By Bob Allen
As sure as anticipation about the halftime show and new commercials, the hype leading up to Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVII in New York City includes claims it is America’s biggest event for human trafficking.
But an activist who works with women and girls who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation says repeating undocumented claims that thousands of women are routinely shipped into cities hosting major sporting events for prostitution may do more harm than good.
“The Super Bowl attracts tens of thousands of fans to the host city and millions of television viewers, making it the most watched broadcast each year,” the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking says on its website. “But it also attracts a sector of violence, organized criminal activity that operates in plain sight without notice including human trafficking in both the sex and labor industries.”
“New Jersey has a huge trafficking problem,” said U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., co-chairman of the House anti-human trafficking caucus. “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.”
Cindy McCain, wife of U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, which will host the 2015 Super Bowl, has called the Super Bowl the “largest human-trafficking venue on the planet.”
But Rachel Lloyd, founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, says there is scant evidence to back up claims such as the Texas Attorney General who talked about 10,000 to 100,000 victims being trafficked into Dallas for Super Bowl XLV in 2011.
“There is no huge influx of pimps and trafficked women and girls each year into whatever city the Super Bowl is being held,” Lloyd writes in a blog picked up by the Huffington Post. “There is no mass invasion of johns traveling specifically for the purposes of purchasing sex.”
Stories linking sex to large sporting events go back in antiquity to the first Olympic Games held back in 753 BCE in Olympia, Greece, where prostitutes were said to make as much money in five days during the Olympics as they did the rest of the year.
A 2011 paper by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women says the first modern event where trafficking was misleadingly linked with a major sporting event appears to be the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, which invoked widespread warnings from Greek politicians about a rise in prostitutes and sex workers, according to the BBC.
Since then, testosterone-driven sporting events like the Olympics, soccer’s World Cup and the Super Bowl routinely get tied to rumors of an influx of prostitutes that for some reason usually is numbered at 40,000. Laura Agustin, a sociologist who studies and blogs about migrant sex workers, calls it “a fantasy number” with no basis in fact.
The last time the Super Bowl was played in Phoenix, police said they heard about and prepared for an increase in prostitution but never uncovered any evidence of a spike in illegal sexual activity.
“We may have had certain precincts that were going gangbusters looking for prostitutes, but they were picking up your everyday street prostitutes,” Phoenix police Sergeant Tommy Thompson said after the 2008 Super Bowl. “They didn’t notice any sort of glitch in the number of prostitution arrests leading up to the Super Bowl.”
During Super Bowl week in 2010 Miami police told News 8 they arrested 14 for prostitution, a number experts described as not uncommon for large cities during a seven-day period.
Forecasts of up to 100,000 hookers being shipped to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV in 2011 — including as many as 38,000 child sex slaves — did not materialize, according to the Dallas Observer.
Indiana lawmakers passed a human trafficking law in anticipation of last year’s Super Bowl in Indianapolis. Law enforcement made 68 commercial-sex arrests and recovered two human trafficking victims, crediting the training of hotel workers, cabdrivers and others and distribution of 11,000 awareness cards for deterring sex trafficking, according to the Indianapolis Star.
Experts speculate the urban legend persists for various reasons. Politicians look good in the eyes of voters with not-in-my-backyard bravado leading up to major tourist events. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, tarnished in the recent George Washington Bridge scandal, is using this year’s Super Bowl to shine a light on human trafficking, which he called “abject slavery” two months ago at an event in Arizona.
Publicity helps nonprofit groups that fight human trafficking raise money, and the media often dutifully quote self-proclaimed “experts” without checking the facts. Such campaigns also may allow ordinary folks to feel like they are doing something about a large problem that otherwise feels abstract and distant.
Lloyd, who started GEMS in 1998 to aid girls and young women at risk for commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking who were being ignored by traditional social service agencies, says she welcomes attention to the problem of human trafficking, but it’s better to rely on facts than hyperbole.
“While integrity is really important to me and the work we do, there are also three practical reasons why the Super Bowl story harms the work more than it helps,” she wrote in her blog.
For one thing, it undermines the credibility of organizations like hers that fight human trafficking and gives credibility to naysayers who claim the problem doesn’t exist.
Second, she said, continually raising “false alarms” makes it harder to mobilize people to action when an alarm really is required, a time-tested truth illustrated in Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
Finally, it’s a waste of resources that could be used by agencies like hers in truly effective ways.
“Real change is long-term and systemic,” Lloyd wrote. “It’s not about throwing some money at an issue for a few months and then moving on.”
“That may not line up with the current Super Bowl/trafficking narrative, and it’s not really what the media wants to hear, but it’s the truth,” she said. “What is true, without question, is that commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking will undoubtedly happen in the New York/New Jersey area during the first week of February, and the second and third and fourth week of February and in March and April and every single day and every night throughout the year.”