January 20, 2018

Myth or Fact: Is Sex Trafficking at the Super Bowl Really a Problem?

Recently, claims about the prevalence of sex trafficking at the Super Bowl have garnered skepticism, with some people even asserting that sex trafficking at the Super Bowl is an urban legend. Do these claims hold water?

Acknowledging the Hype

To begin it’s important to acknowledge that in the past some well-intentioned individuals and groups have overstated the scope of sex trafficking at the Super Bowl. Their exaggerated statements were picked up and widely circulated in the media. Unfortunately, the hype gave skeptics reason to question whether or not sex trafficking happens during the Super Bowl. As we now know, there aren’t thousands of victims being trafficked to the game site, and at this point in time there is no study that supports the claim that the Super Bowl is the largest sex trafficking event in the U.S.

Counter Distortions and Vested Interests

But while some have magnified the problem, others are also distorting the issue to opposite effect by claiming there is no sex trafficking in connection with the Super Bowl. Sources of this disinformation are groups like the Sex Workers and Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLERP), a group which is currently engaged in legal action against the state of California, alleging that the state’s prostitution law violates the constitutional rights of those in the sex industry, and which is supporting an effort unfolding in New Hampshire to fully decriminalize prostitution in that state.

Groups such as ESPLERP have a vested interest in promulgating the myth that there is no sex trafficking at the Super Bowl, since sex industry advocates and profiteers have a lot at stake when it comes to anything that might bring the attention of law enforcement to their activities. Could it be that the arrest of sex buyers during the Super Bowl makes other potential sex buyers think twice before they seek to purchase sex? Could it be that the heavy hand of law enforcement on the sex trade during the Super Bowl is cutting in on sex industry profits? While the answer to these questions are uncertain, it is certainly worth considering the motivations of those who claim that the Super Bowl is without sextrafficking.

So What Do We Know?

Statistics from the FBI’s law enforcement efforts are illuminating. Consider that in Phoenix last year 360 sex buyers and 68 traffickers were arrested and 30 juvenile victims were recovered.  In 2014, 45 arrests were made in connection with the New Jersey Super Bowl, with 16 juveniles recovered.  In 2013 at the New Orleans Super Bowl, 85 arrests made and five victims recovered. Hmm. No sex trafficking at the Super Bowl?

Misconstruing Research

Confounding the matter is a study from the Arizona School of Social Work entitled “Exploring Sex Trafficking and Prostitution during the Super Bowl 2014.” On the whole the study provides an enlightening examination of online prostitution advertising occurring up to and during the Super Bowl. The researchers evaluated ads according to a “Sex Trafficking Matrix,” which examined the ads for indicia of sex trafficking and categorized certain advertisements as “high-risk, meaning that these ads likely represented ads of sexually trafficked persons.

In the “research findings summary” the report’s authors state:

  1. The sheer volume of ads offering commercial sex will likely exceed the capacity of any one law enforcement agency to respond in such a way to discourage traffickers from coming to their jurisdiction.
  2. Sex trafficking is a national, regional and local issue that is highly profitable for the traffickers and is comprised largely of loosely affiliated networks of suspects and victims who feed a significant demand for commercial sex.
  3. Research identified distinct victim movement and marketing trends that tend to correspond with the build up towards the Super Bowl.

“The conclusion of the study is that the Super Bowl, or any large event which provides a significant concentration of people in a relatively confined urban area, becomes a desirable location for a trafficker to bring their victims for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation.”

Yet, despite a summary of findings and other data in the report that clearly correlates the Super Bowl with a spike in sex trafficking, this study is being cited as “proof” that the Super Bowl does not cause sex trafficking. How is that possible?

We believe it has to do with one unfortunate sentence. Here it is in context (emphasis added):

“This would appear to lend credence to the idea that the presence of the Super Bowl or other large national event is a key factor in attracting an increased amount sex trafficking activity. It is important to note, however, for law enforcement and for general discussion that the Super Bowl itself does not create the conditions in which trafficking flourishes. Rather, it is the traffickers who seek to exploit and increased concentration of people in a relatively limited geographic area that tends towards an atmosphere where recreation and self-satisfaction are common and the availability of discretionary income in increased.”

The Upshot

So what’s the upshot of all this? The first question we need to ask is: “Does the Super Bowl provide an increased Super Bowl_Traffickingconcentration of people in a relatively limited geographic area that tends towards of an atmosphere where recreation and self-satisfaction are common and the availability of discretionary income is increased? Answer: “Yes.

Second: “What is the makeup of that concentration of people? Undoubtedly there will be a lot of men (if not a considerable majority) in attendance at the game. Thus, it’s reasonable to conclude that sex traffickers are seeking to take advantage of an influx of men to a concentrated geographic area there to attend an event that is of particular interest to men. Let’s face it, no one’s sex trafficking anyone to meet the influx of demand for prostitution at Mary Kay Conventions!

So, does football, or the NFL, the Super Bowl, cause sex trafficking? No. But is the influx of demand (i.e. potential male sex buyers) associated with the Super Bowl correlated with sex trafficking the Super Bowl and similar events? That answer is, sadly, a resounding yes.

Lisa L. Thompson

headshot of Lisa Thompson

Vice President of Policy and Research

As Vice President of Policy and Research for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Lisa conducts policy analysis and advocacy, advances understanding of pornography’s public health harms, and liaises with public officials, advocates, and academics to advance strategies combating the web of sexual exploitation, including pornography, stripping, prostitution, sexual trafficking, sexual assault, and more.

Lisa joined NCOSE following two years with World Hope International where as Director of Anti-Trafficking, Lisa oversaw sex trafficking recovery programs in Cambodia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Lisa is a contributing author to Hands that Heal: International Curriculum for Caregivers of Trafficking Survivors, as well as the book Global Perspectives on Prostitution and Sex Trafficking:  Europe Latin America, North America, and Global. Lisa also routinely speaks and trains on sexual exploitation topics for a diverse range of audiences. Lisa served for more than 12 years as the Liaison for the Abolition of Sexual Trafficking for The Salvation Army USA National Headquarters.

Lisa earned a Bachelor of Arts in Government from Western Kentucky University, and Master’s degree in Leadership, Public Policy and Social Issues from Union Institute and University.

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