Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

CALGARY STAMPEDE: Debauchery... divorce, disease

Festive time breeds trouble that lingers, experts say

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CALGARY -- Take a cowboy with smouldering brown eyes. Add a cowgirl in tight blue jeans. Then throw in plenty of booze and a party atmosphere and you risk rustling up a whole heap of trouble during the Calgary Stampede.

The 10-day annual event has been known to descend into debauchery for some, as inhibitions and even common sense vamoose out the window.

"You've been branded," says one young cowgirl as she plants a kiss on the cheek of one wannabe cowboy. "Call me if you want to get together later," she murmurs, slipping him her phone number.

As Calgarians shed their business attire for hats, boots and jeans, some seem to find that the gold wedding ring gets as tight as the necktie from that three-piece suit.

"The number of people starting to file for divorce also spikes after the festivities of Stampede have come and gone," says Karen Steward, founder and CEO of Fairway Divorce Solutions.

Within about six weeks of the festivities, calls from people talking about divorce go up about 30 per cent, she says.

"Perhaps somebody was out on their own and thinking, 'you know what, the grass might be greener on the other side.' Or maybe, 'I didn't like the behaviour of myself or my spouse and it's time to move on.' "

The Stampede can bring focus to the strengths or weaknesses of a relationship, Steward says. Close couples get closer. But tensions surface between partners having problems.

Affairs and infidelity are big factors in many divorces, she says, and the Stampede offers opportunities for some couples to see what else is out there.

"Is Stampede gasoline on the fire? Absolutely."

The impression that the cowboy festival and bad behaviour go hand in hand was lampooned several years ago in a spoof advertisement that many people took as truth. A downtown hotel advertised its Stampede party with a promise that patrons could check their wedding rings at the door -- and then get a spray tan to erase any tattletale tan lines. The hotel later made clear the ad was in jest.

Concern about taking a roll in the hay prompted Alberta Health Services to launch a campaign last year that distributed posters and bar coasters showing a condom, shaped as a tiny cowboy hat, along with the slogan: "Protect Yourself This Summer -- Put A Hat On When It's Hot." It warned that infections such as syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia are on the rise.

Dr. Sonya Lee, a family physician and professor at the University of Calgary, says some people do take risks while partying western-style.

"We would say that people do engage in high-risk sexual behaviour during Stampede, and we know that Stampede is a great attractor for young adults and adolescents."

It brings with it several factors that can prompt risky sexual behaviour, including the use of alcohol and drugs and travel away from home, she says. "(At) some (sexually transmitted disease) testing clinics, we have actually seen increased visits and increased testing rates a few weeks after Stampede."

The influx of money and visitors also leads to a dramatic jump in the number of prostitutes, who are brought to Calgary by organized crime and who are looking for lonely cowboys with pocketfuls of cash.

"There's lots of money moving around. There's lots of guys out and about who have a lot more time on their hands. There's less impact at work and that's the way it goes," says Sgt. Mark Schwartz from the Calgary Police Service vice unit.

The prostitutes travel across the country hitting all the large events, Schwartz says.

"We've got Halifax girls in Calgary right now and that's pretty common from one end of the country to the other."

Schwartz estimates that the number of sex trade workers probably doubles during the Stampede. But the newcomers usually don't hang out at nightclubs or parties.

"They're most likely in high-end hotels here in Calgary where they'll have a room and will advertise on the Internet or approach guys on the streets."


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 11, 2009 C15

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