Joyce Arthur: Facts and fictions about sex trafficking and Vancouver's 2010 Olympics

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.




Jun 15, 2009 at 10:21pm

As a sex worker, I'd say this piece mostly rings true to me. Definitely the issue of sex trafficking seems to be exaggerated out of all proportion to reality these days. I think opponents of sex work have realized that the moralistic arguments don't carry as much weight as they used to, so now they try to keep us criminalized by scaring people with the bogeyman of trafficking, and pretending that they are interested in our welfare.

Happy Endings

Jun 16, 2009 at 9:15am

Check out Happy Endings? a documentary on Asian massage parlors in Rhode Island where prostitution is legal.
The trafficking issue is covered in this film as the legislation used trafficking issues to try to change the laws in RI to try to change the laws to make prostitution illegal in RI.

Joyce Arthur

Jun 16, 2009 at 9:54am

For more info on sex trafficking and the Olympics, there's a FIRST public forum tonight (Tue, Jun 16th), at the Central Library downtown (350 W. Georgia), downstairs in the Alma Van Dusen & Peter Kay rooms. Doors open 6:30, forum from 7-9pm.


Jun 24, 2009 at 8:46pm

"Most importantly, our focus must be on ensuring the safety and full human rights of sex workers before, during, and after the 2010 Games." strikes me as a very interesting choice of words. Sex workers safety? Yet their job is to put their bodies in the hands of a complete stranger literally. How much safety concerns for themselves do they have? If there was a healthy concern would they not have a safe place and strong arms to hold them instead of a broken down place and insecure men? Please let those who want to help, help. Not by staying out of your business but by creating new opportunities but we NEED truth to find justice.


Jun 25, 2009 at 6:37pm

I'm wondering if someone would be able to give me some more information on the credibility of the 150 page report that this article references.

Could the fact that the writer references an academic report written by this person's own allies, where the people interviewed and articles referenced were hand-selected for the purposes of proving a pre-existing opinion cause the report to be biased and, therefore, far less credible?

Could a group of people supporting the Nordic Model of Law not create a 150 page report with opposite findings if they were to hand-select their material for the purposes of legitimizing a pre-existing opinion?

I went to hear the dialogue hosted by FIRST on June 16, and couldn't find a point that all three panel speakers were standing in solidarity on (in their speeches) besides the fact that the current laws and law enforcement strategies are failing the women their meant to protect. Is this not something that those advocating for the Nordic Model agree on?

Where are the statistics supporting full decriminalization. If they're out there, I would love to have access to them. If someone could post some credible, objective material to look at that points towards full decriminalization, please post it as a comment.


Jul 11, 2009 at 6:17am

Dr. Frances Shaver at Concordia has done some work on decrim, here a few links (all from the same presentation):

PIVOT's report based on input from DTES sex workers:

An article on Queensland's experiences with decrim (pg. 16)

Sex workers' critique of Swedish policy (it's not study results but it's input from the group that's most impacted by legislative approaches to sex work):

Dr. Gillian Abel at the University of Otago in New Zealand has done some work around decrim in New Zealand - sorry no links, I couldn't access her academic articles.


Jul 29, 2009 at 11:19am

jessica -- Have you read the New Zealand government report of 2008, issued five years after they decriminalized the sex business there? Their situation prior to decriminalization was very similar to Canada at present. The report appears to be objective and the result of exhaustive research and monitoring. While it acknowledges decriminalization is not a panacea, it certainly appears to have been an improvement, and demonstrates that the fear-mongering from the prohibitionists was groundless. The report is available online.

And here is a short article about the report.


Aug 5, 2009 at 10:34am

Here's a few more resources on various legislative approaches:

Criminalisation: the price women & children pay. A response to the government’s review of the prostitution laws, presented at the Conference No Bad Women, No Bad Children, Just Bad Laws, London 4 December 2004

The John School: A Diversion From What's Needed

'Sex ban puts us at greater risk'

'Sweden has not made it safer for women'


Aug 20, 2009 at 9:07pm

We need to stop the trafficking of humans and should start here in YVR. Where can I find factual info about people trafficking?

Shona Stewart

Nov 17, 2009 at 8:36am

As a former sex trade worker, I would like to give some of my experiences to respond to some of the comments here. The RCMP can not give any stats out on this issue because it is an underground criminal activity. The ones who have been trafficked don't come out of the woodwork to say "hey I have been trafficked" but the massage parlor I worked in definately had women from Asian who did not speak English and were kept away from me as a white woman at work there. Don't tell me not one of them that had been brought here against their own free will. I do not beleive there will not be many more brought in to fulfill man's desires for sex during the Olympics, this would be ignorance. Yes many women will come to Vancouver for sex work during the Olympics as I did when I worked. Sex trade workers migrate to cities where big events happen to make the most money. I was lucky most of the time I had no pimp and went from city to city. But I was once taken off the stroll in Vancouver and taken to the USA. I have been coereced into doing the circut in major cities to make the most for my pimp. This is a reality. When I worked I thought I was empowered and in control but after 17 years in the business and too many bad dates I saw differently. I have since gone on to become a counselor for sex trade workers and they too wanted out after enough crap happens. I have moved on from that job and been teaching ESL to refugees and immigrants and they have stories of being sexually exploited, trafficked, and raped. It is a dangerous trade for the most part but even if you work indoors or outdoors it effects your emotional, physical, mental, spiritual componants as a human being. If you look at the paradigm of the Aboriginal medicine wheel and how sex work negatively effects the areas in the medicine wheel. It looks at the wholistic aspect of a human being. Ask some of the pschologists or psychiatrists if this is true. I know have started a non-profit to help women who want to exit the trade whether they were trafficked inot or chose to be in the business but want out. Contact me at for more info. And yes it's a faith based organization who love all peoples just as Jesus did.