Originally published at Sports on Earth.
In 2011, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said that the Super Bowl is "commonly known as the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States." Ever since that moment, dozens of stories have appeared about the sex trafficking at the Super Bowl, and this year is no different. For three years running, NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy has been telling reporters that the Super Bowl's status as a human-trafficking nexus is an urban legend. Abbott's office has not responded to inquiries about the information or sources on which he based his comments.
In November, Cindy McCain said the NFL is lagging behind in taking a stand on human trafficking, and she joined Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to discuss the subject with league officials in January. "Many NGOs that work this issue on a day-to-day basis that are on the streets say, and I believe it because I've seen it, that the Super Bowl is the largest human trafficking venue," McCain said. Unfortunately, she said it at the very end of an interview, and she's never explained what exactly it was that she had seen. Perhaps she saw the trafficking documentary Tricked, whose central subject, sex trafficking survivor Danielle Douglas, told the AP: "They're coming to the Super Bowl not even to watch football. They're coming to the Super Bowl to have sex with women and/or men or children."
The NFL has a history of denying or minimizing nascent scandals, so perhaps McCarthy's denials carry minimal weight. In this case, however, the league's spokesman is right. Reporters and anti-trafficking organizations have been refuting the claim that the Super Bowl attracts sex trafficking for years. In 2011, when Abbott made his statement, there were "zero arrests for trafficking in the time frame surrounding the Super Bowl," says public information officer Sherri Jeffrey with the Dallas Police Department. The next year, in Indianapolis? Two. Last year, in New Orleans? Two. Even those charges weren't brought against criminal masterminds, running global rings of child prostitution; they were against garden-variety pimps. Criminals, yes, but participants in "the single largest human trafficking incident?" No. Far from it.
Yet this sensational narrative—crime, sex, money and The Big Game—persists. January is now National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and as this year's game in New Jersey approaches, public officials and volunteers are compelled to take Super-Bowl-related action, regardless of the reality. The stories keep coming, most recently from Laura Dimon at PolicyMic (which ran a similar story last year), faithfully repeating claims so outlandish enough that a Dallas Morning News reporter felt compelled to join in the reader comments to say so. Just one day later, PolicyMic updated the story with an editor's note, noting that corrections had been made.
One might wonder, in light of all this coverage, just how interested football fans, corporate sponsors and the media corps are in paying for sex with trafficked people.
Any actual nexus for human trafficking would require a larger-than-normal number of willing buyers. Sports fans would need to be willing to risk arrest away from home, in addition to desiring commercial sex from coerced victims, possibly underage ones. The Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women wrote in a 2011 report: "This simplistic equation relies on problematic assumptions about masculinity, business practices within the sex industry, sex workers' capacity to take action, and the root causes of trafficking." After reviewing reports from the World Cup, the Olympics and the Super Bowl, the report concluded that there was no evidence of increased human trafficking at sporting events. "There's not an enormous amount of data that tells the story that there's a giant spike in trafficking around the Super Bowl," said Polaris Project CEO Bradley Myles in an interview with USA Today.
Traffickers also would have to see a profitable opportunity where independent sex workers apparently do not. 'Diana,' an independent escort who frequently travels with clients, said the Super Bowl is one event she's never been invited to, professionally. "I've attended other, smaller-scale games with clients, but I've never been invited to the Super Bowl. Those who've gone take male friends or male family members," she said. "And I've never once heard of an escort planning a tour around working the Super Bowl, not even those women who tour regularly." To track if men were more likely to buy sex at sporting events, anthropologist Dr. Laura Agustín says researchers would have to shadow fans. "I'd have to be sure to be on the same plane with them, and then get there and hang out and see how much drink they've had, and how they feel when they watch football, and how many of them go to pay for sex. You can't do this research!"
One piece of evidence held up to prove an increase in Super Bowl-related trafficking is the count of Backpage ads—but in order to give significance to that count, one must assume that the increase comes from sex traffickers, rather than independent sex workers seeking to capitalize on tourist traffic. Nobody would mistake an increase in postings for domestic, construction and agricultural workers for evidence of a major nexus of forced labor. Despite this, law enforcement and journalists often classify all prostitution as trafficking, making it even harder to find reliable numbers.
Regardless of whether someone is engaged in sex work willingly or through coercion, it is still a criminal act in almost all parts of the country. As a result, efforts like those that precede the Super Bowl do little to aid victims, according to Elizabeth Ricks, an attorney who works with the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois. "With everything illegal, it becomes this gray area, and what I'm seeing in my work is that the trafficking victims are really getting lost in the conversation," she said. "If we had decriminalization, the difference between consensual sex work and trafficking would be much more stark." When the type of labor is legal, like domestic or agricultural work, there is less discretion required of law enforcement to determine if someone is a victim unlike in cases of suspected sex trafficking. "It's the difference between sex and rape," Ricks said. "It would really become very clear that consensual sex work is not the same as having to perform labor under coercion or threat."
The use of "human trafficking" to refer exclusively to sex trafficking is yet another concern for advocates of trafficking victims. Forced domestic and manual labor are much larger problems, according to the International Labour Organization, and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women points out that sporting events may draw other forms of trafficking—for example, the trafficking of workers to construct the playing grounds and lodging for events like the Olympics and the World Cup. Qatar's kafala system has been a focal point for human rights groups concerned about worker abuses during World Cup construction, and Human Rights Watch has documented abuses of workers during preparations for the Sochi Olympics. If there is an increase in human trafficking connected to sporting events, there is more evidence that it happens long before fans arrive, rather than catering to them.
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The persistence of the Super Bowl sex-trafficking myth can be credited to the theatrical quality of its anecdotes. McCain's activism originated with an experience she had while shopping in Calcutta. She heard noises under the shop floor and looked down. "I could see all these little eyes looking up at me, and I realized it was probably 30 little girls, looking up through the floorboards at me," she said. "I realized at that time that it was very serious, and these girls were either enslaved or being trafficked, but the kicker was [that] I walked out of that shop, and I never did anything." Afterwards, McCain approached Arizona governor Jan Brewer to propose taking action on trafficking, and the state's Task Force on Human Trafficking was created.
Agustín notes that many descriptions of trafficking in the U.S. employ a similar, lurid tone. "Incredible language is used, like 'the dark underbelly' and 'the forbidden fruit,' 'lost childhoods.' It's all melodramatic rhetoric from the 19th century," she said.
Alaskan activist Terra Burns agrees. "The public is honestly misinformed. They see these sex-trafficking [public service] advertisements, with pictures of innocent little white girls in pigtails being kidnapped by evil men, and they believe that's what's happening. The reality is that most people who are sex trafficked are already marginalized by society—runaways, homeless people and sex workers—and most sex trafficking looks a lot like domestic violence or exploitative or abusive labor practices."
To be clear, this is not to say that the victims of sex trafficking aren't sympathetic or deserving of the full support of law enforcement, but manipulating the images of such practices only serves to perpetuate a fiction when the reality is stark enough. Even Douglas, the trafficking survivor, has written about the way media tries to control or alter her story to fit preconceived notions and why that can be dangerous.
Urban myths were the original viral content. Combine one with modern communications, and they can have as many rebuttals as confirmations, yet still retain a grip on public imagination. The sex-trafficking myth is only the most recent "single largest" Super Bowl narrative. For over 20 years, the Super Bowl also has been cited as the day with the single largest number of domestic violence incidents. This too is a myth, and its genesis illustrates how using a large event to raise consciousness about an issue can result in confusion and false association. It started with a public service announcement, which aired during the 1993 Super Bowl. In a subsequent New York Times op-ed ("Violence Translates At Home"), Robert Lipsyte drew a line connecting viewers of on-field violence with spousal abuse. Ever since, the correlation has been both decried by activists and used to dismiss them. Every year, there are stories that debunk the domestic violence myth. Activists say it actually hurts their cause to have inaccurate information out there.
Political hay is made easily from myths, driving state legislatures and interest groups to respond with new laws, even for good causes. That 1993 PSA helped marshal support for the Violence Against Women Act. In the trafficking task force reports of Texas, Indiana and Arizona, though, the impending Super Bowl is cited as a reason for implementing ever-stricter laws and penalties for things that are already crimes. (It isn't as if forcing someone to have sex for money, or moving them across state lines to do so, had any legal loopholes that needed closing.) That new legislation rarely if ever actually protects victims of trafficking, according to Burns. "In the almost two years since it was passed, Alaska's sex trafficking laws have only been used against people who were also charged with prostitution in the same case, and never against someone who wasn't accused of being a sex worker themselves," she said.
These myths about women suffering on Super Bowl Sunday can feel true, because there is sufficient negative coverage about the NFL and violence against women. The NFL has had real domestic violence issues, involving the actions of players and the league's inconsistent response to those actions. Some players get cut, while others experience no professional or league censure. In the last five years, there have been exactly as many Super Bowl appearances by players accused of sexual assault as trafficking arrests in Super Bowl host cities—six of each—yet far more resources have been devoted to ferreting out the latter.
In 2011, Erin Gloria Ryan wrote about the difficulty of enjoying a Super Bowl with a league where sexual assault seems routine, especially when Ben Roethlisberger is at the head of a team. Ryan's concerns accurately reflect at least part of the league's image issues. It would be an oversimplification to say, "People wouldn't so easily believe football fans were out there paying for sex slaves if they weren't cheering accused rapists so enthusiastically." At the same time, for many who have been victims of domestic violence or systematic sexual assault for profit, a league in which people accused and convicted of sexual assault seem to escape harsh penalties, does not appear to be an ally.
Sexual violence allegations are certainly part of the league's recent past, and a myth about domestic violence has been part of Super Bowl Sunday's for 20 years. That image makes the concept of the Super Bowl as a massive sex-trafficking event just believable enough—regardless of the truth.