By Joyce Arthur
With the 2010 Winter Olympic Games only seven months away, there is growing speculation that trafficking in women will increase significantly in Vancouver. A major new report lays these fears to rest by debunking the alleged link between a boom in sex trafficking and large sporting events.
The great majority of sex workers are not trafficked or controlled by “pimps”. Most are in business for themselves or work through an agency, and most work indoors, not on the street where it’s far more dangerous. Conflating trafficking with sex work is wrong and, worse, can mask the real issues of violence and exploitation that occur within both trafficking and sex work. For example, trafficking victims in other economic sectors, such as construction or farm work, are ignored in the moral panic over sex trafficking.
Sex trafficking is a serious crime, but a wide range of factors makes it difficult to prevent or detect. Global estimates of trafficking victims are often no better than “guesstimates” and can be grossly over-inflated, especially prior to large sporting events. An estimated 40,000 forced prostitutes were expected in Germany for the 2006 World Cup, but they failed to show up. About 20,000 forced prostitutes were anticipated for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, but only 181 trafficked persons were actually reported in Greece for all of 2004.
Sex workers have the same right to travel and migrate as anyone else, but when they are wrongly labeled as trafficking victims, it leads to extreme human rights violations. In many countries—including Canada—this means violent raids of brothels, and the harassment, criminalization, detention, and deportation of sex workers, most of whom are voluntary workers. A huge concern is that misguided enforcement campaigns take place with no input from affected groups, including sex-worker groups, trafficked persons, migrant workers, unions, and relevant labour sectors.
The tendency to focus on international trafficking also means that domestic trafficking is given short shrift. But forced migration from rural areas of Canada to the cities is an enormous problem for aboriginal women and girls, who live with a devastating legacy from colonialism and forced assimilation. According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, many “are driven into domestic trafficking as a result by poverty and conditions on the reserve, sometimes by conditions of abuse”.
The RCMP estimates that “600 women and children are trafficked into Canada each year for the purpose of sexual exploitation” (SIWSAG report). Anti-trafficking initiatives are critically important, but grossly inflating the level of trafficking and treating all female sex workers as trafficked victims does nothing to improve their safety—it only exacerbates their stigma and marginalization.
We must involve affected stakeholders and apply an evidence-based approach to prevent trafficking, rather than misrepresent the issues with scare-mongering, sexist rhetoric. Most importantly, our focus must be on ensuring the safety and full human rights of sex workers before, during, and after the 2010 Games.
Joyce Arthur is a cofounder of FIRST, a feminist group advocating for the rights of sex workers and for the decriminalization of prostitution.