HIV warnings were sounded. Churches shouted their scorn. And a wary country braced for the impending onslaught of sex-hungry soccer pilgrims.
Now, with the World Cup starting on Friday, the fans have poured in on airplanes. There are lines at restaurants and traffic jams on the freeways.
“We laughed at that [40,000] number,” said a government security source who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak publicly. “There was no evidence there would ever be 40,000 prostitutes.”
The government has been watching, the source said, monitoring ads in sex newspapers, websites on the internet and listening to chatter in the world of human trafficking. It has determined that a few women have arrived in recent days. Investigators have noticed a small spike in ads. Some of these sex workers have come from neighboring countries, usually smuggled in because they believe they can make more money during the World Cup.
But the only evidence of any organized prostitution rings – the kind of movement that would generate great numbers – is that there appear to be more women from Thailand. Yet even then, the source suspects, there are hundreds of them. Not thousands.
“Where are they going to get accommodation?” the source asked. “They have to advertise too and there is no evidence that they are.”
More likely, the source continued, are that large groups of fans might bring along one or two women who will be paid to have sex with the men.
Still, the fascination of a sudden arrival of sex workers on an unsuspecting South Africa remains. Especially among the women who stand to be most affected by an onslaught of foreign competition.
“Is it true? Are they really coming?” a prostitute who gave the name “Polly” said as she sat outside the restaurant Tivoli next to the Balalaika Hotel in the upper-class suburb of Sandton one night last week. “I’ve heard there are 40,000 women coming to South Africa for World Cup. But is it true?”
She said she saw an interview on television with a high-ranking government official a few weeks ago – she can’t remember who – and he was asked the question: Were there really 40,000 prostitutes heading to South Africa? He stared at the camera, she said. He said nothing. It was the end of the show, the last question. And slowly the broadcast faded into a commercial.
She took this to mean the rumors were true.
“I think it’s so unfair,” she added. “There are lots and lots of beautiful girls in South Africa. Why do they have to come here?”
Apparently they aren’t. It’s just the myth of 40,000.
No one is quite sure where the number originated. But in the past few years, whenever a place holds a great sporting event the rumor of a flood of prostitutes soon blossoms. And for some reason that number is 40,000.
Laura Agustin, a sociologist who studies and blogs about migrant sex workers, calls it “a fantasy number.”
“It has no basis,” she said.
There have never been studies on prostitution and large events, she continued. No reasonable data exists. Rather, people become obsessed with the idea that groups of men traveling for sporting gatherings like the Olympics and World Cup are going to be so desperate for sex that they will demand prostitutes. And therefore truckloads of women have to be brought in.
Back in 2006, when the World Cup was held in Germany – where prostitution was legal – there was talk that the country would be buried by 40,000 sex workers. Interest in them was said to be great. Yet they mostly wound up sitting around brothels waiting for the parade of willing men that never happened. Later, a study commissioned by the European Union and uncovered by the British internet magazine Spiked found only 33 cases of human trafficking at that time. And just five of those cases turned out to be related to the World Cup.
“I don’t think [soccer] fans should be targeted like this,” Agustin said.
And yet they apparently are.
“It’s muddled thinking, however,” she wrote on a recent blog post. “Stag parties, in which groups of men ritualistically drink and whoop it up together often have a sexual element, but that usually consists of paying dancers or sex workers to come perform. That’s a contract in a party setting, not the rape of the Sabine women.”
The latest rumor was repeated last month in a story by the Christian Science Monitor, which quoted the magic 40,000 figure and even spoke to a handful of prostitutes from Zimbabwe, one of which suggested she might be able to use her newfound World Cup earnings to buy a car.
“I don’t think there will be that much business,” the government security source said.
Thus destroying the myth of a World Cup that was going to be all about sex.
Instead, it will be all about soccer.