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Reality vs. Hype: Is the Super Bowl a major trafficking event?

Do many fans come to the Super Bowl with a pocket full of cash to buy sex? And do traffickers amp up their businesses to cater to this flash audience? These are provocative questions, for certain. You might call them headline-inducing, which could explain why you’ve probably seen a story (or ten) based on this premise in the last few days and years.

The trouble is that there’s little evidence to suggest the answers are “yes,” at least in significant numbers.

So here’s what happens: law enforcement calls press conferences to announce get-tough initiatives. More often, there’s a round-up of sex workers instead of trafficking victims (because when it comes to adults, not all of those involved in commercial sex are victims of trafficking). A lot of well-intentioned campaigns and signs go out, many spreading “facts” that are based more on mythology than reality.

Trafficking is not just a phenomenon that happens at big sports events. Just like it doesn’t only happen overseas, or just to someone else’s kids, in some other town, not “here.”

The truth about what trafficking really looks like in our communities is complex. It is hidden. And it is difficult to quantify. This is all the more reason it is imperative that we do our best as a community, and especially as those who are concerned, to get the story right.

In fact, misinformation and jumping to conclusions around one high-profile day might actually hurt the cause of ending sex trafficking.

This makes us want to be that much more considerate, thoughtful, and even self-reflective when we tackle these issues.

We were thinking about this when we recently received an invitation from a radio station asking us to talk on air about their perception of the increase in sex trafficking leading up to the Super Bowl. Great, we thought — a chance to educate people about child trafficking and exploitation, asking listeners to get involved in helping to make the world a safer place for children. However, we had to let the station know how we felt about the fuzzy link between claims of increased trafficking and the Super Bowl…

The evidence is unconvincing at best, as author and blogger Benjamin L. Corey reminded us this week, pointing to an oft-cited 2011 report authored by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW). Though there have been scattered reports of some criminal justice activity around the Super Bowl since the report — an L.A. Times story quoted an FBI “rescue of 25 child prostitutes” and the arrests of 45 pimps after the 2014 Super Bowl in New Jersey — these numbers don’t match the hype. Both Rachel Lloyd, the founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), in The Huffington Post and trafficking victims’ rights advocate Kate Mogulescu in The New York Times make the point that an increase in arrests could be explained by the heightened focus from law enforcement during this high-profile time. And Mogulescu, whose clients at the Legal Aid Society include individuals charged with prostitution, rightfully points out the difference between someone who has been trafficked and someone who voluntarily engages in sex work.

It’s understandable that so many believe the link exists. Like everyone else, we read the headlines about professional football players facing domestic violence charges, and about college players being accused of rape. It’s easy to make the leap that misogyny can infect the game and its fans, too. The correlation makes a certain amount of sense, at least on the surface.

In fact, we have been guilty in the past of participating in a campaign during the Super Bowl, using the opportunity to create awareness about child sex trafficking and exploitation. People still tell us they remember the campaign.

Which may be the problem.

We got a bit of attention. The combination of the Super Bowl and a subject relating to “sex” seemed irresistible to the national conversation. Yes, it helped bring greater awareness to the issue (and thankfully our campaign didn’t make exaggerated claims that the Super Bowl was a den of traffickers). But still, maybe we did some damage, too, by playing into the idea that trafficking is disproportionately linked to these circumstances: sports events, guys blowing off steam, the sudden appearance of a lot of money in a community. When claims are made that “the Super Bowl is the largest human trafficking event,” additional damage comes to the credibility of the anti-trafficking movement and organizations like us that are a part of it. When myths like these fall apart (as they should and must), we at Love146 are still sitting here beside the children we care for — children who really have been trafficked and exploited.

If we’re going to succeed in ending child trafficking, we need people to trust us when we say what we actually do know: the problem is real, and it’s not all hype.

All year round, organizations give their hearts and souls to stop this agonizing crime against human beings. At Love146, we think about children enduring this abuse every day. We’re thinking about children who are vulnerable, who have found themselves in situations from which they can’t find a way out. We’re also thinking about children who have found their way out and continue to inspire us. Children we know by name. None of this has much to do with football. After the last cleat has left the stadium, these children will be enduring. And when they get up on Monday morning, we will, too.



This “Eyes on Trafficking” story is reprinted from Love146.


PBJ Learning is a leading provider of human trafficking training, focusing on awareness and prevention education. Their interactive Human Trafficking Essentials is being used worldwide to educate professionals and individuals how to recognize human trafficking and how to respond to a potential victim. Their online human trafficking course is available for use on any web browser (even your mobile phone) at any time.

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