News & Politics

The Sex Trafficking Sham: No, There's No Uptick of Sexual Slavery Around the Super Bowl

We need to stop propagating myths about sex trafficking and fund services for the victims who actually exist and want help.

The Super Bowl is right around the corner and moral panic about child sex slaves who will supposedly be trafficked there is spreading through the news again. Despite years of annual panic, these claims are entirely unsupported. In 2011, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women released a report titled "What’s the Cost Of A Rumor?" which explained that “there is no empirical evidence that trafficking for prostitution increases around major sporting events.” Kate Mogulescu, who is the founding and supervising attorney at the Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project, said in a 2014 opinion piece for the New York Times that “the actual number of traffickers investigated or prosecuted [during the Super Bowls] hovers around zero.” In 2014, the Super Bowl sex trafficking myth was debunked in the New York TimesSalon and Reason.

The claim of trafficking at the Super Bowl isn’t just unfounded, it’s harmful, leading to the (often violent) arrests of dozens of adult, self-directed sex workers and distracting the public from the much more common horror of labor trafficking in the hospitality industry that may exist at events that draw large amounts of people to a city. Mogulescu, whose project represents almost all people charged with prostitution in New York City, wrote that in an attempt to curb potential trafficking and clean up the city, prostitution busts were ramped up before and during the Super Bowl. “Many, but not all, of our clients are, in fact, trafficked,” she wrote. “Turning them into defendants and pushing them through the criminal justice system contradicts any claim of assistance.”

Robin Richardson, an attorney who works with sex trafficking victims at the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project in New York City, said the effect of last year’s Super Bowl sex trafficking awareness campaign was “a huge increase of stings and arrests of people who were engaging in sex work. I think there was a hope that what they would be doing was arrest as rescue or maybe they just wanted to up before this very public event, but either way the effect was that people who are already very marginalized were arrested.”

Meg Munoz, a former sex worker and trafficking survivor who directs Abeni, a nonprofit serving those in the sex trades, is also critical of the Super Bowl panic. “It appears to have a disheveled and anti-climactic focus, rarely yielding the kind of results that benefit those being trafficked,” she said. “It’s great PR for organizations and law enforcement, but I have yet to see that translate into solid, long lasting, consistent, relevant, holistic support and care that helps those who need it the most.”

Maxine Doogan, a labor rights activist with the Erotic Service Providers Union, agreed, telling me, “The sex trafficking discourse as it’s currently enforced amounts to a weapon of mass destruction against the prostitute nation.”

Aline Estevas, a prostitute who volunteers at a human trafficking project in Rio de Janeiro, filmed herself for vlog type updates on the business for the first seven days of the World Cup in 2014. The video mostly features her getting ready for work, waiting for clients, or after work. Here are some quotes that sum up most of her comments: “God help us and send us some clients.” “It was shit in the zone, it was empty. All the men were watching football.” “Business is really slow. It’s not good. I was expecting to make a lot of money.” “I don’t even want that much. It would be great if I could do three [transactions] a day.” “We’re fucked with these games. There’s no business.” “God help us and bring us some clients today. I don’t want much. Just three.”

The Observatory of Prostitution did ethnographic research during the World Cup, concluding, “The vast majority of sex workers we spoke with in Rio de Janeiro considered the World Cup to be bad for business. Despite the presence of significant numbers of Brazilian and foreign tourists in Rio, there was a general decline in sexual commerce during the 32 days of the event. Of the 83 points of prostitution we visited, only six maintained a normal flow of customers during the games. Another 17 experienced an increase in business. Sixty points, including Vila Mimosa, where some 1,000 women work, experienced an estimated decline of 30-50%, in terms of the number of clients frequenting these points, during the 32 days of the games from June 12 to July 13.”

A 2014 article by Susan Elizabeth Shepherd in Sports on Earth suggests that the business is bad for sex workers during the Super Bowl because men typically travel to the event with friends or family members.

What is all this baseless panic good for, besides arresting sex workers and sex trafficking victims? Does raising awareness pay off in the end, despite its attendant harms?

Somaly Mam has conducted what was probably the most internationally successful sex trafficking awareness campaign. She was named one of Time’s most 100 influential people of 2009; her autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence,was an international bestseller; and she raised millions of dollars for her sex trafficking rescue foundation. After years of fame, it turned out Mam’s fundraising efforts were based on lies. Her autobiography was untrue and she had coached and coerced girls into telling fantastical stories of sex trafficking. After an investigation, the board of her foundation asked her to step down.

Mam’s supporters were steadfast. Who cares about a little exaggeration or made-up trafficking, they asked, if it’s to save the children? It turned out that at least some of the money was used not to rescue trafficking victims, but to kidnap women from brothels and traffick them into the garment industry. 

Chong Kim’s “true” story of sex trafficking was made into the movie Eden, an action-packed drama based in a Nevada warehouse where women are kept filed in cages according to hair color. The film got bunches of attention, and Kim traveled the country speaking and networking with sex trafficking non-profits. It wasn’t until her unethical behavior raised eyebrows that someone decided to check out her story and found that it was most definitely not true. Not only was it not true, Kim had been accused of taking money from several groups and had been ordered to repay money she had stolen from a sex trafficking survivor.

These misuses of sex trafficking awareness and funds don’t seem to be unique. A special report from Truthout’s Anne Elizabeth Moore laid out similar factual and financial inconsistencies in the top 50 anti-trafficking organizations in the US. For example, one organization reported receiving (and passing on to law enforcement) more than 3,000 reports of sex trafficking in 2013, but according to the Trafficking in Persons report, there were less than 2,000 cases of any kind of human trafficking reported to law enforcement that year. The amount of money awarded to these anti-trafficking groups amounts to $343,000 per trafficking case per year. This money should clearly be enough to house and support trafficking victims, but for actual trafficking victims housing and meaningful services are hard to come by.

Bella Robinson, a sex worker and human rights activist, said she tried to report sex trafficking to the Polaris Project (one of the U.S.’s largest anti-trafficking organizations, which operates an international hotline) and her local police. She was horrified to find that the police wouldn’t do anything and the Polaris Project didn’t offer any actual services beyond a hotline. 

“I think the Polaris Project should have to have a disclaimer saying that they don’t have any housing, or jobs that pay a living wage, or plan for a higher education,” Robinson said. “But they do have some shame-based bullshit that will help introduce you to the justice system so you can be stamped whore.” 

Polaris Project calls itself “a leader in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery and restore freedom to survivors” and says it offers “comprehensive clinical services.”

Truthout says that anti-trafficking groups claim to have rescued more than 8,000 people from sex trafficking in 2013. That is over four times the number of all types of human trafficking cases investigated in the U.S. in that year – and the outrageous claims seem to cause more harm than good. Despite the plethora of claimed rescues, everyone I talk to who works with sex trafficking victims mentions a lack of available services.

Munoz explained, “Very little about sexual exploitation or trafficking as we understand it is black and white, yet that’s how people view it. They have been given statistics that are inaccurate and misleading. They’ve been shown pictures that don’t reflect the reality and create a bias in many different ways. They have established an approach to trafficking that disproportionately arrests more sex workers, including those being exploited, than it does pimps. They have criminalized both the willing and the victim, making it impossible for anyone arrested to leave the industry without a permanent scarlet letter. So many of the survivors I know feel exploited for their stories with no real lasting support. I believe our approach needs some serious tweaking and until we start listening to everyone on the spectrum of sex work and consider some new approaches, we are going to keep passing only slightly effective laws with little lasting payoff.”

What should we be raising public awareness and funds for when it comes to sex trafficking? I asked Robin Richardson, an attorney who works primarily with trafficking victims at the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project. She said, “The thing that I wish people would pay attention to is just that real anti-trafficking work isn’t this sexy ‘end prostitution during major sporting events kind of work,’ it’s really anti-poverty work. I would hope that people, instead of thinking about trafficking once a year, and thinking about it in a way that hasn’t even been borne out as being true ... would pick one thing that causes trafficking that they can help in and try to fix it. Like access to a living wage, access to healthcare, mental healthcare, and access to housing is a really big one. Then decriminalization – you know criminalizing people puts them in a situation where it’s very hard for them to find a job, so decriminalizing a lot of these non-violent offenses that are the bulk of our criminal justice system could do a lot to help end trafficking or at least put a dent in the marginalization that a lot of people face that force them into a desperate trafficking situation or into engaging in sex work due to their circumstances.”

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World