Just in Time for February, the Myth of Sex Trafficking and the Super Bowl Returns
It's almost Super Bowl time, and you know what that means: sex slaves, thousands of them, flooding into the area around New Jersey's MetLife stadium to be raped by morally bankrupt football fans.
That's the story from the Associated Press, anyway; an article by Katie Zezima and Samantha Henry published this month warned that sex trafficking is always a huge problem around the Super Bowl, and that the Jersey location of this year's game will only make matters worse: "Many believe the state's sprawling highway system, proximity to New York City and diverse population make it an attractive base of operations for traffickers."
The only problem is, that story -- about trafficked women and children being driven into Super Bowl towns in large numbers to be brutalized every year when game time rolls around -- isn't true. It wasn't true 10 years ago, when a version of the story first started circulating, and it will continue to not be true this year. So, why are you reading about it in an Associated Press article, on PolicyMic, in the New York Daily News, the Huffington Post, and dozens of other media outlets, not one of which can apparently refrain from using some version of the phrase "a dark side to the big game"?
The durability of the Super Bowl prostitution myth isn't surprising, given that it relies on just three things: politicians desperate for headlines, obliging journalists willing to write a big, breathless story before the game without doing any real follow-up afterwards, and anti-trafficking groups who desperately need donations and are grateful for any attention the media will give them.
That's what Voice Media Group editor Pete Kotz wrote about in 2012, when he discovered that Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller was claiming that his office was cracking down on sex traffickers in advance of the Super Bowl there. In fact, Kotz wrote:
Zoeller is riding the momentum of a hoax that's reignited before every major sporting event, be it the Super Bowl, the World Cup, the Olympics or the NBA All-Star game. Alarming figures are pulled from the mist of imagination, where extra zeros apparently come free with every purchase. Anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 hookers will be coming to town! Hide the women and children! And perhaps the more effeminate men as well! You know, just in case!
Before Zoeller, it was Attorney General Greg Abbott in Texas in 2011, warning that the streets of Dallas would be flooded with prostitutes, as well as trafficked women and children (many of these AGs often make little or no distinction between sex workers and victims of trafficking). Before Abbott, it was Florida's and Arizona's AGs with the same message. But as Kotz discovered, none of these towns actually saw any significant upswing in prostitution arrests, and absolutely no evidence that large rings of sex traffickers came to town to capitalize on sports fans' unquenchable lust.
If you think you've read about this in the pages of the Village Voice before, you're right; Kotz's story ran here, as did a multi-part series on truth and myth-making around sex trafficking. At the time, the Voice was owned by Village Voice Media, which also owned backpage.com. As you probably recall, Backpage opponents accused the website and Village Voice Media as a whole of helping to facilitate sex trafficking by allowing adult ads. In September 2012, the chain of newspapers and Backpage went their separate ways; the Voice's new parent company, Voice Media Group, is not affiliated with Backpage. (You can read good, impartial analyses of the Backpage controversy at TechCrunch, Salon, and Forbes).
So, the company I work for has changed. What didn't: the number of sex trafficking rings busted during the Super Bowl, which remains stubbornly low to nonexistent.
"We didn't see a huge influx in prostitutes coming into Tampa," Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said after the 2009 game. "The arrests were not a lot higher. They were almost the same."
That's true of each and every single Super Bowl. In New Orleans, federal and state authorities proudly announced they arrested 85 people in the week leading up to the game under an anti-trafficking project known as Operation Innocence Lost. But in fact, only two of those men, Christopher Frazier and Datryl Blake, were arrested on suspicion of trafficking and pandering, along with five women they'd brought with them. At least two of the women were homeless; they reportedly told police they met Frazier at a gas station in Oklahoma and exchanged numbers with him, then later agreed to go to New Orleans with him. They told police the men promised that they'd only have to go on non-sexual dates with lonely old men.
It's a much muddier picture than the image of mass trafficking conjured up by the most alarmist media reports. In 2011, National Football League spokesman Brian McCarthy called sex trafficking at the Super Bowl an "urban legend." Recently, he told the Voice: "These same issues were expressed before previous Super Bowls. We were pleased to learn that the grave concerns about human trafficking and prostitution were not realized. Federal, state, and local law enforcement deserve the credit for keeping host cities safe."
But although the NFL knows the sex trafficking story isn't true, it's gained so much traction that the organization has learned to take it seriously. So McCarthy hastened to add this: "To further illustrate our support of law enforcement's efforts to combat human trafficking when there are "special events," the league's Security Department hosted a meeting in September of the supervisory command staff of the Violent Crimes Against Children Section of the FBI."
It's not just the NFL dismissing a claim that makes them look bad (they're too busy with massive concussion lawsuits for that). The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women released a report in 2011 confirming that the "sporting events bring sex slaves" story was a myth, one that had been around since the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece. It found, too, that many of the anti-trafficking campaigns set around sporting events -- for example the 2010 Vancouver Olympics -- "confused trafficking with sex work and relied on extremely negative imagery about women."
That's because many of the anti-trafficking organizations involved in perpetuating this hoax believe that there's no difference between prostitution and sex trafficking, and advocate for the total abolishment of sex work (those organizations in fact frequently refer to themselves as "abolitionist," making an explicit tie with the Civil War-era anti-slavery movement). Many of them are also faith-based, including the International Justice Mission, which pledged to head to the Dallas Super Bowl to rescue trafficked women in 2011, then quietly failed to mention that there were no trafficked women to be found.
This year, the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking , a group of mainly faith-based nonprofits, released a fact sheet on how they planned to deter trafficking at this year's game. At the same time, they acknowledged, rather obliquely, that there's virtually no proof to back up their claims that the area will be flooded with traffickers and their victims. A section on how to respond to those who "downplay concern about the Super Bowl" states: "Currently, there are very few ways of collecting statistics on Human Trafficking. However, at the governmental level there is an acknowledgement of the potential increase of Human Trafficking around large sporting events."
Even the latest Associated Press story acknowledges that the evidence for this claim is shaky at best, writing:
There are scant statistics and much debate over how much sex trafficking increases during a Super Bowl or large sporting event, but it's been enough of a concern to prompt New Jersey and prior Super Bowl host cities to pay attention to it.
The evidence this time, such as it is, comes in the AP story from New Jersey state Rep. Chris Smith, who claims, "New Jersey has a huge trafficking problem. One Super Bowl after another after another has shown itself to be one of the largest events in the world where the cruelty of human trafficking goes on for several weeks."
Again, he's got no actual numbers or even anecdotal evidence to back up that claim, and he conflates two separate issues. There is undoubtedly human trafficking, even sex trafficking, in New Jersey; a Colorado man pleaded guilty to that offense in federal court not long ago. In summer 2013, during what federal officials billed as "the largest sex trafficking bust in U.S. history," 70 people were arrested in New Jersey. That was out of 150 total alleged pimps and traffickers arrested nationwide.
That's right: The largest bust in the nation, ever, netted just 150 people. While even one person trafficked for sex is one too many, the actual figures don't match the outsize rhetoric we hear in advance of each and every Super Bowl.
And it's not just the Super Bowl -- sociologist Laura Agustin, who's studied migrant sex workers in South America, the Caribbean, Europe, and on the U.S./Mexico border -- says the same storyline appears in advance of "all big sporting events worldwide, and the mythologizing has been going on for many years now. No amount of debunking has any effect, even when it comes from sober, conservative sources."
"There's a long history of politicians' use of women's bodies as sacred causes linked to national sovereignty that men have to protect," Agustin adds. "Whether the bodily issue is women's right to get an abortion or to sell sex, certain patriarchal voices are sure to pipe up with calls to protect women from making terrible bodily errors and being damaged for life. In times of social conflict or economic distress a moral crusade to Save Our Women is something lots of people can rally round. Saving women means keeping them home, all too often."
Agustin says the Super Bowl spike is also part of a larger pattern on stories about sex work and trafficking. "Many news stories on sex trafficking are published every day that are also based on funded crusading without evidence -- the sporting events cause a spike, but really are only part of a large-scale movement against prostitution and migration, against the mobility of women and the use of sex to make money, in rough times and not."
In her 2007 book Sex at the Margins, Agustin also coined a term for nonprofits, NGOs, and faith-based groups that work together to "save" sex workers, trafficked and not: the Rescue Industry. She calls it a "wide social sector now claiming to be saving huge numbers of victims," but argues that they apply the term "trafficking" too broadly, to a large number of people who live in messier realities. "The numbers are reached through redefining teenage runaways, undocumented migrants and adult women who've opted to sell sex as 'trafficked' or 'enslaved,'" she explains. "It's a law-and-order framework for a complicated social reality where migration policy and labor policy intersect."
In addition to contributing to a culture that criminalizes voluntary sex work, the Super Bowl myth also doesn't particularly help real trafficking victims, as the report from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women found. Their report says that the focus "on a supposed link between large sporting events and trafficking for prostitution also results in 'blind spots,' ignoring or distracting the public from more urgent and long-term issues." Those urgent issues include less titillating labor violations during sporting events, like those against undocumented workers. The GAATW also worries the Super Bowl sex story takes the focus away from day-to-day violence against sex workers and their struggle for basic legal rights, something many anti-trafficking organizations do not support.
In some countries, the anti-trafficking rhetoric around certain sporting events like the Super Bowl and the World Cup has led to some fairly nasty, racist discrimination, the GAATW notes:
Media and public pressure around trafficking for prostitution could result in tighter entrance restrictions or the profiling of particular racial or ethnic groups as 'potential' trafficked persons. In the name of preventing trafficking, some governments have developed restrictive entry policies denying women of certain ages or certain appearance from entering a country. For instance, research at the San Paulo airport found that Brazilian women were being refused entry and repatriated from European airports because they were suspected of being in the sex industry.
A number of well-reported articles have pointed out that the sex trafficking hype is just that, although they tend to be drowned out by the stories that helpfully inflate the myth. In the Guardian last year, sex worker advocate Melissa Gira Grant wrote that the Super Bowl sex hoax benefits everyone but the trafficking victims it claims to be so worried about: "Anti-prostitution charities, called in by the media as experts, enjoy increased visibility. Similarly, law enforcement can stoke fear to garner public support for crackdowns on sex work -- and too often, by extension, on those who perform it."
Sports on Earth recently published a piece by Susan Elizabeth Sheperd calling the whole narrative "sensational" and "outlandish," and Reason's Maggie McNeill did the same, pointing out that dire warnings about sex trafficking or rings of sex workers provides a convenient pretext for "clean up" operations that sweep unsightly or undesirable elements of town safely into jail for the duration of the game. And PolicyMic, whose sex trafficking piece was written by Laura Dimon, the reporter recently taken to task for an error-filled article calling Flint, Michigan, "apocalyptic" and "one of America's most violent cities" without ever having visited there, issued its own sort of correction to her piece, writing, "Due to dispute over certain sex trafficking statistics, this article has been modified from the version published on Jan. 27, 2014."
Researcher Julie Ham, who wrote the GAATW paper, tells the Voice she isn't surprised by the persistence of the Super Bowl myth, given that it is, as she puts it, "such a media-genic issue." She explains, "You get to write about sexualized, exotic victims; you have charged events associated with masculinity (even if they're not predominantly masculine); you get to treat trafficking as a one-time event rather than a more complicated issue about labour migration; and you have clear cut goodies and baddies."
That said, she adds, she is still surprised each time she reads a new story about the Super Bowl's shadowy, sex traffic-filled underbelly "because there's really nothing there to back this rumor up. And I'm still struck by what this rumor has been used to bolster up -- sometimes it seems like this rumor is a perverse job-creation strategy for consultants in each host city to assess whether there is a problem, organizations to call for more funding in case there might be victims, increased law enforcement, media, etc. It's discouraging, because all those resources and attention could be used to address trafficking that actually occurs rather than addressing trafficking that might occur."
In other words, the Super Bowl sex-trafficking story is just as false this year as in years past. But for politicians in need of headlines, groups in need of donations, and news outlets hungry for eyeballs, it's still just as much of a touchdown as ever.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.