Vilifing sex workers in the run up to major events is neither a helpful nor effective strategy, writes Georgina Perry
Next summer Glasgow is hosting the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the city is preparing to welcome hundreds of world class athletes and tens of thousands of spectators.
While Glasgow can look forward to an increase in tourism and raising its profile, organisers have to consider the potential risks and downsides to the influx of visitors to the streets. Strategies and contingencies to cope with transport or logistical headaches will be high on the minds of the Games’ organisers and worst case scenarios like combating the threat of terrorism will also have to be factored in.
And if history is any guide, the Games will be primed with an orgy of speculation in the popular media on the looming takeover of the city by scores of prostitutes who travel between mega-sporting events the world over and who next summer will be making their fortunes in a city gone sport and sex mad for two weeks. On the face of it this may sound like a gross exaggeration but far from it –we can expect bigger and more colourful fantasies to bleed off the media headlines as the opening ceremony draws nearer in 2014.
It now seems that no large-scale sporting event would be the same without the associated obsession of huge crowds of sweaty men and their seemingly insatiable demand for sex.
Ahead of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, some 40,000 sex workers were said to be heading to the country, if you believed both the US Congress and a senior Vatican Archbishop. The same number of sex workers were said to be heading to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. There appeared to be few explanations of how this figure was reached and on what evidence. Experts looking at the issue of sex work at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver questioned the lack of evidence.
The run-up to London 2012 was similarly ripe for unfounded speculation with dramatic headlines like “Vice girls hope to strike gold” peppering the daily press. Well, no gold was struck, far from it. So this much is clear: the evidence actually tells us that when it comes to sex work and sport, the media (and many opportunistic politicians along for the ride) get it wrong every time. It would not be the first time and no doubt many of us can think of issues where storms in teacups have somehow brewed big for a nanosecond before fading away for the myth that they are.
But getting it wrong is only the beginning of the problem. Slanted reporting has in a number of cases resulted in some groups calling for tougher policing measures on the pretext that certain neighbourhoods are going to look like urban brothels in the lead up to and during sporting events. Look at the London Games. Brothels were closed down and there were increased arrest rates of sex workers. This, despite the Olympic Minister Tessa Jowell warning: “The evidence from previous Games is mixed and we mustn’t create a problem where there isn’t one.”
And the biggest problem is the one we have always had the most evidence for but it is the least important in the eyes of so many law enforcers and their political backers: that increased restrictions on sex workers increase the risks to the women involved. This surely should be reason enough to avoid the same media beat-up we endured in London last year, learn the lessons and protect those Glasgow sex workers who live and work in the city – not vilify them on the basis of myths and fear mongering.
Our study of 102 women in East London over the period of the 2012 Olympics confirmed the myth of increased sex work during The Games:
86 women out of the 102 agreed with the statement: “I was working as a sex worker before the Olympics”. Only seven women agreed with the statement: “I’ve come here to sex work during the Olympics”. 59 agreed with the statement: “I have had fewer customers”.
Explicit throughout the London experience was the media’s portrayal of sex work and human trafficking as one and the same thing. Trafficking is a crime that requires punishing the gangs caught trafficking. Sex workers who have made a voluntary choice to go into the profession will not be deterred by legal constraints and require an approach based on reducing harm.
Prohibiting sex work as an anti-trafficking measure is simply not effective.
We need to apply the same approach that so many of our colleagues have applied to their own respective fields over the years – that evidence needs to drive policy making and ultimately inform public opinion.
The organisers of Glasgow 2014 have often talked about learning lessons from London 2012 – when it comes to ticket allocation and prices. They’d do well to contemplate the evidence and add sex work into that mix.
• Georgina Perry is the service manager at Open Doors, a free and confidential advice service in East London for people working in the sex industry. She will be speaking about HIV in urban areas at the City Health Conference organised by Turning Point Scotland and SCVO at the Glasgow Science Centre on 4-5 November