Just in Time for February, the Myth of Sex Trafficking and the Super Bowl Returns

Photo by Flickr user Section 215.
MetLife Stadium, where this year's Super Bowl will be played.
It's almost Super Bowl time, and you know what that means: sex slaves, thousands of them, flooding into the area around New Jersey's MetLife stadium to be raped by morally bankrupt football fans.

That's the story from the Associated Press, anyway; an article by Katie Zezima and Samantha Henry published this month warned that sex trafficking is always a huge problem around the Super Bowl, and that the Jersey location of this year's game will only make matters worse: "Many believe the state's sprawling highway system, proximity to New York City and diverse population make it an attractive base of operations for traffickers."

The only problem is, that story -- about trafficked women and children being driven into Super Bowl towns in large numbers to be brutalized every year when game time rolls around -- isn't true. It wasn't true 10 years ago, when a version of the story first started circulating, and it will continue to not be true this year. So, why are you reading about it in an Associated Press article, on PolicyMic, in the New York Daily News, the Huffington Post, and dozens of other media outlets, not one of which can apparently refrain from using some version of the phrase "a dark side to the big game"?

The durability of the Super Bowl prostitution myth isn't surprising, given that it relies on just three things: politicians desperate for headlines, obliging journalists willing to write a big, breathless story before the game without doing any real follow-up afterwards, and anti-trafficking groups who desperately need donations and are grateful for any attention the media will give them.

That's what Voice Media Group editor Pete Kotz wrote about in 2012, when he discovered that Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller was claiming that his office was cracking down on sex traffickers in advance of the Super Bowl there. In fact, Kotz wrote:

Zoeller is riding the momentum of a hoax that's reignited before every major sporting event, be it the Super Bowl, the World Cup, the Olympics or the NBA All-Star game. Alarming figures are pulled from the mist of imagination, where extra zeros apparently come free with every purchase. Anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 hookers will be coming to town! Hide the women and children! And perhaps the more effeminate men as well! You know, just in case!

Before Zoeller, it was Attorney General Greg Abbott in Texas in 2011, warning that the streets of Dallas would be flooded with prostitutes, as well as trafficked women and children (many of these AGs often make little or no distinction between sex workers and victims of trafficking). Before Abbott, it was Florida's and Arizona's AGs with the same message. But as Kotz discovered, none of these towns actually saw any significant upswing in prostitution arrests, and absolutely no evidence that large rings of sex traffickers came to town to capitalize on sports fans' unquenchable lust.

If you think you've read about this in the pages of the Village Voice before, you're right; Kotz's story ran here, as did a multi-part series on truth and myth-making around sex trafficking. At the time, the Voice was owned by Village Voice Media, which also owned backpage.com. As you probably recall, Backpage opponents accused the website and Village Voice Media as a whole of helping to facilitate sex trafficking by allowing adult ads. In September 2012, the chain of newspapers and Backpage went their separate ways; the Voice's new parent company, Voice Media Group, is not affiliated with Backpage. (You can read good, impartial analyses of the Backpage controversy at TechCrunch, Salon, and Forbes).

So, the company I work for has changed. What didn't: the number of sex trafficking rings busted during the Super Bowl, which remains stubbornly low to nonexistent.

"We didn't see a huge influx in prostitutes coming into Tampa," Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said after the 2009 game. "The arrests were not a lot higher. They were almost the same."

That's true of each and every single Super Bowl. In New Orleans, federal and state authorities proudly announced they arrested 85 people in the week leading up to the game under an anti-trafficking project known as Operation Innocence Lost. But in fact, only two of those men, Christopher Frazier and Datryl Blake, were arrested on suspicion of trafficking and pandering, along with five women they'd brought with them. At least two of the women were homeless; they reportedly told police they met Frazier at a gas station in Oklahoma and exchanged numbers with him, then later agreed to go to New Orleans with him. They told police the men promised that they'd only have to go on non-sexual dates with lonely old men.

It's a much muddier picture than the image of mass trafficking conjured up by the most alarmist media reports. In 2011, National Football League spokesman Brian McCarthy called sex trafficking at the Super Bowl an "urban legend." Recently, he told the Voice: "These same issues were expressed before previous Super Bowls. We were pleased to learn that the grave concerns about human trafficking and prostitution were not realized. Federal, state, and local law enforcement deserve the credit for keeping host cities safe."

But although the NFL knows the sex trafficking story isn't true, it's gained so much traction that the organization has learned to take it seriously. So McCarthy hastened to add this: "To further illustrate our support of law enforcement's efforts to combat human trafficking when there are "special events," the league's Security Department hosted a meeting in September of the supervisory command staff of the Violent Crimes Against Children Section of the FBI."

It's not just the NFL dismissing a claim that makes them look bad (they're too busy with massive concussion lawsuits for that). The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women released a report in 2011 confirming that the "sporting events bring sex slaves" story was a myth, one that had been around since the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece. It found, too, that many of the anti-trafficking campaigns set around sporting events -- for example the 2010 Vancouver Olympics -- "confused trafficking with sex work and relied on extremely negative imagery about women."

That's because many of the anti-trafficking organizations involved in perpetuating this hoax believe that there's no difference between prostitution and sex trafficking, and advocate for the total abolishment of sex work (those organizations in fact frequently refer to themselves as "abolitionist," making an explicit tie with the Civil War-era anti-slavery movement). Many of them are also faith-based, including the International Justice Mission, which pledged to head to the Dallas Super Bowl to rescue trafficked women in 2011, then quietly failed to mention that there were no trafficked women to be found.

This year, the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking , a group of mainly faith-based nonprofits, released a fact sheet on how they planned to deter trafficking at this year's game. At the same time, they acknowledged, rather obliquely, that there's virtually no proof to back up their claims that the area will be flooded with traffickers and their victims. A section on how to respond to those who "downplay concern about the Super Bowl" states: "Currently, there are very few ways of collecting statistics on Human Trafficking. However, at the governmental level there is an acknowledgement of the potential increase of Human Trafficking around large sporting events."

Even the latest Associated Press story acknowledges that the evidence for this claim is shaky at best, writing:

There are scant statistics and much debate over how much sex trafficking increases during a Super Bowl or large sporting event, but it's been enough of a concern to prompt New Jersey and prior Super Bowl host cities to pay attention to it.

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