By: Darby Kendall
This number unites the World Cup, the Super Bowl, the Olympics and countless other massive sporting events around the globe.
40,000: The widely- accepted estimate for the number of women trafficked during almost any major sporting event. This number is false.
The estimated statistic was originally given by the Association of German Cities for the 2006 World Cup in Berlin, Germany. It has since been applied to countless other large sporting events, even though the Association later renounced the number. Nine years later, the estimate seems to only grow in number as worries over sex trafficking become more publicized.
Gregory Mitchell, an assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Williams College, says this increase in attention is wasted on an issue that doesn’t have much hard data to justify the panic.“The numbers don’t add up. Economically it’s ludicrous, but it makes a really good statistic,” Mitchell says, “The 40,000 figure has taken on a strange life of its own… It just congealed into a known fact, even though it was not derived from a peer-reviewed academic study.”
A study conducted by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, “What’s the Cost of a Rumour,” states there were a total of five cases of sex trafficking directly linked to the 2006 World Cup. Although the actual number of trafficked victims was thousands below the estimated amount, severe actions were still taken in order to calm the panicked public. Efforts to pacify the scare over sex trafficking ended up harming sex workers who were there on their own volition, says Courtney Campbell, director of the film “Don’t Shout Too Loud,” a documentary about human trafficking and the 2010 World Cup.“We’ve seen that there’s an increase in law enforcement around these events, and so we often see more arrests of prostitutes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more prostitution going on,” he says. “It discourages more real and effective public conversations about prostitution, about sex workers and about trafficking.”
Mitchell agrees that the attention given to sex trafficking leading up to sporting events does result in more harm done to sex workers. “Essentially what happens is that in the name of trying to stop a human rights crisis, you actually end up creating harm for the women that you are supposedly trying to rescue,” Mitchell says.
As the issue gains traction in the media, radical feminists and conservative religious groups alike are brought to the same side. “They believe that no woman would ever choose to do prostitution, and as a result, all forms of prostitution are trafficking in their minds,” Campbell says. “They have made it their goal to get rid of prostitution, but it’s under the guise of human trafficking.”
One reason why sex trafficking strikes such a chord with these organizations is the ease of relating sports with masculinity, and in turn, masculinity with a desire for sex. “What’s the Cost of a Rumour” says these groups “claim that large groups of men results in an increased demand for paid sexual services, and that this demand will supposedly be met through the trafficking of women.” However, the exact opposite is true, according to Mitchell.“Yes, the soccer fans are young men and they want to party, and they want to get laid, but they don’t necessarily want to pay for it.” Mitchell says. “By and large, during the World Cup, the [sex workers] were disappointed.”
Rather than assuming that an increase in men leads to an increase in trafficking, and immediately believing the large estimates given on the subject, Campbell says the issue should be discussed and thought about critically.
“There are victims of sex trafficking, it’s just far less than predicted,” Campbell says. “Keep your mind open when you read headlines, and take it with a grain of salt.”