Campaign to raise awareness of potential sex trafficking at 2010 Games

Anti-trafficking groups that include former prostitutes are launching a campaign to draw attention to what they say will be a huge demand for paid sex for thousands of men attending the 2010 Olympics.
The 2010 Winter Olympics are expected to attract thousands of spectators to Vancouver, raising concern that organized criminals may traffic women to keep up with demand for sex. ((Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press))

Anti-trafficking groups that include former prostitutes are launching a campaign to draw attention to what they say will be a huge demand for paid sex for thousands of men attending the 2010 Olympics.

Organizers of the "Buying Sex Is Not a Sport" campaign say large events such as the Olympic Games fuel the growing human trafficking industry that lures women into the sex trade.

Michelle Miller, who heads the group Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity (REED), said Thursday the campaign will involve a series of community forums to get people talking about why men buy sex and exploit women.

"We're doing this very strategically as a grassroots campaign, not as some sort of a mass-media campaign, so that we can really educate people and engage people in meaningful change in their community," she said.

The campaign will begin Friday, with representatives of a First Nations group discussing over-representation of aboriginal women in the sex trade, and ex-prostitutes who say Canada's laws should target the buying of sex as violence against women — the same as in Sweden.

Miller pointed to other sporting events, including the 2006 World Cup soccer championship in Germany, where the increase in demand for sex resulted in the construction of so-called sex huts or performance boxes for use by prostitutes who serviced male spectators attending the tournament.

While prostitution is legal in Germany, Miller said men buy sex when they congregate in large numbers and that will happen at the 2010 Games in Vancouver as organized criminals traffic women from other jurisdictions to keep up with demand.

"Any time that you have men who are travelling, so they're away from their social networks and they enjoy a degree of anonymity, they're more likely to purchase sex," she said.

"We see that with conventions, we see that with sporting events, and some of the women who are part of planning this campaign have actually been sold at sporting events."

Learn from Sweden

Miller said Canada needs to follow the example of Sweden, where a 1999 law prohibits prostitution by addressing it as violence against women, and sex-trade workers exiting the industry are offered support.

In 2002, Sweden also launched a massive public education campaign that raised awareness about prostitution and human trafficking.

Former sex worker Trisha Baptie, who will be speaking at the launch of the Vancouver campaign, said society has too often focused on the women involved in the sex trade while paying little attention to the johns, pimps and profiteers.

"It's violence against women," said Baptie, who left behind her life of standing on street corners eight years ago.

"You're not anti-sex if you're anti-prostitution," she said. "I am for the Swedish model of law, which criminalizes the demand and decriminalizes the women. So it focuses on the procuring, the pimping and the trafficking.

"The women are the victims. Leave them alone."

Need meaningful discussion

Jackie Lynne, a spokeswoman for the Aboriginal Women's Action Network, which is also participating in the campaign, said she's hoping people will start to discuss prostitution in a meaningful way that leads to change.

"I'm hoping that out of this will come a different view of the situation, that federally, ministers and legislators will begin to shift in their thinking,... that they will look at prostitution as a form of violence against women because really, truly, it is."

Kate Quinn, who runs the Prostitution Action and Awareness Foundation of Edmonton, said she commends the organizers of the Vancouver campaign in the lead-up to the Olympics because creating awareness about prostitution at the community level led to changes in her city.

"We've worked with community partners to continually raise awareness on the demand side," she said. "We've asked our police commission to focus on the exploiters, the perpetrators and the profiteers.

"It's too easy to point fingers either at the women standing on the street corners or the women in massage parlours and forget that there are men who are the other part of the equation."

Quinn, who has run a prostitution education program for johns since 1996 as a way to divert them from the court system, said the city erected "Report a John" signs around Edmonton after the community took action to stop the proliferation of the sex trade.