This article was originally published on VICE Sports France
There's a story that seems to do the rounds ahead of every major international football tournament. Apparently, it's a matter of fact that the arrival of foreign fans en masse leads to an increase in prostitution for host cities. Ahead of Euro 2016 in France, the country's 'High Council for Equality Between Women and Men' ("Haut Conseil à l'Egalité entre les femmes et les homes" or HCE) were the first to go on the offensive.
On 21 April, the HCE – whose mission is "to work in tandem with civil society and encourage public debate on policies regarding women's rights and equality" – published a report that called for Euro 2016 to be free from sexism and sexual violence, before backing measures "to stop wide-scale prostitution."
It went on to say: "Previous large sporting events have shown that some [fans] are regular or occasional clients of prostitutes, and younger ones will start visiting them during these events as they think partying justifies all these excesses. Prostitution networks are able to anticipate this well in advance of these sporting events, and will make huge profits and conduct worldwide human trafficking (the large majority of these people will be women from poor countries)."
The HCE subsequently called upon public powers to "make it known during Euro 2016 that being a client of a prostitute is now a crime in France". This refers to the law adopted by the French Parliament at the beginning of April, which makes paying for sex punishable by a fine of €1,500.
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The link between football tournaments and prostitution is a recent phenomenon. In fact, we're celebrating the 10th anniversary of the moment when the public really latched on to the idea. It happened during the 2006 World Cup in Germany – and the media had an absolute field day. French newspaper Le Monde asked, "Will this 18th World Cup beat all the records for soliciting?" The opening of huge brothels was now supposedly satisfying a whole host of fantasies in a country that had legalised prostitution just four years beforehand.
Ultimately, the New York Times reported that these brothels were far from crowded. In a report about the "sex club" Artemis in central Berlin, it was confirmed that there had been no upturn in business during the tournament. One reason for this, according to a woman working as a prostitute, was that sporting events such as the World Cup are attended by groups of foreigners, sometimes with families, making it tricky to fit in such a private activity. "It's difficult to say to your friends, 'I'm going to leave you now and go to a brothel for 20 minutes.' That's not normal behaviour," explains Stephanie Klee, who works as a prostitute and heads a lobby for sex workers' rights.
Four years later, with South Africa now acting as host, it was the same unsubstantiated story. The announcement that a billion condoms were being brought into the country – along with 40,000 so-called "sex slaves" – left people confused between football fans and full-blown sex tourists. Once more, appeals from various associations and reports from media channels left the World Cup heavily associated with selling sex.
After the tournament, the United Nations Population Fund published an extremely in-depth study on the impact the 2010 World Cup had on prostitution in South Africa. On the front page, one sex worker is quoted as saying, "Maybe it will be better once the World Cup has passed…" and the main conclusion was that "there was no significant rise in the amount of clients that prostitutes saw during the World Cup."
Researcher Marlise Richter of the African Centre for Migration and Society was one of the people behind the study. After interviewing 1,800 sex workers she made the following observation, which was re-printed in the Spanish magazine, Libero: "Before, during and after the World Cup, prostitutes had an average of 12 clients per week, with a maximum of 5-7% of their clientele hoping to have sexual relations without a condom, and the service cost around 13 dollars. Only 1 or 2% of prostitutes came from outside the town. The main difference, also found in Germany, was the fact that sex workers felt more pressure from police."
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"Repeat a lie and it will become the truth," Morgane Merteuil, spokesperson for France's Union of Sex Workers ("Syndicat du Travail Sexuel" or STRASS) told VICE Sports. "It's a huge myth that is trotted out every time, and it's a fabrication."
What she has actually observed is "a rise in the repression of prostitutes in the build-up to these big events," something Richter also noted. For example, at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2012 London Olympics, there were "police raids and searches. They want to clean up the city every time."
Reporting a month and a half ahead of the Euros, STRASS hadn't noticed anything abnormal in France. As for the networks that would supposedly "import" sex workers ahead of big sporting events, Merteuil says that, from her perspective, it's "absolute nonsense. These are the same myths that are being peddled about an expanding industry. There are networks, but they are not organised like that."
From her own personal experience, she has noticed that outside Paris, a match night means slow business: "We close at 10 because nobody comes in." While there is no rise in clients, Merteuil added that in the "Bois de Boulogne [area on the western border of Paris], some of my friends prefer not to work on match nights as we have seen an increase in violence."
Finally, she stated that it would be "quite logical" to assume that, given the number of fans coming to France in June, some will head to the red-light district after a game. But it's far from being the mass phenomenon that the associations fighting against prostitution would have us believe.
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It seems that the ideal time for these organisations to speak out against prostitution is in the run up to a major international football tournament, "to encourage public debate" as the HCE put it. You can also look to the Ukrainian feminist group, FEMEN. In 2012, they organised a topless demonstration in Kiev to protest against the alleged rise in sexual tourism that would take place during that summer's Euros, which was jointly hosted by Poland and Ukraine.
It is FEMEN's prerogative to speak on matters such as this, but is it fair to so closely link football fans with sex tourism? According to Nicolas Hourcade, a sociologist who specialises in studying football supporters, "the stereotypical image of a fan is someone who is a rough, chavvy chauvinist, which is the same stereotype of someone who will go to a prostitute. So I think that these deeply rooted stereotypes are the issue here." However, he added, "it's true that football fans are predominantly male, and there can be sexist behaviour within this group." He felt that the statement from the HCE was "dubious", particularly regarding sexual violence, "not so much in it questioning football, but because there are always going to be huge public gatherings." On the links between fans and prostitution, he believes that the statement was primarily trying to "remind people that paying for sexual relations is now illegal." But he was unsure of how many football fans actually visit prostitutes, "Of course, some fans will be clients of prostitutes. But I don't really know if their role [in prostitution] is more significant than that of the male population in general."
Are there studies that confirm this stereotype? We sought a response from the HCE as to what data they used to support their statement, but they are yet to provide any. Their spokesperson said that there were "published studies" that justified their stance, but also admitted that it is "always difficult to verify" who the clients of prostitutes are.
It would be interesting to see these studies, if only to contrast them with the many other reports that have come to a very different conclusion: that major international football tournaments have no impact on prostitution in the host country. Despite this, we're sure to hear the same story time and again.
Translated into English by Nick Roberts.