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

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.