ATLANTA — Kara* drove 248 miles from Nashville to Atlanta for Super Bowl weekend. She wasn’t there to watch the game. A 25-year-old sex worker based in Oakland, Kara anticipated she’d get at least five to 10 clients. She stayed with a family member and placed ads online, and waited for the texts and calls to come in. Atlanta was supposed to be rife with johns swarming the city for football and sex.
So Kara waited. And waited. And waited. But her phone remained silent. Finally, someone contacted her. It was the only client she saw the entire time. The weekend, like the game itself, had shockingly little action.
Kara’s experience was a far cry from all the hype. Atlanta was supposed to be a bastion of sex during Super Bowl week, with both prostitution (voluntary sex work by legal adults) and sex trafficking (forced sex work by children and adults) on the rise. Yet sex workers say that neither seemed to be occurring at higher levels than usual in Atlanta. The lack of sex trafficking wasn’t surprising: The claim that sex trafficking increases during the Super Bowl is a many-times-busted myth. But I wondered why sex workers weren’t raking in the cash. According to them, the sex trafficking stings, particularly an FBI anti-trafficking operation in beginning on Jan. 23, were partly to blame.
Sex workers know that wherever a trafficking sting pops up, they will be some of the first to be arrested. (In Houston before the Super Bowl two years ago, police arrested more than 100 people in a similar sting.) And some local sex workers found about the sting early, when they were tipped off by firefighter clients who work for Atlanta’s Fulton County, according to Lisa*, a 33-year-old Atlanta-based sex worker.
Atlanta’s sex workers and johns weren’t being overcautious, it turned out. On Tuesday, the FBI announced it had arrested 169 people during its Super Bowl sting, including nine trafficked minors, nine trafficked adults, 26 traffickers, and 34 men seeking underage sex who had responded to a fake ad posted by the FBI.
Eighteen people saved from sex trafficking isn’t insignificant, but it’s a much smaller number than some anti-trafficking advocates would have you believe. (Some news outlets uncritically reported a congressman’s claim that 10,000 girls and women were trafficked at the 2010 Miami Super Bowl. That congressmen cited an organization that has since said it never actually offered up that figure.) According to Norma Jean Almodovar, a former LAPD officer and retired sex worker who founded the Los Angeles branch of the sex-worker rights organization COYOTE, even the arrest figures not may not accurately reflect reality—it is not uncommon for law enforcement to claim voluntary sex workers have been trafficked.“If the woman says they’re being trafficked, the likelihood of being charged with a crime is less and they can avoid being charging with prostitution,” Almodovar said.
In its news release, the FBI didn’t specify who the other 93 arrestees were. I guessed they were consensual sex workers. So I decided to ask Eric Pauley, the supervisory special agent for the FBI’s Violent Crimes Against Children and Human Trafficking Squad in Atlanta and supervisor of the Metro Atlanta Child Exploitation Task Force. Pauley confirmed my suspicion: The remaining 93, he said, were “a combination of prostitution arrests, pandering (solicitation) arrests, and additional charges with possession of drugs and weapons.” “A large majority” were “prostitution-type arrests.”
Poring through the arrest records and jail rosters in metro Atlanta counties, I found 54 men and women arrested for prostitution in the metro Atlanta area from Jan. 23 to Feb. 3, the dates of the raid. The sex trafficking sting netted three times as many consensual sex workers as it had people who who the FBI says were forced into the business. More than half of the sex workers arrested were African-American.
“We did arrest sex workers who weren’t being trafficked,” Pauley told me. “Prostitution is an illegal activity. Sex trafficking is embedded within prostitution. In order for us to identify sex trafficking victims, you must address prostitution.”
Sex workers and advocates disagree with Pauley’s view. “When you look at other human relationships—domestic violence and marriage are related, so are we to arrest people for getting married?” Almodovar says. “Consensual sex and rape are related. Let’s abolish all consensual sex because it could to lead to rape.”
Seductive Storm, an Atlanta sex worker in her late 40s, feels the same way. “People have got to stop confusing trafficking and sex work,” she said. “There’s a big difference in human trafficking and consensual sex work and they keep trying to make it seem like the same thing. They say, ‘you’re all trafficked.’ You can’t tell me how to feel, tell me that I feel that I’m being used.”
Conflating the two is dangerous for sex workers. Criminals target prostitutes knowing that many sex workers won’t report crimes to the police because they fear being arrested. “When the lines are blurred [between sex trafficking and sex work] it makes me unsafe, and I can’t go the police when I’m assaulted,” Carmen, a 28-year-old Atlanta sex worker, told me.
The stings themselves may do the opposite of what they’re intended. “The irony of it is that they actually may increase the sex trafficking side of it because [trafficked] women and underage girls may be the only company that people have access to” if voluntary sex workers aren’t available, said Lisa.“Those of us who take every precaution for the safety and security of the clients are the ones that aren’t here.”
To avoid being arrested, sex workers went into overdrive with their client screening processes around the Super Bowl.
Carmen said she was extra careful, requiring prospective customers to send their IDs for verification, as well as provide references from other sex workers that she was friends with. She screens everyone, even if they’re famous. “I’ve had celebrities who send me their Social Security number,” she told me. She turned down clients who refused to send credentials, which meant that she, like many others, sacrificed business.
Because many clients don’t want to submit to the screening process, Seductive Storm used Twitter to warn potential clients before they contacted her. A day before the Super Bowl, she posted, “Screening is required and w all the stings going on due to the Super Bowl men in ATL be cautious of the companions NOT requiring screening! Wanting the quickest way to an appointment can lead to your arrest. Screen and then enjoy!”
Yet no amount of screening is 100 percent foolproof, causing sex workers to approach every encounter with trepidation. “I was definitely worried that he would be law enforcement,” Kara said of her client. But she forced herself to go through with it. “You kind of have to talk yourself into it.” The whole time they were together, she was worrying about arrest. “It was almost like, unmanageable anxiety.”
The women tried to help each other stay safe. “We have a tight-knit communication through Twitter so everyone shares [information on stings],” Carmen told me. They also relied on Switter—a Twitter-like service specifically for sex workers and their clients that sprung up in response to the federal Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, which has shuttered trustworthy platforms for sexual-services ads.
One sex worker, Princess Thalia, warned on Switter: “Super Bowl STINGS! Just a FYI / reminder that this weekend is the national weekend across the US for stings so be careful and don’t get caught! I think it’s called national arrest johns day or something like that the week before and the week after the Super Bowl is when the stings are usually at their peak.”
“ACTIVE SEX TRAFFICKING STING in ATL! Boost and share please, stay safe!” wrote Niki Heat on Jan. 30, adding a link to a local news story about Homeland Security arresting 33 people in Atlanta during the week before the game.
Sex workers I spoke to said the increased law enforcement presence was especially bad for those coming from out of town seeking business. “Most of the clients are going to shy away and are going to see the providers they are familiar with,” Kara said. Jessica*, 27, who hitchhiked to Atlanta from Savannah, Ga., was hoping to head home with at least $1,000 to $2,000 in profit. Instead, she was surprised by how little she earned, and had a “literally miserable” experience.
Some local sex workers decided the risk of arrest wasn’t worth it and avoided taking new clients altogether, thereby negating the entire reason Super Bowl weekend was supposed to be so profitable. “I have an increase in the number of people contacting me, but I have made the decision to stick with people I have seen before,” Lisa said. “I am not accepting new clients through Super Bowl weekend just because I… expect the Atlanta PD will be doing stings.
“It really stinks because I’ve gotten quite a few [new] inquiries. Most of the workers that… I know personally, are taking similar precautions that I am,” she said. “It’s incredibly frustrating to know that we could be making money and enjoying the Super Bowl festivities.”
Some women took their chances. “The ladies I work with are not scared. They’re a little cautious, but they’re still doing it,” said Leroy Lamar III, the Executive Director of Serenity’s Steps, a non-profit that provides job assistance and life coaching for Atlanta sex workers. “They haven’t seen a crackdown.”
And not all sex workers were worried about getting busted. David, who sees female clients, said he wasn’t afraid of arrest during Super Bowl week since he knows the target of stings is nearly always female sex workers. But David didn’t see an uptick in business around Super Bowl week, which didn’t surprise him, because most of his clients are local professional women, not visitors.
Sex workers agree that sex trafficking has got to end. “I don’t think there’s any sex worker out here who doesn’t think we should stop trafficking,” Seductive Storm said. Carmen agreed. “I’m all for sex trafficking stings and [sex workers] all stand behind human sex trafficking stings.”
Sex workers and their advocates say that decriminalizing sex work could in fact bring about a decrease in sex trafficking, and experts and organizations like Amnesty International agree. “By keeping it illegal, [trafficking] flourishes,” said Kristi*, an Atlanta-based sex worker. “If we make [prostitution] legit we can talk to the police department and report trafficking. The way it is, there is no incentive in me talking to the cops. By legalizing it or fully decriminalizing it then I’m more likely to report.”
The sex workers I talked to were sick of being seen as victims. They’ve freely chosen this work for a number of reasons. Four of the women said sex work allows them to be better mothers and providers for their family. Kara said the job allows her to spend more time with her young daughter because it is flexible, giving her the freedom of working for herself and not being subject to a time clock. Seductive Storm said she transitioned from her previous 16-hour-a-day job in health care to sex work to spend more time with her kids. “I was not having time to be a mom. [This] made it be so I could cook three meals a day and help with homework. I didn’t need babysitters.”
The sex workers I talked to have a total of 12 children under the age of 18, three more than the number of children who were rescued by the FBI raid. If we want to protect children, there’s an easier way than an expensive, ineffective war on human trafficking: We could simply stop arresting their mothers.
“We want to be protected and respected,” Carmen said. “We want to feel like our government has our back. We don’t want to hide and cower. Sex work is a legitimate business and operation just like anything else. I run my business like any normal person would. I pay taxes like anybody else does. If more people would just sit down and talk to us and if more people would see that we’re normal and good people. The stigma around it needs to die.”
* The names of some sex workers have been changed at their request to protect them from the threat of prosecution.
Hallie Lieberman is a sex historian and journalist. She’s the author of Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy. She’s currently researching her next book on the history of male sex workers.