Sex Trafficking And The Super Bowl: Penalties Of A Media Blitz

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As a sports fan, the NFL playoffs is my second favorite time of the year (next to the World Series). The games are exciting. The fans are energized. And there’s a feeling of camaraderie amongst people around the city sporting jerseys on Sunday mornings. But as an activist for sex workers’ rights, this time of year is incredibly frustrating. It’s when I start getting bombarded with “facts” about the “vast” numbers of trafficking victims that major sporting events create. “Sex traffickers follow the Super Bowl wherever it goes,” said Indiana State Senator Randy Head in support of his bill to increase punishments for those convicted of trafficking, for example. This is not unique to the Super Bowl. Similar claims have been made for most major sporting events across the world over the past five years. In response, law enforcement and local governments frequently attempt to “clean up” the city before the tourists flock in, rushing through ineffective policies that are harmful to our communities in the process. 

Before I go any further, I want to explicitly differentiate between sex workers and victims of sex trafficking. Though this distinction has been made in multiple places, it bears repeating. Sex workers are those who consensually exchange their own erotic labor for money, goods, or services. Victims of sex trafficking are forced or coerced into slavery. There is a popular argument that sex workers are “economically coerced” into the sex industry and should therefore not be considered to be acting of their own volition. While it is true that many enter the sex industry out of dire economic constraints, this should not be conflated with force, trafficking, or coercion. For a simplistic differentiation between sex work and human trafficking, Charlie Glickman puts it nicely: sex work is to trafficking as sex is to rape. Without understanding these differences there is no way we can accurately address the very real problem of human trafficking in the sex industry or any other industry.

There is no correlation between major sporting events and increases in sex trafficking. It simply does not exist. There are years of data proving that it does not exist. But government officials, activists, and media continue to propagate the panic.

Last year, Dallas Police Sergeant Louis Felini predicted that between 50,000 and 100,000 prostitutes could arrive in the city for the Super Bowl. As the Dallas Observer pointed out, the higher end of that estimate would have equaled out to a prostitute for every attendee of the game, including the women and children. The Dallas Women’s Foundation claimed this would include 38,000 child prostitutes. In response to these estimates, a joint effort of 17 local, state, and federal agencies coordinated efforts to confront the predicted onslaught of trafficked children. The result was 133 arrests. Of those, 8 were cases of human trafficking, and 4 involved minors. Not only is this a far cry from 38,000, but there is not convincing evidence that these cases were in any way linked to the Super Bowl. What does seem convincing is that when more resources are spent targeting a problem, more cases will be reported.

Similar reports have happened in cities across the world. The assumption that major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, will lead to increases in human trafficking is not only inaccurate, but harmful. It leads to more police presence and harassment of adult outdoor sex workers. Sergeant Tommy Thompson of Phoenix, hosts of the 2008 Super Bowl, claimed to have “certain precincts that were going gangbusters looking for prostitutes, but they were picking up your everyday street prostitutes.” Outdoor sex workers became the scapegoats of this sensationalism. As Stacey Swimme, a founder of Sex Workers Outreach Project, points out, “All this hype enables police agencies to bid for more money so they can increase harassment of the most vulnerable in their communities.” In a climate where studies show approximately 20% of sexual violence against sex workers are reported to be committed by law enforcement, this added policing seems especially dangerous.

Operating under faulty assumptions is bad for anti-trafficking efforts as well as sex workers. Christina Arnold, Executive Director of Project HOPE, puts it succinctly: Victims of sex and labor trafficking alike are exploited at work in extreme situations rooted in complex social, economic, political, and historical conditions. To stand on the side of the oppressed, we must focus time, energy, and resources based on honest numbers and rhetoric free from diversionary and sensational hyperbole.” While the Super Bowl may be a way to garner a lot of media attention in a short time span, the efforts this attention inspires does not focus on root causes of human trafficking: poverty, immigration laws, and lack of access to social services and resources. Even worse, these faulty assumptions can lead to human rights abuses of the very people they claim to be trying to help. In a 2007 study, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women found that in eight countries “trafficked women were denied assistance unless they agreed to cooperate with law enforcement. Women were locked up in shelters or detention centres, in the name of ‘protecting’ them.” This is unconscionable. Human trafficking is a horrific reality. But inaccurate data, uninformed panic, and human rights abuses are hardly solutions.

What the moral panic around trafficking and the Super Bowl seems to illustrate clearly is that we simply do not have good data on human trafficking, for the sex industry or otherwise. Accepting these largely made-up numbers makes bad assumptions about sports, gender relations, and the sex industry itself. Anecdotally, many sex workers report that the Super Bowl is one of the slowest times in the business. With an average 111 million viewers of the Super Bowl in the United States, this hardly seems surprising. Clients and sex workers alike seem to spend Super Bowl Sunday doing what many others in the country are doing, watching the game.

Jessie Nicole is the current director of the Los Angeles chapter of Sex Workers Outreach Project, a nonprofit dedicated to ending violence and stigma against everyone in the sex industry. She earned her Masters in Humanities from the University of Chicago, and is committed as both an activist and academic to making the world a better place.

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