Friday 8 June 2012

London 2012: Will the Olympics bring more prostitutes?

It's a well-known rule in journalism that if the headline asks a question, the answer is invariably "no". So to see the question above on this blog will probably not surprise you.

What might surprise you is to learn it was also the headline of a prominently-featured article on the BBC website yesterday. Of course, as is the current fad, when they say "prostitutes" they mean "trafficking", and vice-versa.

It's been long known that there is no connection between major international sporting events such as the Olympics, the World Cup, and sex trafficking. But don't take my word for it. Take the word of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who hosted a meeting on this very topic earlier this year. Take the word of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, who produced a must-read report (pdf) on the actual effects of sports events on human trafficking. Go check out Laura Agustin's excellent summary too.

The facts:
• 2010 World Cup, South Africa: the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development did not find a single case of trafficking over the Olympics time period.

• 2010 Olympics, Canada: no evidence of trafficking and sex workers reported a fall in business.

• 2006 World Cup, Germany: 33 cases were referred to the police for further investigation, out of which 5 cases were confirmed to be trafficking (4 women and 1 man). No other cases were found, despite the fact that the police conducted 71 brothel raids (these raids did not identify the 5 confirmed trafficking cases, but did lead to 10 deportations).

• 2004 Olympics, Greece: When trafficking statistics were compared for all of 2004 with all of 2003, there was an increase of 181 trafficking cases (which is a 90% increase). According to both the police and the International Organization for Migration, none of these cases were linked to the Olympics.

• Super Bowls in the USA in 2008-2011: Although law enforcement increased, they made no additional arrests for sex work-related offences during this time.
You might be wondering, and it is a good question, why there isn't sex trafficking during these events. The answer is simple. Criminals may be criminals, but organised crime does not exist for the purpose of being evil. It exists to make loads of tax-free dosh. Does it make financial sense for sex trafficking to occur at these events? With London rents skyrocketing around the venues, with the Home Office plans to tighten border security, with the police already well misinformed about the magnitude of the trafficking problem, you'd have to be mad to pursue this as a business plan.

There was perhaps a time, back in the 90s, when sex trafficking in some parts of Eastern Europe might have netted you some cash if you already had the distribution network, but it's not the case now. Add to that a large proportion of the UK native population willing and legally able to exchange money for sex and you'd be laughed out of Dragon's Den for even suggesting it as a goer. I've met a lot of dodgy characters in my day - drug dealers and worse besides - and to a person they were not in it to lose money. In many cases the black marketeers I know were actually better businesspeople than anyone in legit trading.

In spite of all this, we are still treated - almost daily now in the run-up to London 2012 - with the same old guff such as stories that sex trafficking 'almost doubled' during the Athens Olympics.

In this particular case, 'almost doubled' means that the number of reported incidents was 181, a 90% increase over the previous year. So yes, they did 'almost double'.

However if you too are underwhelmed by that number, it's with good reason. Applying all the usual disclaimers - any instance of forced sex trafficking is abhorrent and should be prosecuted vigorously, this is an argument about best use of police time, tax money and other resources - what does the reported change from just-shy-of-100 people to 181 actually represent?

Prostitution is legal and regulated in Greece, however, not everyone works legally and not everyone registers, because hello, do you want your name on the Greek government's hooker list? Probably not. Anyway, estimates put the number at about 1,000 legal prostitutes and 20,000 illegal ones. Given that these numbers are the ones put about by the US State Department which does not have a great track record on accuracy, it's a little suspect. But let's say for the sake of saying that represents some kind of starting ballpark figure and probably even an overestimate. The 21,000 total gives us about 1 in every 250 women in Greece working as a prostitute - actually a realistic enough proportion for Europe.

In the year before the Athens Olympics, the reports of sex trafficking at 95 represented 0.45% of all prostitution in Greece. And after the Olympics? 0.86%. Less than 1% of prostitutes in Greece were trafficked both before and after the Olympics.

There is no particular evidence, statistical or otherwise, to suggest that the fluctuation in this rather small number was due to the Olympics per se. In fact it is certainly within the bounds of what we call the 'law of small numbers' which dictates that they can and do fluctuate in a way that represents a high percentage of the values themselves, but given the rarity of the events involved, this is expected and not necessarily significant.

Here's an example. Let's say in the year 2008, there was 1 death in all of Scotland from a vending machine falling on someone. Then let's say a year later, in 2009, there were 2 such deaths. While it would be technically true to say that the number of vending machine accidental deaths 'doubled', is this a fair representation of the data? Is this a significant trend that is likely to continue? (Which would mean that by 2032, there would be 8.38 million such deaths in Scotland, or approximately... er, 150% of the population). No, obviously not. The change from 1 to 2 in a given year seems clearly attributable to chance. You'd be silly to conclude the change from one small number to another "means" very much without a lot of additional evidence.

If you've read my paper on the effects of lap dancing on sexual violence in London, you'll already be aware of how over time these small numbers fluctuate wildly. For context, the UNHCR's site shows US State Department's figures giving the number of trafficked persons for Greece as 137 in 2005, 83 in 2006, 100 in 2007, 162 in 2008, 125 in 2009, 92 in 2010.

Now if these things had no knock-on effect, and if police resources and tax money were infinite, then sure, why not go after human trafficking even if it's only a very tiny proportion of all sex work in Greece - or in the more immediate case, London? But alas, it is not a matter of infinite police time and tax money. And it is definitely not a matter of no knock-on effects.

According to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, "Police crackdowns and brothel closures tend to displace sex workers from flats and saunas to less safe work venues, including the street, and make them wary of all authorities so they are less likely to access services or to report episodes of violence or crime to the police."

Given that the anti-sex lobby are so dead keen to keep claiming that all sex workers are inevitably the victims of violent and sex crimes, that seems like it's going to affect a hell of a lot more than a couple hundred people, no? Why does a small number of people matter to them more than a potentially far larger pool of people? Is it because that's where the grant money and column inches are at? Is it because they're more interested in punishing consensual sex workers?

Not only is this increased danger the outcome in previous incidents of trafficking panic, it's happening right now in London. The Moratorium 2012 campaign, organised by x:talk, confirms:

Stop the Arrests Campaign is aware of ‘clean up efforts’ already underway in London, particularly east London, in the run-up to the Olympics ... Last December in Barking and Dagenham a violent gang carried out a series of robberies on brothels at knife point. Sex workers were deterred from pursuing the attacks after police threatened them with prosecution. Thus many more were attacked and one woman was raped.
Got that? Send the police after non-existent sex trafficking, and they end up cracking down on non-trafficked sex workers. When that happens, people in sex work are put in more danger. No one is made safer by doing this. No one is saved. Moratorium 2012 is calling on an end to the pointless and dangerous harassment. Please, sign the petition.