Sex work, trafficking and the Olympics: the case for a moratorium

// 23 May 2012

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Stop the Arrests Campaign, a coalition of sex worker rights activists and supporters, is calling for a moratorium on arrests, detention and deportation of sex workers in London with immediate effect until the end of the Olympic Games.


Prior to the Olympics run up in London it was clear that anti-trafficking laws and policies were resulting in brothel raids, closures and arbitrary arrests, detention and deportation of people working in the sex industry. For many sex workers these laws have dire consequences. Such policing creates a climate of fear among workers, leaving them less likely to report crimes against them – including violence and exploitation in the industry – and more vulnerable to abuse.

A series of violent robberies on brothels by a gang in December in Barking and Dagenham demonstrates the effect that this climate of fear can have on the safety of sex workers. After a violent gang carried out a series of robberies on brothels at knifepoint, sex workers were deterred from pursuing the attacks

after police threatened them with prosecution. Many more were subsequently attacked and one woman was raped. Once the police agreed to an amnesty from arrest, sex workers were able to come forward.

In 2006 a meme emerged suggesting that along with major sporting events comes a huge increase in trafficking of women for sexual slavery. The government, charity organisations and campaign groups have gone along with this, arguing that large sporting events lead to an increase in trafficking for prostitution. Such claims, often repeated by the media, are usually based on misinformation, poor data and a tendency to sensationalise.

Pressure groups cite the football World Cups in Germany and South Africa as evidence. Yet the claim that 40,000 women were trafficked into Germany in 2006 has been refuted by reports by the International Organisation for Migration, as well as by the Global Alliance Against Trafficking of Women. South African sex workers even noted a slump in demand during the World Cup, stating that they were disappointed that customers were “more concerned about football than in sex.”

Lobbying groups, including charities and non-governmental organisations have sprung up in London – many of which have no prior knowledge of the sex industry or experience of working with sex workers – citing this purported link and demanding measures such as increased law enforcement (policing) of sex work and a ban on advertising sexual services.

Nonetheless, there is no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution but the myth has reverberated throughout the media, activist circles and it now shaping policing policy in London in the shadow of the Olympics, displacing sex workers and endangering their safety.

We are aware of “clean up efforts” underway in London, particularly East London, in the run up to the Olympics. These include multiple raids and closure of premises. We anticipate that until the end of the Olympic games there will be a continued rise in the numbers of raids, arrests, deportations and level of harassment of sex workers.

Police have intensified raids on sex work premises, which have been ten times higher in the five Olympic boroughs than the rest of the city’s boroughs. This, the claim goes, is unrelated to the Olympics. But there have been 80 brothels shut down in Newham in 18 months and over seventy arrests in Tower Hamlets and Newham since the beginning of 2012. These arrest levels already exceed the total number for 2011.

The closure of brothels and flats leaves sex workers without premises from which to work, often forcing them onto the street, where they are more likely to be heavily policed, attacked or assaulted. This is militarised spatial and social cleansing in the shadow of the Olympic stadium. Yet it is women’s safety and the desire to eliminate trafficking that is the narrative through which this aggressive agenda is being played out.

It is in this context that the Stop the Arrests Campaign is calling for a moratorium on arrests, detention and deportation of sex workers in London with immediate effect until the end of the Olympic Games. What this means is that we want the Mayor of London and London Metropolitan police, in co-operation with the UK Border Agency to

1. Suspend offences that refer directly to sex workers: soliciting and prosecution for working collectively under brothel keeping laws

2. Suspend arrests of sex workers, administrative detainment and/or deportation, during the enforcement of offences relating to third parties, namely causing, inciting or controlling for gain.

3. Suspend the closure of premises through the use of closure orders and notices.

Go to the Stop the Arrests site to learn more about the campaign, read the open letter that will shortly be sent to the Mayor and sign the petition.

Frontpage picture shows the Olympic rings display at St Pancras Station. By Clogsilk and shared under a creative commons licence.

Picture in post provided by the Stop the Arrests site. This shows five condoms in the same colours of blue, black, red, yellow and green, merged together like the Olympic rings symbol. “Stop the arrests.” is written in the top left corner and the site address ( is at the bottom, towards the right.

Moderator’s note: Thanks to Pippa for alerting me to the dead link to the What’s the Cost of a Rumor? report from The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. This is now fixed.

Comments From You

sian norris // Posted 24 May 2012 at 9:01 am

thanks for this.

I think it’s important that we talk more about how women in the so called sex industry are persecuted and prosecuted. There is sometimes an accusation that feminists like myself who oppose the sex industry somehow agree with these arrests and the prosecution of women in the industry. I have had this accusation levelled against me and I think i speak for every feminist i know, on both sides of the argument, when i say that this is simply not the case. I am absolutely committed to the de-criminalisation of women in the sex industry. Perhaps where we differ is that I am in favour of criminalising the johns and pimps. I find the actions of the police in the run up to the Olympics incredibly troubling and i completely condemn any actions that make women feel they cannot safely report the violence committed against them, cannot safely seek help and support.

I hope that whilst feminists may differ on their views in regards to the sex industry, we are at least united in wanting to see this persecution of women end.

Jane Fae // Posted 24 May 2012 at 10:01 am

Having written on this for the F-Word previously…perhaps back when the Olympics was rather less front of mind…i am very pleased to see the issue being raised once more.

Pleased – albeit saddened by the need for this – because despite the fact that we know a lot more about the issue than we did, the political chicanery has, if anything, got a lot worse.

Let’s start by parking a couple of arguments. Both are ideological ones: around whether sex work should in any sense be supported, or is always to be condemned; second around the scale and nature of trafficking.

My own take is, has been, that while these will continue to be debated, where a proposed solution is clearly hurting women and doing no-one any good, then we should not be backing that solution – however much we take issue with the identified problem.

Thus, on sex work in general, there is consensus that some proportion of those involved are themselves victims. Therefore, supporting and helping those individuals out of sex work makes some sort of sense: imposing punitive sanctions, and creating a climate in which violence against women is unreportable – as the current policing approach in some areas leads to – is unacceptable.

Second is this enormous media myth around trafficking at big sporting events. That’s not at all the same debate as the scale and nature of trafficking in general. Because despite repeated claims by a number of agencies on the ground that the NEXT big sporting event will see an influx of tens of thousands of trafficked sex workers, they never seem to materialise.

In fact, they are unlikely to, for the simple fact that the economics don’t add up: its not a sensible business proposition for organised crime; and that is the conclusion i’ve heard from those working in the area as activists, from academics, and from the Met themselves.

Despite which, the Met is quite happy to accept half a million pounds that COULD be doing good somewhere in the system to ramp up their precautions against a problem they themselves acknowledge doesn’t exist. Sick? Yep.


Laura Agustín // Posted 24 May 2012 at 9:13 pm

Details on the absence of evidence showing a link between trafficking and big sporting events is listed on Stop the Arrests’s website. I copy it below, but for links go to

Three research projects have been conducted specifically to assess cases of trafficking associated with major sporting events after those events were over.

Germany: 2006 World Cup

SIDA/IOM report: The first significant attempt to assess whether women were trafficked (forced) to sell sex at a major sporting event was financed by the Swedish Development Agency (SIDA) and published by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Despite predictions that 40 000 women would be trafficked, only 5 cases of trafficking were found to be linked to the World Cup. Report published in 2006.

German government report: Subsequently, the German Federal Government produced a report for the Council of the European Union, finding no increase in cases of trafficking related to the World Cup. Report published in 2007.

South Africa: 2010 World Cup

Research was carried out by the Sex Work Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and the African Centre for for Migration & Society, commissioned by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). This investigation included a survey of local sex workers; no cases of trafficking were found associated with the World Cup. Report published in 2010.s

Other major sporting events have been speculated about: the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and several US Super Bowls. A report from GAATW (the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women) gathers together existing data. Many other reports deconstruct and debunk the idea that trafficking increases when major sporting events take place, but only the two on Germany and one on South Africa contain data gathered in the relevant places, after the events.

Laura Agustín

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