Sex & Relationships

Increased Sex Trafficking and the Super Bowl: Very Likely a Myth

The FBI is working to combat trafficking during this year’s Super Bowl. But is it really necessary?

Photo Credit: EQRoy/Shutterstock

As the 2016 Super Bowl draws closer, the media is preparing to revisit a familiar theme: sex trafficking, and whether it's a real game-time issue or an overblown myth.

By the end of the 2009 Super Bowl in Tampa, Florida, Andrea Davis of the city police department told reporters, “We didn't see a huge influx in prostitutes coming into Tampa. The arrests were not a lot higher. They were almost the same." A 2011 report put together by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women reads, “There is no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking.”

Still, none of this real time observation and general skepticism stopped the over-reaction to a feared wave of sex trafficking during the big game in 2011. That year, former Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott described the Super Bowl as the “single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.”

In the last week before the 2016 game, that fear is still very much present. The FBI is currently preparing to reach out to individuals selling sex in the run-up to Super Bowl 50 to “give them a way out.”

But according to a statement released by the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education and Research Project (ESPLERP), it’s unlikely that their efforts will result in the arrest of any traffickers or the liberation of any trafficked victims. The more likely result, they say, is the arrest of consensual sex workers, along with their clients.

It’s not the first time authorities have made efforts to combat sex trafficking during game time. According to the Village Voice, 700 cab drivers were trained to spot the victims of pimps during the 2012 game in Indianapolis. Nuns distributed brochures containing facts about human trafficking to hotel staff. A reported 16,000 bars of soap stamped with phrases like “Are You Witnessing Young Girls Being Prostituted?” were placed in hotel rooms. National hotline numbers were stamped on bathroom walls.

But was that all really neccesary? Or is the problem of sex trafficking at the Superbowl seriously overblown?

After the 2008 Super Bowl in Arizona, Phoenix police sergeant Tommy Thompson said, “We may have had certain precincts that were going gangbusters looking for prostitutes, but they were picking up your everyday street prostitutes. They didn't notice any sort of glitch in the number of prostitution arrests leading up to the Super Bowl."

So if police aren’t reporting dramatic spikes in prostitution and similar crimes during game time, where is all the hysteria coming from?  “No one gets too excited about garden-variety prostitution anymore,” writes Peter Kotz, the author of the Village Voice piece. “Instead of adult harlots, the siege now consists of underage girls.” When the Indianapolis game took place, the state legislature passed an emergency bill making the sale of a child under age 16 for sex punishable by up to 50 years in prison.

Of course, there's a big difference between a consensual sex worker and an under-aged victim of trafficking. And the language we use needs to reflect that difference. As Melissa Ditmore asserts, “Treating sex work as if it is the same as sex trafficking both ignores the realities of sex work and endangers those engaged in it.” Those who have championed efforts to decriminalize sex work and regulate the industry are among the first to emphasize the importance of age and consent.

And then there's the money. A report published by TruthOut revealed that 50 of the most prominent anti-trafficking organizations in the United States share around $686 million in funding from the federal government. And it looks like a good deal of that money goes toward the leaders of some of these organizations and their six-figure salaries. Some of the biggest anti-trafficking organizations, like the Polaris Project, have stated that they do not provide direct services to victims. Groups like ESPLERP claim that the anti-trafficking efforts are, in large part, a way to ensure lobbyist groups get their grant money. 

“I am outraged that the Polaris Project gets millions a year in funding, to create policies that violate the human rights of sex workers, and put them at great risk of violence, often from the police during the raids they claim are rescues," says Bella Robinson, a board member of ESPLERP.

That’s not to say the issue of human trafficking isn’t important. It’s a gross violation of the most basic human rights and one that deserves a sustained effort to combat it. But it is worth noting that when the subject comes up, it’s almost always introduced in the context of sex. The thing is, most incidents of trafficking involve other areas of exploitation. “The vast majority involves forced labor, people indentured to pay off smuggling fees. Hence, the lion’s share of traffickers aren’t pimps, but New York restaurateurs, Kansas meatpackers and large-scale ag companies from Florida to California,” writes Kotz.

Sex trafficking is an important issue, but also important is how we report on it. Sensationalism may sell, but a thorough and honest investigation into the who, what and why may help better serve those most at risk. 

Carrie Weisman is a writer focusing on sex, relationships and culture.