What’s the biggest event for human trafficking in the US? If you said the Super Bowl, you’d actually be wrong. It’s understandable, however that you’d believe that to be the case when it’s being touted as such by everyone from Cindy McCain who called it the “largest human trafficking venue on the planet” to Representative Chris Smith, NJ, who said “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”. Those quotes and many others have been repeated by breathless news reporters on almost every media outlet. The truth is that there is no ‘single largest incidence of human trafficking’ as the Super Bowl was called in 2011 by the Texas Attorney General who also talked about 10,000 to 100,000 victims being trafficked into Dallas. Despite a lot of press conferences and preparations each year by each city where the event will be held, each year there is no evidence of these claims.
There is no huge influx of pimps and trafficked women and girls each year into whatever city the Super Bowl is being held. There is no mass invasion of johns traveling specifically for the purposes of purchasing sex. I wouldn’t say there isn’t any increase, of course there are some pimps who come into town knowing that there will be men who will pay for sex, including sex from children and there are traffickers who are already in their home city and capitalize on the huge numbers of men in town. But every year, post Super Bowl statistics show that at most there is a ‘slight uptick’ as one law enforcement official called it and in some cities very little evidence to suggest any significant increase. There are normally a handful of victims identified and some arrests made of pimps and johns, but given that there is trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation happening every day in every major city across America it speaks more to the fact that increased interventions and resources targeted at the issue result in more identification than it does of a dramatic spike in trafficking around the Super Bowl. Yet despite any evidence it remains as a recent article at The Wire called it, “The Super Bowl Sex Trafficking Story That Just Won’t Die”.
There are various reasons that this claim keeps resurfacing; it makes for good news stories and press conferences and what public official doesn’t want to stand behind a podium waging war against traffickers and vowing ‘not in my city’? It captures the public’s imagination and worst fears of ‘white slavery’ and chained up girls being shipped in by the truckload and after all, it seems to make sense; lots of men away from home and their families, lots of alcohol, lots of testosterone would logically lead to exploitation of women and children, right? But we’ve been here before. For many years, there was a widely held belief that studies had shown that the Super Bowl was linked to a major increase in the domestic violence incidences and it was the most violent day of the year for intimate partner victims. I believed it to be true. I’d heard someone say it, read it in some news article and would repeat it in conversation if the topic came up. It made sense, lots of men at home with their families, lots of alcohol, lots of testosterone would logically lead to violence against women and children, right? Each year, in the run up to the Super Bowl, the media, public officials and some advocates focused on this link, money was spent on public awareness campaigns, prevention efforts and public service announcements. The only problem, it turned out, was that it simply wasn’t true.
But, I can hear you say, what’s wrong with increasing the attention and resources given to domestic violence or more recently to human trafficking? Isn’t this a good thing? As the Founder and CEO of GEMS and someone who’s spent 17 years working directly with girls and young women who’ve experienced domestic trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, I am of course in favor of bringing more resources and attention to the issue. But, and here’s the really large caveat, not at the expense of the truth. 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:
I’ve written about this issue before, specifically in relation to the Super Bowl myth. At the time the Village Voicewas on a crusade to disprove the very existence of trafficking in the US and discredit the anti-trafficking movement. The Super Bowl story and other shaky, overblown stats gave them a lot of ammunition to fire. Despite their mocking tone, horrendous language, their ownership of Backpage which had come under scrutiny for its ads, and many distortions of the truth, they were sadly on target when it came to their critique of the Super Bowl hype. They then drew a line from A to B; if the anti-trafficking movement is exaggerating about this, then they must be exaggerating about everything. It was frustrating to see many people buy into their biased analysis and more frustrating that as a movement we’d left ourselves wide open for that type of criticism. I’m well aware that there will also be people, particularly those who profit from the sex industry, who want to discount this issue, silence survivors and make it seem like we’re all just fear-mongering, puritanical, money-grabbing, anti-sex, zealots. But there are also a lot of people who are learning about this issue for the first time and who have discredited much of the movement because they’ve been so put-off by the hyperbole and sensationalism and a laissez-faire attitude towards accuracy. We want people to get engaged in this work and the movement for the long haul, not have a moment of excitement which then leads to disillusionment and cynicism.
There’s an old and familiar story about a little boy who cried wolf. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone who’s been repeating the Super Bowl story is the little boy who cried wolf. While the little boy knew his story was a lie, people genuinely and sincerely believe that the Super Bowl really is linked to a mass influx of trafficking victims. Just like I sincerely believed that domestic violence incidences skyrocketed on Super Bowl Sunday. In both cases, however, we were/are sincerely wrong. Yet when you continuously raise a false alarm, it gets harder to galvanize people to action when an alarm really is required. Engaging local lawmakers, media and the general public through the Super Bowl story may have the desired short term effect, but when the results from all of the press conferences, news stories, widespread trainings and resources expended are minimal, people are less inclined to get involved with each successive call to action. It has taken many, many years and so much work to get to the point where this issue is finally beginning to be taken seriously. It would take a lot less time and far less work to undo the legitimacy of this momentum than it ever did to build it.
Resources in this work are limited. I’ve been running a non-profit for almost two decades now and my number one challenge is the continual pressure to find and raise money to meet the needs of our girls and young women. A few months ago GEMS was contacted by a group of private corporations who were willing to provide us with in kind resources for the ‘surge in victims’ we’d undoubtedly encounter during Super Bowl week. They were willing to provide emergency hotel rooms, crisis supplies and transportation for any victims who were brought in for the Super Bowl. While I appreciated their intentions, I was frustrated by this very generous but ill-conceived offer that was of little good to the girls and young women we serve. While it is likely that we will find ourselves dealing with several crisis situations during Super Bowl week, (primarily because there will be additional law enforcement resources mobilized which is in turn likely to uncover some victims), the resources that those situations require are miniscule in comparison to the ongoing needs and services that all of our girls and young women need every day throughout the year. I get the desire to have an immediate impact, it’s human nature to respond to the crisis phase and not the recovery phase. Just asked anyone who’s had to raise money in the immediate and then ongoing, long-term aftermath of natural disasters. I honestly don’t anticipate us running into 50 girls who’ve been trafficked from out of state that week, so we don’t really need blocks of hotel rooms or unlimited flights across the country. I do however anticipate serving close to 400 girls and young women this year and I know we’ll need daily food, Metrocards, stipends, toiletries, clothing, diapers, milk and funds for our educational, leadership and employment training programs so that we can support and empower our young women every day, every year. Galvanizing resources and funding around the Super Bowl only hurts the work in the long term. It relies on the ‘rescue’ philosophy that is so harmful to survivors, it doesn’t create avenues for ongoing funding or support for those individuals who are not involved in any way with the Super Bowl and once again, it has long term implications for the type of support and resources we can expect to receive in the future.
Real change is long-term and systemic. It’s not about throwing some money at an issue for a few months and then moving on. Prevention isn’t just about some splashy ads or some quick awareness trainings. Law enforcement needs to be able to work long-term investigations that don’t solely rely on the word of a victim and that will stand up in court not just on quick and dirty cases that will make arrest numbers higher. Intervention isn’t just about volunteers running around hotels for a few weeks looking to rescue victims but about committed individuals who can work alongside survivors to support and empower them wherever they’re at in the process. 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. 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. What’s also true is that most of the victims won’t be brought in from other states, and a large percentage of them will be children, youth and young adults who experienced childhood trauma and fell through the cracks of the systems set up to serve them. Overwhelmingly they’ll be low-income youth, youth of color, LGBT youth and will have experienced homelessness. The older they are, the less likely that they will be viewed or treated as victims by law enforcement or even service providers. As for the buyers, most of them won’t be from out of town either. They’ll be local men of all ages, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. And the truth is, they won’t need lots of alcohol, lots of testosterone or an annual sporting event as an excuse to purchase another human being. Now those are the things that I wish we were focusing our resources and attention on.