In recent years, the American Super Bowl and other large sporting events have come under fire for supposedly being a hotbed for sex traffickers. Host cities wage fierce campaigns to raise awareness of the issue and the steps they’re taking to combat it. Before the 2011 Super Bowl in Texas, the state Attorney General called the event ‘the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States’. In 2012, Indianapolis passed a series of laws to protect potential victims from prosecution and levy stricter punishments for pimps. This year, Atlanta city and federal officials planned to use a ‘chatbot’ to trick online predators as a crack down on sex trafficking. Even the local public school system was preparing to fight, training administrators and teachers how to spot signs of trafficking in students. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen noted that “These events… create horrible opportunities for traffickers, for commercial sex and human exploitation, and they certainly take advantage of vulnerable teens and children who go to our schools”. Federal agents reported that they had arrested 33 people for sex trafficking charges before this year’s Super Bowl had even begun.
But is this even a real issue?
Recent research and press have challenged the long-standing notion that the Super Bowl and other large sporting events are a hotbed for human trafficking. Supposedly, the large groups of men attracted by sporting events results in ‘an increased demand for paid sexual services, and that this demand will supposedly be met through the trafficking of women’. It seems like a no-brainer – hordes of men, away from home, with lots of money and lots of free time, would surely seek out some time with a sex worker.
The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) is a vocal critic of the media narrative portraying the Super Bowl (and other events) as ‘rolling versions of Sodom and Gomorrah’. In their landmark 2011 report What’s the Cost of a Rumour? A guide to sorting out the myths and the faces about sporting events and trafficking, it is unequivocally stated that ‘there is no empirical evidence that trafficking for prostitution increases around large sporting events….There is also no empirical evidence that the demand for paid sex increases dramatically during international sporting events’. Kate Mogulescu, the founder and supervising attorney for the Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project a the Legal Aid Society, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in 2014 stating that ‘no data actually support the notion that increased sex trafficking accompanies the Super Bowl’.
So why do so many people repeat inaccurate figures and believe the rumours? Mogulescu ascribes the popularity of the misinformation around sex trafficking to ‘sheer force of repetition, playing on desires to rescue trafficking victims and appear tough on crime’. The GAATW claims that the hype is due to ‘misinformation, poor data, and a tendency to sensationalise’. It’s an appealing story for any news outlet to claim that 10,000 prostitutes are being trafficked to the host city of the Super Bowl.
Focusing on a threat that is not as significant as the media reports can harm existing communities of sex workers in the home cities. The main issue lies in the misunderstanding of the difference between trafficking and prostitution – sex trafficking is when ‘commercial sex is induced through force, fraud, or coercion, even when there is no crossing of state or national borders involved’, according to Shared Hope International. However, prostitution consists of voluntary sex work by legal adults. Sex work and sex trafficking are often lumped together, despite the voluntary nature of the former and the forced nature of the latter. Thus, federal stings meant to target sex traffickers and rescue victims often end up unfairly harming already vulnerable workers (whose work, while it may be illegal, happens regardless). In addition, federally reported figures of arrests are often inaccurate – according to journalist Hallie Lieberman, ‘it is not uncommon for law enforcement to claim voluntary sex workers have been trafficked’.
An Atlanta sex worker named Seductive Storm disagrees with the way that sex trafficking is fought by the authorities: “People have got to stop confusing trafficking and sex work. There’s a big difference in human trafficking and consensual sex work and they keep trying to make it seem like the same thing. They say, ‘you’re all trafficked.’ You can’t tell me how to feel, tell me that I feel that I’m being used.” The increased sensitivity to human trafficking can also make it more dangerous for sex workers to report crimes to the police, fearing of being arrested themselves. And in the end, the arresting sex workers on presumed charges of trafficking could lead to an increase in actual trafficking: if voluntary sex workers aren’t available, potential clients might only have access to trafficking victims. Many sex workers ultimately decided that the increased risk of arrest wasn’t worth it and did not work around the Super Bowl, leading to lower than expected business returns.
So how do we fight these untrue assumptions and protect sex workers? The first way is to decriminalise prostitution and sex work, which would in turn decrease sex trafficking (called for Amnesty International). By giving sex workers legal protection, the often secretive nature of sex work that protects abusers can be lifted to decrease sexual violence and exploitation. However, it’s also important to remember that sex trafficking doesn’t only exist on Super Bowl Sunday. A spokesperson for the Polaris Project reminds us that ‘human trafficking is happening 365 days a year’, and should always be remembered.
Banner image courtesy of Voice of America via Wikimedia Images © 2016, public domain