may be – and this is usually quite rare – but it does happen that women say, ‘What I need is help to get out of this’. It’s rarer for us to meet women like that in the off-street sector. The women who sell sex off-street are usually here for a short amount of time … They are building up a nest egg. Then they are going home to their home country because most women who are off-street are migrants.

Our street women are very, very different. They’re usually involved in the sex industry because their life has broken down massively. (They have) serious mental health problems, they’re homeless, their (state-funded social) benefits have dropped, they’ve got drug and alcohol problems … What they very often want is help to stabilise their lives, and then help to move from that point to making safer choices. It’s not safe standing on a street corner at four o’clock in the morning when you’re off your head on drugs and alcohol.

Q: So what are some of the real issues you are confronting?

A: The biggest issue for us … is around safety and this takes me back to the London Olympics because such was the hysteria around the need to … target prostitutes to get them away from London. Of course sex workers didn’t just go away, they simply just went elsewhere, where there were no services. It meant that if they were robbed or raped or assaulted, unlike anybody else who was robbed or raped or assaulted, they couldn’t call the police because they were too fearful that the police would start to investigate them as the criminals rather than investigate the actual crimes that have been perpetrated against women.

This article is part of a Thomson Reuters Foundation special report on trafficking and modern day slavery.

Trafficking and modern day slavery will be high on the agenda at the Trust Women conference, Dec 4-5

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