“40 000 prostitutes” – how rumours and lies become fact

I have been puzzled and annoyed by the ongoing repetition in our media, that 40 000 ‘prostitutes’ are set to be trafficked into South Africa ahead of the World Cup.

This figure is continually repeated (and in one instance, an anti-trafficking video featuring several South African soapie stars, inflated further to 100 000). This despite its being a complete fabrication, with no basis in fact, and no evidence available to substantiate it.

The exact same claims were made ahead of the World Cup in Germany — but afterwards, an investigation by the Council of the European Union (documents  5006/1/07 and 5008/7) found a grand total of just 5 cases of trafficking — yes, just 5.

The online publication Spiked, drew attention to this, way back in February 2007. This week, Spiked again takes a look at the ongoing circulation of these nonsense stories. Fascinatingly, the author, Brendan O’Neill, looks at how the imagined numbers have doubled every few years — starting with estimates of 10 000 sex slaves for the Australian Olympics, then 20 000 in Athens in 2004, 40 000 in Germany in 2006, and on to South Africa (80 000 anyone?).

It’s incredible — even when journalists have contradictory information at their disposal, this nonsense number gets repeated. A recent article on Independent Online is headlined “Thousands of Prostitutes for World Cup”, and repeats this statistic, this time apparently from the mouth of the deputy chair of South Africa’s Central Drug Authority (CDA). Never mind that later in the article, Johan Kruger, national project co-ordinator for trafficking at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, is quoted questioning these figures. Kruger says, “I’m not sure where that comes from”, and goes on to inform his audience that human trafficking actually DECREASED during the World Cup in Germany.

So where do the figures come from? Well, let’s look at what exactly David Bayever, the CDA deputy chair is actually supposed to have said. As reported by IOL, Bayever provides no evidence for this figure and indicates that he is passing on unubstantiated, second hand information. He says the CDA had been warned by the Durban Municipality of the possibility of huge inflows: “Someone informed the Durban municipality,” he says, “They got wind of it.” So — it’s not the CDA issuing these figures, not even Durban municipality. It’s just something somebody got wind of, and passed on. But now that Bayever has mentioned the 40 000, in subsequent reports suddenly it’s the authority of CDA that is now quoted as being the source of these figures.

Even more interestingly, the rumours speculate that these women are likely to be imported from Eastern Europe. Now surely any journalist or any reader with half a brain should realise this is nonsense. Given the price of sex on the streets of Hillbrow, how is any trafficker going to make a profit, after having to pay at great expense to import thousands of women covertly from Eastern Europe?

So how does this happen? How do rumours and lies get repeated so often that they take on the status of unquestioned fact? Nick Davies provides ample explanation in his  fascinating study of the problems bedeviling the British media, Flat Earth News. Davies provides a meticulously researched account of how journalism, supposedly the business of reporting the truth, has been “slowly subverted by the mass production of ignorance.”

Because of a range of factors – one being the dramatic reduction in the numbers of reporters in newsrooms – journalists have less and less time to try to dig out the truth. This has opened the media to manipulation by sophisticated armies of PR experts and government spin doctors. Of course, the Internet and social media make it all so much easier. That IOL article, for example, is doing the rounds on Facebook.

As part of the research for his book, Davies commissioned researchers from Cardiff University to extensively analyse every single news story put out by the five most prestigious and influential newspapers in the UK, over a two week period.

The findings are shocking — for instance, in stories that rely on a specific statement of fact, the researchers found that in 70% of cases, “the claimed fact passed into print without any corroboration at all.” This is in the so-called quality press — in this particular study, Davies didn’t even touch the tabloids!

Little wonder then that we are seeing this phenomenon at work in South Africa. Our news media are subject to exactly the same forces that are at play in Britain, and indeed, globally.

It places a huge burden on those of us who do have access to accurate and rigorous research, to ensure that we get our messages out clearly and effectively, so that public policy is not distorted by undiluted mis-information.

In the case of sex work, the unfounded hysteria about trafficking is diverting attention from the real issue — the need to ensure that the human rights, health and safety of sex workers in South Africa, and indeed in our neighbouring countries, are respected and protected.


16 responses to ““40 000 prostitutes” – how rumours and lies become fact

  1. Thanks for this. Clearly stated. Certainly highlights the creeping juniorisation and dumbing down of the SA newsroom. It’s infuriating that this is probably an unintended consequence, yet the suits and bean counters probably couldn’t care a damn.

  2. “It places a huge burden on those of us who do have access to accurate and rigorous research, to ensure that we get our messages out clearly and effectively, so that public policy is not distorted by undiluted mis-information.”

    I knew SOMEBODY had to have accurate and rigorous research somewhere! It’s certainly not as easy to find as the falsehoods that are circulated.

    The anti-trafficking propaganda is going pretty wild here in the US these days, as they are trying to pass stricter laws state-to-state, and I peruse all the various commercials and stuff and I notice they keep changing the age that a ‘prostituted woman’ starts —
    “they start as young as 15 –
    no 13! –
    no 12! –
    no 11!
    omg 11 year-olds! quick pass a law!”

    If they ever hit single digits, I’m hitting the booze.

  3. @FW, have a look at this excellent piece written by Chandre Gould and Marlise Richter, debunking some of the wild claims: http://www.issafrica.org/iss_today.php?ID=917. Gould also was co-author of a great study in South Africa called Selling Sex in Cape Town, which provides some very interesting insights. Sorry, I’m not aware of much research done in the USA.

  4. This is great Brett. Comical/scary/absurd. I like the sensible and business-minded approach to the bit about East-European imports. Coals to Newcastle. But it is a true story that (a lot of) people love hysteria. Like all those emails you get warning not to get out your car at a garage/go to public bathrooms/open your front door – with necessary true horror story. Now we’ve got to watch out for hordes of Polish eleven-year-olds knocking on our doors selling sex during the soccer. What an appalling scandal we’re in for! Brace yourself, South Africa!
    Can you imagine if a team of researchers investigated stories from the Daily Voice? “My daughter gave birth to a goat!”
    THE END.

  5. We are a production company that took on the 2010 Human traffic campaign after having to let a film script we developed on a trafficker from Johannesburg fell through.
    We’re not the media. We’re actually people that work with ladies and men who are trafficked. Please go watch the following. It is our interview with the trafficker: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNDjXPgfw2s

    • I am not trying to deny that human trafficking takes place. However, all the evidence, from the studies done that are scientifically rigorous, shows that the numbers when it comes to trafficking for sex work are far lower than the ‘tens of thousands’ that are bandied about. See for example Chandre Gould and Nicole Fick’s excellent study, Selling Sex in Cape Town, published by the Institute for Security Studies. That study also found very few foreign women working in brothels in Cape Town. See also Chandre Gould and Marlise Richter’s detailed essay pointing out all the factual errors in your campaign’s recent video against human trafficking featuring a range of SA celebrities. I also have a problem when sex work is equated with trafficking. There are many women working voluntarily as sex workers (albeit because they may have few other choices), and it is important that we look at measures to protect their human rights. Again, studies which have spoken to these women find they do not want to be rescued but want their rights respected. See Rights Not Rescue, for example, a study funded by the Open Society Institute. And at the end of the day, the best way to end trafficking, to help trafficked women as well as sex workers in general, is to decriminalise sex work and bring an end to police violence against sex workers.

  6. I can see where you are coming from Brett and I think that the organization for whom my production company currently manage the 2010 Human Traffic campaign wants to see the eradication of Human Trafficking as much as you do (the collective you, surely).
    I downloaded “Selling Sex in Cape Town” and read the first two chapters. Will definitely give the rest a read as well.
    Funny thing is I received quite a lengthy criticism by a Prof Barry Fletcher on this specific writing. I started reading it and it was quite an emotional response in contrast to the tone of what I’ve read in “Selling Sex..”. Should be interesting to weigh up the different arguments.
    Now Brett, two things. Yes my colleagues and myself had a bit of a crash course on trafficking in the run up to the 2010 campaign. Only started October last year if memory serves me correctly. We certainly don’t have the 11 years of experience that SWEAT and its task team has. We had to sit and go through quite a number of resources supplied to us from various agencies. How would we look if we made a bunch of prominent celebrities make a bunch of completely unsupported and exaggerated statements? Boy, wouldn’t we just look like right twits.
    The term ‘scientific study’, when it comes to the field of humanities has never really been a completely dignified nor very reliant instrument I find. It brings into question the whole notion of objectivity and surely relative nature of the position of the onlooker as well as his/her subject (-matter). What am I saying? There are schools of thought based on this. I see my varsity professor cringe right now.
    (As far as I can discern from Prof Fletcher’s critique, also relying on case studies, a never-ending meta-argument on validation will arise)
    So what I always try to do is find a sweet little balance between ‘scientific’ research material, firsthand experiences and off course the deductions from intuitive and reasonable perceptions. It probably will not hold up in a court of empirical validation, but it has delivered pretty decent balanced and dare I say awe inspiring assumptions (opinions?) to thus far.
    You must take my word that I believe I can refute all the claims you’ve made and support all the claims we made with reasonable and reputable literary resources, but what a tiresome and lengthy exercise that wouldn’t make. I would quote from my sources, you would quote from yours…yada yada yada. I would be wrong at points in time and you would be right and vice versa. Man, what a showdown.
    Now, my criticism on the article you wrote on this page.
    Your article seems to deal with journalists who, in their oversaturated working environments find themselves merely spreading sensationalist second hand rumours, specifically with regards to the old ‘40’000 trafficking victims’ lore.
    Did you happen to go track down the source of this unfounded lore? Where did it come from? Why would someone make a statement like that? To give everyone a good old run around? What on earth would someone like to achieve by doing this? Well there are the anti-trafficking NGO’s who would lose their funding if the rumour wasn’t true as SWEAT states in “Selling Sex” (page 6). What do they call a collective of 40’000 prostitutes? A gaggle? A gagged? (-just kidding, sorry. Force of habit).
    Surely if you are writing an article on unfounded and sensationalist journalistic tendencies, your own must testify and contest to the proper standards then, right?
    O, but that’s right. You have a host of articles by reputable individuals and organisations who confirm that these rumours are in fact inaccurate, because they could neither find any evidence of this figure accept that all the possible so-called sources merely caught whiff of it…from someone….from somewhere….somehow. Damn, if only we could know where and how these rumours got started!?? I’ll try from my side and you should try from your side okay? I mean, so that we can just eradicate this myth once and for all. I got the video of the Gentlemen’s Club I sent you, but that’s just one guy. Not scientific enough at all. You guys work quite closely with the pimps and sex workers so if anybody is going to catch a whiff of it, it will be you, right?
    Many folks will tell you that I’m a bit of a storyteller and quite long winded (you’ve probably found that out by now) coming from the dramatic arts and all. I’m gonna humour you with a quick (sic) little anecdote.
    When my production company got on board with the campaign, after losing the movie rights, I decided I have to find out what is up with prostitution in Germany. I also ‘caught whiff’ of the whole “40’000 vulnerable trafficked woman and children” myth. Now not being the most learned man, I immediately zipped over to Wikipedia and Wiki-ed “Prostitution in Germany”, like my lazy ass generation so often does. Right in the opening paragraph they once again had scientific studies. O crap. Now here again they estimate that there is anything between 50’000 and 400’000 prostitutes in Germany (Wow nelly, that’s more than a gaggle, that’s like a Google of sex workers. Sorry new generation stuff). Now in this opening paragraph (I’m a bit of a lazy reader sometimes as well) they said that 63% are from other countries (Eastern and central Europe to be precise- just like they always are in the movies). Mmm, now that’s interesting. So I made my deductions. 63% of 50’000 is (lemme just get my calculator) is equal to 31’500. 63% of 400’000 is 252’000. Now the middle scientific claim should be smack center between these two. So that’s 157’500. Now I asked myself, ‘why would so many foreign women (probably not children, I mean, who would legally bring over their own child to work as a prostitute in Germany?) work as prostitutes in another country? It was probably completely unnecessary to traffic any people into Germany for the 2006 World Cup if you already have quite a large proportion of prostitutes that made their way there from abroad to work in this thriving industry. That’s just stupid. So I further concluded that it makes perfect sense that they only found like, what was it 4 trafficked persons, during the 2006 World Cup Soccer Tournament in Germany. They didn’t need them. They were already there! Sorry not trafficked people, I mean prostitutes.
    I never found out when they intervened in the trafficking process of these four individuals, do you know? Was it actually during the World Cup? That’s typical you know. The traffickers should have trafficked them in waaaaay before the World Cup (sic). Off course security is going to be really tight during this time. Some of those traffickers just don’t think straight.
    Now I must admit that my ability to make outrages conclusions far exceeds my willingness to read through a whole 30 page Wikipedia entry. So can I conclude.
    Scientific evidence and studies are dodgy when it comes to measuring and relating data in support of causes that makes a point of using them for any form of justification. We will be having battles like the one I’m sure SWEAT and Prof Fletcher will be having.
    You are right Brett, without any legislation, or at least the implementation of anti-trafficking legislation, we will never have clear numbers on how many people are being trafficked, will be trafficked and have been trafficked (- so you WILL find only 5 people if that is the case).
    We adopted a dictum when we stared the 2010 campaign.
    “When you go to hunt Moby Dick, take the tartar sauce along”.
    I’m sure you know what that means Brett. You seem like a really smart guy.
    Our cause focuses on helping those that can’t help themselves. I’m actually treating myself to a little word and letter spatter with you right now. There are children who need to be protected, women whose pain need to be healed and structures set in place to be utilized by thousands of local woman and children who suffer so dearly. I think of one of my favourite Afrikaans writers, CJ Langenhoven who said something to the likes of, “Everyone gets a job, not everyone gets a calling”. I really hope that you are following your calling Brett. That what you are fighting for what you believe with all your heart and all your soul, because I do.

    • Floyed, let me just make one more comment on the numbers, the same point made by Marlise Richter and Chandre Gould. If, as Fifa estimates, 450 000 people come to SA for the world cup, then if ’40 000 prostitutes’ are trafficked to SA, that’s one trafficked person for every 10 spectators. Or if the figures in your video are correct, one trafficked person for every 4.5 specators. That’s not even counting the existing sex workers in SA. It just doesn’t make any sense.

      But let’s put aside the numbers. The biggest problem with your video is that you equate trafficking with sex work, whereas the two are not the same thing. There are some links, but most sex workers are not trafficked. You highlight the trafficking issue, and then use this to argue that sex work should not be decriminalised or legalised. You do this by using arguments that have no basis in fact. There is no evidence for example that Germany ‘regrets’ legalising sex work. There is no mention of how New Zealand has decriminalised sex work and it is seen as a success. You say that legalising sex work makes trafficking worse. Again there is no evidence for this assertion, and Sweat and others — organisations representing sex workers themselves — strongly argue the opposite – that legalising or decriminalising sex work will help end trafficking since it will bring everything into the open. For example, let’s take the gentleman interviewed in the YouTube film you referred me to. He says they brought women to SA, and that part of what keeps these women captive is that they can’t go to the police. Well, if sex work were decriminalised, they would be able to go to the police openly and without fear. In my view, very little of what you say, stands up to scrutinly. The tragedy, is that it diverts attention from the very real problems that real sexworkers are facing in this country.

  7. There you go and stoke this brooding fire with the exact claim to empirical evidence that I so wanted to avoid.
    Please go read the document we set up that answers all your questions and will then serve as my counter argument. You WANT to have the facts and in this document we GIVE YOU the facts. They’re all linked up to the sources. A little bit hard to argue with statistics from the IOM wouldn’t you say?


    But now I’m forced to use the same mechanism in supporting claims that I find in my capacity as reasonable and loving citizen of South Africa to be simple and obvious common sense.

    Here are those thoughts.
    -Who really truly wants to be a prostitute? If someone had choices of all the types of work they could do on earth, why choose prostitution? Wouldn’t it make more sense to see if you can educate and train these human beings to actually contribute to society in an upbuilding manner. But then maybe, like you say…they did choose it and that’s what they want to do. No-one or any circumstances would dictate this to them.
    -Did this person, when they grew up, always figure that being a prostitute is just the most amazing thing to become? They must have figured, ‘well all my friends say I’m a bit slutty, my boyfriends I had said I’m really good in bed and I really don’t mind having sex with any random guy who walks through my door, be it they’re really gross and hairy or someone else’s wife or husband”.
    -The prostitute is applying for a loan from the bank and the bank manager asks her what her current employment is and she says, ‘O, I’m a call girl”. “Right just sign here and we’ll approve your loan as soon as we can”.
    – You go pick up your children from their daycare center and right next door is a brothel. ‘O I figure I’ll quickly pop in for a quicky before picking up the kids’.
    – And this is our daughter, Lydia. She’s a sex worker. She can sleep with up to 20 guys a day. She’s a machine. Her boss is very proud of her. She makes him so much money that he has put her picture up at the entrance of the brothel.
    – Brothel owner to sex worker. “We just had this guy come in. He looks quite ill but he offered a lot of money. Won’t you be a darling and quickly give him a once over. Times are tough and I know you need the money”.
    – On the cover on ‘the Entrepreneur’. The lady who fucked her way to the top of the markets. The amazing story of lust, manipulation and good old elbow grease”

    I cannot in my wildest dreams imagine that in a developing society such as our own sex workers’ rights will be upheld by the society itself.
    People still laugh at individuals who dress differently.
    We are forty years behind first world countries on the level of human rights. Should we not first fight to get food into people’s mouths and eradicating AIDS? How on earth does one help to fight this battle by lobbying to have a profession legalized which is in its definition a central contributor to this decease that is ravaging our population. I mean really. That just does not make sense.
    What happened to a good old loving relationship. Have you ever been in one? It is awesome. It really truly is amazing. One deprives the girls and all their clients from having one of these.
    It’s strange to me. You are appealing to people’s conscience in your bid to fight for the rights of sex workers, yet actually paying to have sex with a complete stranger who you know has had sex with many many other people contests of a complete and utter lack of conscientiousness to me. Or a rotten one at least.
    Sex Brett, is more than just sex and everyone knows this. There is so much of the heart and mind that goes into it. It is a sacred and beautiful thing. Won’t you at least like to salvage that in a world where there is so much hatred and violence?

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