Superbowl 50 is taking place next Sunday just a few miles from here. Some of my neighbors are renting out their suburban houses—five grand for the long weekend. Lots of locals here are getting out of town—winetasting in Napa, skiing in Lake Tahoe, or making the long drive to Disneyland.
Along with all the other hazards of 200,000 visitors descending on one place at the same time, one is talked about with increasing frequency—sex trafficking. For years, the urban myth of increased sex trafficking has followed the Superbowl (and Olympics, and World Cup) around like an unwanted cousin at a tailgate barbecue.
Sex trafficking—the real thing, not the political consumer product or object of do-good sloganeering—involves kidnapping or manipulating someone out of their community, forcing them to engage in sex acts somewhere else, and not allowing them to leave at will.
It’s not simply prostitution, not even underage prostitution (which is, of course, illegal and awful). It’s not making porn films, even under onerous conditions. It’s not stripping or being an escort.
And it’s not a special problem at this upcoming Superbowl any more than it was at previous Superbowls.
An increasing number of groups are intent on persuading Americans that we have a terrible and growing problem with sex trafficking. Their data is virtually non-existent, elided with words like “experts agree” and “shameful epidemic.” The new phrase is “youth at risk of being trafficked”—which is, tellingly, ALL youth with any sort of problem.
The media reports anti-trafficking conferences and gigantic, grisly estimates; politicians grimly respond with vows of stricter laws, and the wildly unusual victim is trotted out as proof of some enormous underground industry.
A favorite ploy of anti-trafficking groups is to claim that major sporting events are a central focus of this evil. In 2011, Texas attorney general Greg Abbot said “The Super Bowl is one of the biggest human-trafficking events in the United States”—without any data. He strengthened a unit to pursue those involved with child prostitution (not the same thing as trafficking, of course). The result—at the Dallas Superbowl there were 113 arrests for adult prostitution, and none for trafficking.
The same is true for the three Superbowls before that: grim predictions of upcoming trafficking disasters, and none materializing. Says Robert Casey Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI’s Dallas office, “The Super Bowl does not create a spike in those crimes.” The 2012 Superbowl in Indianapolis: 68 sex workers arrested; 2 qualified as human trafficking. Last year’s Superbowl in Phoenix: 71 adult and nine underage sex workers arrested; none had been trafficked.
Simple economics would explain why event-specific trafficking rarely happens: it makes no sense for traffickers to spend huge amounts of money dragging victims across the country, housing them, advertising for business, and charging reduced rates to undercut local prostitutes, all for a single weekend of illicit income—in a place crawling with law enforcement.
Nevertheless, promoters of a Sex Trafficking Panic are at it again. Last month local county Supervisor Cindy Chavez held a press conference announcing a trafficking awareness campaign with the claim that “the scourge of human trafficking is still prevalent throughout our county,” citing no data whatsoever. Like almost all activists, she made no distinction whatsoever between labor trafficking and sex trafficking; labor trafficking is at least three times more common, although it’s a far less glamorous issue.
Every year, the NFL has to deny that they’re the center of an odious international sex slavery ring. Several years ago NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said the Superbowl sex slave story was simply an urban legend.
But that doesn’t stop those who are feeding—and feeding off of—America’s latest Sex Panic. One week before hosting the 2014 Superbowl, for example, Indiana’s legislature unanimously passed a law that makes recruiting, transporting or harboring anyone younger than 16 for prostitution a felony punishable by 20 to 50 years in prison. The law was passed without a single documented case of sex trafficking in the state. You now get less jail time in Indiana for murdering a teen than for pimping her.
Nationally, dozens of millions of dollars are allocated for fighting human trafficking. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area some 39 organizations are dedicated to identifying and aiding survivors of trafficking. Most groups “fighting” trafficking primarily raise awareness, with little or no data on what this increased awareness actually accomplishes. “Raising awareness” would be harmless if it didn’t cost money, encourage fear and anger, or spread misinformation.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly why “raising awareness” about sex trafficking in America ISN’T harmless—it’s diverting money, time, and attention to a barely-existing problem, encouraging politicians and the public to ignore more important issues—like unintended pregnancy, domestic violence, and a lack of prenatal medical care for poor teens.
Calling prostitutes of any age victims of trafficking is an insult to those who really are kidnapped or tricked into sexual slavery. And lying about the Superbowl’s magnetism for the worst kind of criminality—when the numbers clearly show otherwise—is a disservice to every parent, every teen, and every taxpayer. It’s the latest example of the Sexual Disaster Industry expanding its product line.
To repeat, real human trafficking is horrendous. While even one victim is too many, we should be grateful that with all of America’s problems, sex trafficking victimizes such a tiny number of people. And we should be wondering at the motivation of law enforcement, non-profit groups, and politicians who work hard to frighten, anger, and mobilize the public about this.