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How Super Bowl sex trafficking myths hurt actual sex workers

Every year in the run up to the Super Bowl, media outlets publish numerous articles claiming that the football championship leads to a dangerous spike in sex trafficking. And every year, it isn't true. There's no evidence that the Super Bowl contributes to sex trafficking. But there is evidence that myths and urban legends about sex trafficking at the Super Bowl harm marginalized people, and make it more difficult for trafficking victims to get help.

The narrative around sex trafficking at sporting events sounds straightforward. The Super Bowl, the World Cup, the Olympics, and other high-profile sports contests draw large numbers of attendees — including, supposedly, many men interested in sex tourism. Pimps and traffickers then bring their victims to the host city to cater to these men. Therefore, the story goes, the Super Bowl causes sex trafficking to increase, and cities need to increase vigilance and policing to stop it. Miami, the site of the 2020 Super Bowl, has organized a rapid response trafficking hotline and paid for ads on billboards and buses with the slogan, "Buy sex. Be exposed." Law enforcement agencies plan to set up stings and make arrests, as they did in Atlanta before the Super Bowl in 2019.

But while law enforcement continues to act on the Super Bowl sex trafficking narrative, researches have known for years that there's nothing to it. A 2019 review of the literature in the Anti-Trafficking Review concluded, once again, that "available empirical evidence does not suggest that major sporting events cause trafficking for sexual exploitation."

"Awareness campaigns are only as good as their content. ... That means that most of what the average person knows about trafficking is wrong. That is dangerous."

Twitter user @sarahthemoose, who was trafficked by an abusive boyfriend for several months in 2016, tells Mic that she was unsurprised that the Super Bowl sex trafficking narrative was a myth. Her own abuser, she says, was reluctant to travel to find more lucrative opportunities, in part because he was worried that if she started to make more money, she would be able to escape.

Moreover, when she worked as a stripper, it was a truism that sports games were terrible for business. "Go to any strip club on a football Sunday. And watch how hard it is for those girls to sell lap dances. Impossible. It's impossible because all the guys are there to watch football," she says, adding: "If you're a plumber or just an average blue-collar guy who's been saving up all year to go to the Super Bowl, you have money for the Super Bowl and for Olive Garden and that's it. These guys do not have any extra money for sex workers."

Harmful myths

Reporters and officials have begun to admit that sex trafficking at the Super Bowl is not a problem. But many still argue that because of the myth, the Super Bowl is a good time "to raise awareness" about the issue, as one Atlanta outlet put it in 2019. The Polaris Project, a leading anti-trafficking organization, similarly noted that “sex trafficking happens during the Super Bowl with the same frequency as it does every single day, in every single city in America,” but then went on to urge heightened vigilance. The Super Bowl draws a huge amount of attention. Why not use that attention to focus on helping victims of sex trafficking?

Unfortunately, when you raise awareness using myths, you don't actually help vulnerable people, according to Berkeley lecturer Alexandra Lutnick, the author of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains. "Awareness campaigns are only as good as their content," Lutnick tells Mic. "Most of these campaigns’ content is extremely flawed, misleading, and simplistic. That means that most of what the average person knows about trafficking is wrong. That is dangerous and not a helpful outcome."

Lutnick notes that the Super Bowl sex trafficking narrative leads host cities to focus on law enforcement solutions, like stings and arrests. But in Florida, for example, stings that supposedly target victims of human trafficking often in practice lead to the arrest of large numbers of consensual sex workers. Arrests are traumatizing and frightening, for consensual sex workers and trafficking victims alike. Those arrested end up with criminal records which makes it more difficult for them to find other work, and therefore makes them even more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.

Moreover, police officers themselves sometimes target sex workers for assault or harassment, knowing they’ll have little recourse to fight back. A Miami police officer was arrested last year on multiple charges of kidnapping and sexual abuse, one of them involving a minor. Some of the women who accused him were believed by police to be victims of human trafficking. Mic reached out to the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office for comment, but did not receive a response.

The Super Bowl narrative "positions law enforcement as 'rescuers,'" Lutnick says. But "people involved in sex work, including those who are experiencing trafficking, are hesitant to trust law enforcement and many have had significantly negative experiences with officers." More funds for police often means more, not less, abuse for marginalized people.

Better remedies

More law enforcement doesn't necessarily help trafficking victims, but there are things that could. Kate D'Adamo, a sex worker rights advocate at Reframe Health and Justice, tells Mic that Florida could aid victims, first of all, by recognizing that trafficking is not just about sex. In fact, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that worldwide, sex trafficking accounts for only 4.8 million people of the 24.9 million individuals engaged in forced labor. The other 20 million victims are being forced to do work under exploitive conditions in domestic work, construction, agriculture, and other industries.

There’s not a huge demand for sex workers at sporting events, where people are focused on other entertainment options. But sporting events do lead to a spike in demand for cheap labor to clean hotels, staff restaurants, and sometimes to construct stadiums or other structures. This creates conditions in which labor trafficking in the service and construction industries can flourish. In 2016, for example, the International Labour Organization (ILO) warned of exploitive unsafe working conditions at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro that year, citing the danger that some companies might use slave labor.

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D'Adamo points out that Florida is especially unequipped to deal with this kind of exploitation because it has no state-specific Department of Labor. Rather than paying police to do raids, she says, the state should provide "an extensive amount of Know Your Rights training specific to people being targeted by hospitality, by concession work, by service industries." If the state wants to stop trafficking, its best bet is to "make sure that everyone knows exactly what their wage and hour regulations are, knows who to contact, and make sure that during the event, there are people doing outreach." People need to know that they are being exploited, and what to do when they are. But it's difficult to get that information out if the only exploitation the state focuses on is sex trafficking.

Jill McCracken, a professor who researches sex worker issues at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg says that there's another important step Florida could take to help trafficking victims: sex work decriminalization.

If you are a construction worker, and someone forces you to work for no pay, you can at least hope for help from the authorities. But if you are in the sex trade, and someone forces you to work for no pay, going to the police could easily get you arrested for prostitution. "Criminalization is a problem because it prevents you from putting in place labor protections," McCracken tells Mic. "Criminalization means people can't even work together without being accused of trafficking each other." Services to vet clients, for example, can help protect sex workers from violence and exploitation. When those services are criminalized, workers are more likely to be exploited and trafficked. With the passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) in 2017, for example, sex worker ads online were criminalized, making it more difficult for sex workers to screen clients and forcing some back onto the street. A 2017 study found that overall female homicide rates dropped 17% when Craiglist erotic services ads were introduced, because murders of sex workers were so drastically reduced.

When the Super Bowl kicks off Sunday in Miami, we can all rest assured that the game has not in fact sparked a sex trafficking crisis. Unfortunately, the ongoing moral panic stoked in part by Florida officials is likely to conceal real labor trafficking violations, harm sex workers, and make it harder to see — and prevent — actual sex trafficking when it occurs.