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2010 FIFA World Cup: Soccer and Sex

January 9, 2010

Credit: Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce

Thanks to Clint Eastwood’s most recent film, Invictus, millions of people around the world – many of whom, both in and outside of South Africa, were previously unaware of and/or indifferent to the 1995 Rugby World Cup – now know the story of how Nelson Mandela harnessed the universal language of sport to preach transformation and potential to a racially and economically divided post-apartheid South Africa. Fifteen years later, South African President Jacob Zuma is attempting to do the same, this time with soccer.

The opportunity to host the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup–the world’s most watched sporting event–is seen by many, including the South African President, as the greatest marketing opportunity for South Africa since 1995. A month’s worth of soccer games is predicted to draw 400,000 visitors and create 160,000 new jobs, the equivalent of an economic miracle in a country where 48% of the population lives below the poverty line.

The question is: who will reap the benefits?

Although large-scale sporting events have proven themselves to be a catalyst for positive transformation, they are also often ripe with troubling effects. With the start of the World Cup games now six months away, there are increasing reports of crackdowns on the urban poor throughout South Africa (This is not unique to either the World Cup or to South Africa. One report estimates that the Olympic Games have displaced more than two million people in the last twenty years.) Even more regularly referenced are concerns about trafficking, sex worker abuse and public health issues, the latter being particularly vexing in a country where an estimated 50% of sex workers are infected with HIV/AIDS. Apparently the widely accepted reality is that with soccer comes sex.

I guess this shouldn’t surprise me – the relationship between sporting events and the sex trade is pervasive, including in the United States. An explosion in the sex industry, and an accompanying increase in trafficking to service the demand, was also forecast during the World Cup in Germany in 2006.

Currently, so-called “nettlesome” questions of how to deal with sex workers abound, both in and outside of South Africa. In short, the debate centers around: should the sex industry in South Africa be legalized, decriminalized, regulated or punished? Underlying the ongoing debate rest weighty moral assumptions and disturbing presumptions about whose rights and well-being are worth protecting.

The discussion of legalizing sex work in South Africa began long before the country won the bid to host the FIFA World Cup. However, seven years of review under the South African Law Reform Commission has resulted in little progress. Despite the fact that the decriminalization of sex work is recommended in South Africa’s HIV and AIDS and STI National Strategic Plan (2007-2011) the process of changing the law is stalled. At best any changes in legislation will not be passed before 2011.

In the meantime, and particularly in the lead up to the World Cup, individuals and organizations are advocating for an interim decriminalization of sex work. In addition, the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) and the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) recently released a set of recommendations that include a need for human rights training, public health messages specific to sex work, and a government directive to end police harassment of sex workers. The point has been made that safer sex campaigns should target not only sex workers, but also their clients, non-paying partners, and the general public. Based on the German “Fair Play” campaign, which ran during the 2006 World Cup, a recommendation was also made to distribute male and female condoms packaged with a soccer logo and lubricant.

At their core, these recommendations reflect the power dynamics and economic factors that are entangled in the sex industry. South Africa is rife with many of the issues – including widespread poverty, unemployment and inadequate education – that are push factors for sex work. Advocates of sex workers rights insist that the context – legal, social, economic – has to change, with repeal of criminal laws, access to visas and work permits, freedom of movement and association, and occupational safety and health regulations, in order to effectively reduce the risk of abuse and thwart the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Yet despite informed and persistent advocacy campaigns, resistance to decriminalization shows no sign of abating in South Africa. Reports from December quote Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato as saying: “I think they (SANAC and SWEAT) are nuts thinking they can somehow promote prostitution through the World Cup.” So much for promoting rights.

Sex workers are well aware of the opposition they are up against – they can hardly ignore it in the face of regular police abuse, harassment and arrest. With practical concerns at the forefront, sex workers have set their sights on achieving a moratorium on arrests during the World Cup. As one sex worker in Cape Town put it, “We should be given temporary licenses to operate during the World Cup as they map the long term plans.” She sees the World Cup as a chance to “make lots of money.” Sex workers, like the rest of South Africa, want and deserve a portion of the World Cup’s anticipated economic windfall. If it can be assured to not risk someone’s right to life, doesn’t a sex worker have the right to earn an income?

As opposed to decriminalization, HIV/AIDS advocates are focused on regulating sex work in hopes that this will curb a potential public health crisis. As one advocate stated, “Sex workers need to register with a board that will regulate their practice and give certification to practice, but they have to go through a mandatory HIV testing process first, and only those who test negative will be allowed to practice.”

The merits of this approach are obvious – prevention of HIV transmission. However, there is much about it that makes me uneasy. The distinction between mandatory and coerced HIV testing can be blurry, particularly in contexts like South Africa where sex work is already highly stigmatized. Furthermore, mandatory HIV testing bolsters the assumption that sex workers are responsible for spreading HIV/AIDS. No one is forcing clients to be tested.

Although sex workers are at the center of this debate, it seems likely that in most people’s minds it has little to actually do with them. The real issue is the well-being of the football fans, particularly the international ones. The byline of a recent article in the Guardian states:

Fear of spread of HIV infection among football fans sparks demand for registration of South African prostitutes.

The fear seems to be that football fans will contract HIV, and if they do the culprits are the prostitutes.

On New Year’s Eve, President Jacob Zuma addressed South Africans, declaring that the upcoming World Cup had the potential to revive the spirit of the nation in the same way that the 1995 Rugby World Cup brought the nation together.

It must remind us that there is a lot to celebrate about our country. Our successes have made us an inspiration to the world in a manner that many South Africans do not even realise… Together we have built a country that proudly espouses non-racialism and non-sexism, and which enshrines the supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law … There is a lot to be gained from the World Cup. We can already see the fruits of the tournament. We have new magnificent stadia, roads and new-look international airports. Through the major boost to the construction industry, many of our people obtained work and training opportunities, and this helped to reduce the impact of the recession. Working together we must ensure that the tournament enhances our country’s global competitiveness. It must contribute to long-term economic growth and the creation of decent jobs. Fellow South Africans, as hosts, we must be welcoming and hospitable to the thousands of international visitors and soccer teams. We must all be active ambassadors of our country!

The reality is that South Africa’s sex workers – despite actively welcoming hundreds of thousands of international guests – are unlikely to bear any of the fruits of the upcoming World Cup tournament. In fact, reports indicate that the arrest and harassment of sex workers – almost always without a charge or court hearing – has been increasing since October.

If anything, it seems that the 2010 World Cup is a continuation of the status quo. Regulate the women so that men can enjoy their freedom.

Alicia Simoni currently lives in Washington, DC where she works in the field of gender and peacebuilding – documenting women’s unique perspectives and highlighting the integral role gender plays in building and sustaining peace globally. She has a MA in International Peace Studies from the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame.

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