Stop this illicit trade in bullshit stories

Apparently 40,000 ‘hookers’ will be trafficked to South Africa for the World Cup. Where have we heard that story before?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

David Beckham might not be going to the World Cup in South Africa this year, but 40,000 hookers will be. That is literally what a headline on the NBC sports website claims: ‘40,000 hookers making their way to South Africa for World Cup.’ Other media outlets have been a bit more PC: ‘40,000 prostitutes to enter South Africa’, says the UK Daily Telegraph; ‘40,000 prostitutes bound for South Africa’, says the New York Daily News. Apparently many of these hookers will be trafficked into South Africa against their will, forced into a life of grimy prostitution for the satisfaction of drunken football fans.

It sounds scary. And also eerily familiar. Where have we heard that figure of ‘40,000 hookers/prostitutes/trafficked women’ before? That’s right, during the last World Cup, in Germany in 2006. In May 2006, a month before the World Cup kicked off, the UK Independent warned of ‘40,000 women being imported [to Germany] for the “use” of visiting fans’. It said the ‘combination of sport, booze and sex is a huge problem, encouraging degrading attitudes and sometimes actual violence towards women’. One British columnist said in May 2006 that ‘anything up to 40,000 extra sex workers are likely to be smuggled into [Germany] in the coming weeks’. We were told that inebriated footie fans would have sex with these ‘slave women’ in specially built ‘wooden performance boxes resembling toilets’.

There was only one problem with the alarming claims made in 2006: They were codswallop. Utterly unfounded. A big bag of nonsense. A study carried out by the Council of the European Union (CEU) and published in 2007 found: ‘There was no sign whatsoever of the alleged 40,000 prostitutes/forced prostitues – a figure repeatedly reported – who were to be brought to Germany for the 2006 World Cup.’ Far from 40,000 enslaved women trussed up in ‘sex sheds’, the CEU report said the German authorities, having spent millions of Euros and thousands of hours of police time on the lookout for trafficked women, found only five cases of ‘human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation’ in relation to the 2006 World Cup.

Yet now, four years later and on the other side of the world, we have the exact same headline-grabbing figure being spouted in relation to South Africa. During the 2006 World Cup, the figure of 40,000 seems to have orginiated with the American feminist group, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), though it’s unclear how they arrived at their – let’s be generous here – ‘estimation’. The figure of 40,000 trafficked women for this year’s World Cup seems to have originated, bizarrely, with South Africa’s Central Drug Authority (CDA), though again it’s unclear how they arrived at this super-neat, familiar number. Maybe they were browsing old editions of European newspapers from 2006, including Britain’s Independent and Guardian, and thought: ‘40,000 enslaved whores? If it can happen in Europe, it could definitely happen in Africa.’

I have a new theory about how these mad, bad and hysterical scare-numbers are arrived at. In recent years, every time there has been a major international sporting event, a motley crew of government officials, campaigning feminists, pliant journalists and NGOs have claimed that the movement of thousands of men to strange foreign countries where there will be lots of alcohol and horniness will result in the enslavement of women for the purposes of sexual pleasure. Obviously. And every time they have simply doubled the made-up scare figures from the last international sporting event, to make it look like this problem of sport/sex/slavery gets worse year on year.

So during the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, really the first time that a sporting event was almost ruined by hysterical official and radical scaremongering about a new ‘sex slave trade’, it was said there were 10,000 sex slaves. ‘During the 2000 Sydney Olympics, an estimated 10,000 women were imported [to Australia]’, says one study of the ‘new global sex trade’. In fact, while there is evidence that a few more, generally poor Australian women made a living as prostitutes during the 2000 Games, there is no hard evidence of any women having been ‘imported’ to Australia for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

And yet, when it came to the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, what did the scaremongers do? They simply doubled the figures, from 10,000 to 20,000. ‘As many as 20,000 people [will] be trafficked into Athens to work as prostitutes’, reports claimed. There will be an ‘anticipated increase of 20,000 forced prostitues’, warned feminist campaigners. In reality, the Greek authorities discovered only 181 instances of people having been trafficked into Greece for the whole of 2004, and not a single one of these instances was ‘trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation’ – the majority were foreign children being used as beggars or as labour in Greece, which means they were defined as having been trafficked. Twenty-thousand ‘forced prostitutes’? The Greek authorities found none.

And yet, what did the trafficking obsessives do when the German World Cup came round two years later? They doubled the figures again, from 20,000 to 40,000 (where in the real world the figures for trafficked prostitutes were zero for Greece and five for Germany). I guess we should be grateful that they have shown enormous restraint in relation to this year’s World Cup and have stuck with the 40,000 figure instead of doubling it to 80,000. Given how wrong they were during Sydney, Athens and Germany, why should we believe a single word they say about South Africa? Of course, South Africa is not Germany, and as a result of poverty and underdevelopment many African women and young people are forced to do jobs they would rather not do. But the idea that they are ‘enslaved’ is mad, and the idea that their misfortunes are caused by the arrival of apparently leering footie fans from the West is politically and historically illiterate and a distraction from any serious debate about development.

The sport-sex-slavery scare springs from officials’ and campaigners’ warped minds rather than from anything remotely resembling evidence. As an in-depth study by a Canadian research group discovered recently, ‘the commonly held notion of a link between mega sports events [and] tafficking in persons is an unsubstantiated assumption’. Profoundly this scare speaks to an elite fear of unpredictable movements across borders, of working-class male behaviour, and of Third World women being easily tricked into a life of sexual bondage. Already, for the London 2012 Olympics, the UK government is scaremongering about ‘international criminal gangs… tricking and abducting women from abroad and selling them for sex in London’, to use Harriet Harman’s hysterical words. How many forced hookers will they claim are arriving in London for 2012? Forty-thousand again? Or maybe they’ll double it to 80,000? Any advances on 80,000? Who’d like to take a bet on this perverted new sport?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. He is speaking at The Battle for Politics: A Pre-Election Public Summit, organised by the Institute of Ideas, in central London on Saturday 20 March 2010. For more informaton, click here.

Previously on spiked

Bruno Waterfield debunked scare stories about forced prostitution at the 2006 World Cup. Laura María Agustín told spiked that attempts to combat the sex industry have criminalised migrant workers. Brendan O’Neill saw the return of the ‘white-slavery’ scare in the furore around trafficking. Nathalie Rothschild criticised the promiscuous use of the term ‘trafficking’ and, in April 2009, found more evidence that trafficking is a myth. Or read more at spiked issue Immigration.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today