by Chris Rinker
I’ve seen a lot of articles going around that say the claim that sex trafficking increases around major events like the Super Bowl is a myth, and it is a harmful one at that. My response is that this is only partially true, on both counts.
First, the claim that it is a myth: the numbers being quoted to support the idea that sex trafficking increases during the Super Bowl seem to have largely been made up. That is, they are not based on empirical evidence. I am willing to grant that perhaps the data does not show that sex trafficking increases during these major events, and that it is not fair to quote large numbers without any evidence. However, that does not mean that the activity of human trafficking does not increase around these major events. Aside from personal survivor stories about being carted around to major events like this one, the logic of simple supply/demand necessitates that there will be an increase in sex trafficking wherever there is an increase in people. In general, urban city centers have a higher prevalence of sex trafficking than rural areas, and huge international airports are sex trafficking hubs. This is largely due to the higher concentration and anonymity of people in these places, and major events like the Super Bowl are no exception to this rule.
So why don’t we have the numbers to back up this claim? Again, think about it logically. Sex trafficking is an extremely clandestine crime by nature. The only people involved who are directly visible are usually the victims, and traffickers who hear about increased security at these events are going to be much more cautious about potentially exposing themselves. Numbers are notoriously hard to come by in the anti-human trafficking field, which is why listening to the stories and testimonies of survivors is key in gleaning any information we can about the nature of this criminal industry.
Now, the claim that the ‘myth’ is harmful: This is somewhat true, and somewhat false. It is true in the sense that people might read it and think that sex trafficking (and other forms of human trafficking) only occur at major events like the Super Bowl. We need to be careful to remind people that all those victims who are present at the Super Bowl do not just go back to their ordinary lives afterwards – they remain in slavery. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, roughly twenty-seven million men, women, and children remain in bondage throughout the world. We must continue to remind people of this. Additionally, spreading the word about increased security has the already-mentioned detrimental effect of placing the traffickers on high alert and driving them deeper into the shadows.
These are the ways in which media reports about the increased prevalence of sex trafficking at the Super Bowl can be harmful. However, they can also be helpful. How, you ask? Awareness. Awareness is key. The more people that know about the prevalence of human trafficking, that it exists in our own backyards, how traffickers recruit their victims, how to potentially identity victims of human trafficking and how to help those victims, the better our chances at fighting this repulsive criminal industry. If one person who read an article notices some suspicious activity at the Super Bowl and reports it, leading to the rescue of one victim of sex trafficking, then the printing of that article was worth it, as I see it.
Having said all of this, let me say one more thing. There is great harm in the way we respond to this increase in sex trafficking, or any sex trafficking at all, for that matter. I continue to read reports about prostitutes arrested and jailed, all in the name of “fighting” human trafficking. Our country has a particularly twisted way of rescuing victims of sex trafficking. It prosecutes prostitutes as felons and charges pimps and johns with misdemeanors. It puts victims in jail rather than getting them into safe houses and rehabilitation programs. The streets are “cleaned-up” for the Super Bowl, and the actual traffickers go unpunished. Some states have adopted Safe Harbor Laws, which prevent minors from being charged with prostitution. My response: Why wasn’t that already a law? We need to seriously redirect our legislation on prostitution if we hope to be true advocates for the 27 million, and this can only happen with a major shift in public attitude. And this starts with awareness.