Dark Sevier FoterMajor events such as World’s Fairs and the Olympics always provide an excuse for governments to “clean things up” in the host cities before the guests arrive. Police sweep people the leaders consider undesirable, embarrassing or just plain unsightly out of public view (and into jails or exile for the duration). The victims vary with the time and place: the poor, the homeless, unpopular minority groups, drug addicts and gay people have all been among them. The list always includes sex workers; even in countries where prostitution is legal (such as Greece or Brazil) the moralists feel compelled to purge the most visible manifestations of the sex trade from areas where visitors might encounter them. Xenophobia is also heightened by such events, as those so predisposed fear the prospect of strangers coming to town, bringing with them outlandish and alien forms of sin and crime. Together, these two factors may be the origin of one of the stranger (yet more persistent) myths of our time: the idea that some Lost Tribe of Gypsy Harlots, tens of thousands strong, wanders about the world from mega-event to mega-event, unimpeded by the usual logistics of transport and lodging which should make the migration of such a large group a daunting task indeed.
The legend seems to have first appeared in conjunction with the 2004 Olympics in Athens. That’s telling because, though the rebranding of sex work as “sex trafficking” was already underway in prohibitionist circles in the late 1990s, the moral panic seems to have begun in earnest in January of 2004. In the months before the Olympics Athenian officials went through the usual cleansing procedure, raiding brothels for largely bogus violations of zoning restrictions. A Greek sex workers’ union complained that by making it difficult to work in legal brothels the city would increase illegal prostitution, and this was twisted by European prohibitionists into “Athens is encouraging sex tourism.