Is the Super Bowl a Hotbed of “Sex Trafficking?”

by Thomas Roche on February 5, 2012

In an article headlined Super Bowl: Volunteers Prepare to Stop Pimps, Sex Traffickers, the Christian Post reports on what may be the very weirdest sporting-event-related promotional giveaway in history: Super Bowl anti-sex-slavery soap. No, I’m not making this up:

Theresa Flores, founder of Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution (S.O.A.P.), told The Christian Post that major sporting events like the Super Bowl generally have more men in attendance who are visiting from a different city, and often do things they wouldn’t normally do at home. This creates a demand that “traffickers and pimps are there willing and waiting to supply,” she said.

Because of this, about 150 volunteers for S.O.A.P. are heading to Indiana before the event, not to tailgate, but to pass out soap at Indianapolis motels.

Each bar of soap will have a label on it with phrases like “Are you being threatened?” or “Are you witnessing young girls being prostituted?” The soap provides the number for a human trafficking hotline so that those at the hotel, or young girls who are being trafficked, will see it and can call for help.

S.O.A.P. volunteers will distribute the bars Feb. 1-2, in conjunction with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship students who will hand out fliers to raise awareness for the trafficking issue with football fans.”

[Link.]

This has been an ongoing theme over the last week; the anti-trafficking activists are coming on like runningbacks. A Texas group called Traffick 911 has even started a petition trying to force the NFL to post their “I’m Not Buying It” posters opposing human trafficking. That’s called “free advertising.” The NFL is a business. If the New York Department of Public Health has to pay for their posters on the subway, my thinking is that some half-baked foundation ought to do the same for their misinformation spreading anti-sex hysteria at the Super Bowl. Would those same groups have been happy if public health groups tried get the NFL to put up posters encouraging safer sex?

Even Catholic nuns are getting into the act — at least eleven different congregations of them, according to this post at the LA Times:

[Sister Ann Oestreich] is coordinating the Super Bowl 2012 Anti-Trafficking Initiative for the Coalition for Corporate Responsibility for Indiana and Michigan. The group says it has contacted the managers of 220 hotels within a 50-mile radius of Indianapolis to help spot trafficking.

…Major events such as a Super Bowl or Olympics often attract a host of illegal activities, including sex trafficking and gambling.

To deal with an expected increase in prostitution, Indiana passed a law, which went into effect on Monday, designed to make prosecution of sex trafficking easier. Among other things, the law makes it a felony to recruit, transport or harbor anyone under the age of 16 for prostitution or other sexual conduct, punishable by 20 to 50 years in prison.

Another nun, Sister Nancy Conway, is quoted as saying, “If one woman is saved at the Super Bowl, it will all have been worth it,” in a WCKY Cleveland article that quotes some unbelievably sketchy statistics. The piece claims “The federal government estimates human trafficking is a $15 billion a year business. It’s also estimated about a 1000 girls are trafficked every year in Ohio alone.” Sister Pat Bergen quoted even more outrageous statistics in her article for the Chicago Tribune.

Hey, don’t get me wrong. Hooray for Flores, Conway, Traffick 911 and their parade of fanatics for opposing human trafficking…if that’s what they’re really doing. But it pays to remember that what they’re supposedly selling in this case is not the idea that human trafficking is bad, but that it happens more during the Super Bowl. Does it? Or have these groups cooked up a crazed response to a fictional phenomenon, in order to sell a few unrelated ideas — the ones about how sex is bad, sex work is bad, all sex workers are victims, and events like the Super Bowl encourage men to be somewhere other than church on a Sunday?

If the Sisters and the soap-wielding Crusaders have really convinced themselves they’re trying to make the world a better place, maybe their intentions are good. But that’s meeting them more than halfway, because in order to believe that these kind of tactics actually address issues of human trafficking, you have to be fantastically uneducated on the subject. At a certain point, ignorance is indistinguishable from malice.

The idea that sporting events cause a surge in prostitution has been an enduring myth told and retold for some years. I heard it when Germany hosted the World Cup. In fact, the LA Times, which so credulously reported the claim as fact, debunked it back in 2010, when the before-the-fact estimate that 40,000 prostitutes would enter Germany for the 2006 World Cup was repeated in the South African press, verbatim, as an estimate supposedly made for South Africa — five full years after the Germans had debunked the claim in relation to the World Cup.

“Sporting events bring prostitutes into town” have been reported for the last several years, like clockwork, before each Super Bowl, as well as before the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. And it’s not just anti-sex activists who are spreading the hysteria. Law enforcement jumps on the bandwagon, claiming that prostitution will skyrocket before the Super Bowl. In every case, this is reported before the fact. Want to know why? Because after the fact, the numbers don’t hold up.

Mind you, the cops know this. All they have to do is call their fellow cops in other cities, which is what Dallas/Ft. Worth’s WFAA-TV Channel 8 did. Yet that doesn’t happen…why? Is it justification for overtime? Lobbying for new Grizzly APCs with water-cannon turrets?

WFAA-TV Channel 8 published this exposé day before yesterday, making it grotesquely clear that that there’s been no connection established between large sporting events and prostitution, let alone “human trafficking.”

DALLAS — For weeks now, police, politicians and non-profit agencies have warned that a wave of prostitutes will be coming to North Texas for Super Bowl festivities.

But News 8 has learned there is no evidence supporting such claims.

“I think it will be like nothing we’ve ever experienced before,” said Deena Graves, executive director of Traffick 911, a Fort Worth organization dedicated stopping the sale of children into sexual slavery.

Graves is among those warning of an alarming increase in underage girls sold for sex during the Super Bowl.

“Traffickers follow the money, and there’s a whole lot of money that comes with the Super Bowl,” she said.

Police and politicians have also issued similar statements.

“The Super Bowl is, unfortunately, a major draw for human trafficking,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said during a news conference on the topic at Dallas Police headquarters recently.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott gave reporters similar warnings in Arlington.

But no one can answer the question, “How do you know?” since pimps and prostitutes don’t register anywhere.

…Similar stories about the sex trade surround almost every major sporting event — even the Olympics and the World Cup.

To investigate their validity, News 8 began checking with police departments in other cities that have also hosted the Super Bowl…Phoenix hosted the big game three years ago. Police there told News 8 they received similar warnings about an increase in prostitution and prepared for it, but never uncovered any evidence of a spike in illegal sexual activity…Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Tommy Thompson [said], “We did not notice an increase or anything out of the ordinary.”

[Link.]

WFAA-TV goes on to investigate Tampa, which hosted the Super Bowl in 2009 — where the entire week leading up to the game, Tampa saw only 11 prostitution arrests. In Miami, the 2010 host, the number of arests were 14. “Those figures are not uncommon for large cities during a seven-day period, experts said.”

You might remember that similar claims were made about the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where the province of British Columbia’s study discovered that “sex trafficking and mega-events are not linked.” And WFAA-TV adds:

A European group called The International Organization for Migration arrived at the same conclusion in Germany after rumors that 40,000 prostitutes would go to the 2006 World Cup. The estimations are “unfounded and unrealistic,” the IOM reported.

Ernie Allen, director for The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said he was misquoted last year when predicting 10,000 prostitutes would show up in Miami for Super Bowl XLIV.

Allen said the Super Bowl likely doesn’t attract more sex traffickers than any other large event. What’s more, he also conceded there is no way to quantify the problem.

Sports events are favored as targets for other “activists” obsessed with “protecting women’s welfare,” too. Similarly spurious claims were made a few years ago about the rise in domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday, as pointed out by this commenter on a credulous article on right-wing hate-fest FreeRepublic.com. That claim was debunked on Snopes, in an article that has a great timeline about how the lie was invented and perpetuated.

These kinds of claims are based not on information but self-perceived “logic.” They derive from the same source as most sex-related evolutionary psychology findings. That source is the vast storehouse most people think they have of “conventional wisdom” about “how things work,” usually based on not knowing anything about them — things like prostitution, human trafficking, domestic violence, crime, law enforcement, and wieners.

Urban legends about the Super Bowl sometimes show an inflammatory, hateful quality, displaying transparently anti-liberal sentiment and blatant racist lies about American cities. Religious organizations worried about football fans behaving badly might do more good if they concerned themselves with the “one” woman they might save from getting hit by a drunk driver if they offered rides home from Super Bowl parties.

Like so many anti-sex fanatics, the “anti-trafficking” activists are not actually anti-trafficking at all. They’re anti-sex. If we give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe they’re simply ignorant. They’ve confused the issues of prostitution and trafficking. I also suspect these groups are using the term “sex trafficking” to mean a broad range of things partially because they’re not all that sure what people actually do in bed, let alone what sex workers do. Apparently unclear on what they’re talking about, they’ve opted to give away promotional soap, come up with soundbites about saving “just one woman,” and demand free advertising out of the NFL instead of actually educating people — which, to be fair, would have to start with them educating themselves. Unfortunately, spreading hysteria is always far easier than researching the sticky question of how to make the world a less shitty place, and the most jingoistic flavors of Christianity have always thrived more on fear than on genuine Christian concern for fellow humans.

To that end, the anti-sex commandos have been spreading the terrifying message that the Super Bowl is a veritable slave market, resulting in a huge influx of helpless slave girls to satisfy the animal lusts of those beasts that some consider to be the most dangerous element in society — those who prefer football and sex over church. The game they’re playing is about shaming sexuality out of existence, not about making life better for women in the sex trade — even those who are there non-consensually, including underage sex workers. If the Super Bowl really is a slave market, handing out soap is going to have about as much impact as Ashton Kutcher’s whacked-out anti-trafficking campaign last year.

But hey, the so-called activists will have accomplished their real goals: spreading sexual shame, and painting female sex workers, and women in general, as helpless victims to dangerous male lust. Go team!

If it sounds like I’m making light of real-life slavery, please understand that I’m not someone who believes it doesn’t exist. I just believe it doesn’t look a damned thing like what Christian anti-sex activists seem to think it looks like. I believe they tar all sex work with the same brush because they honestly can’t tell the difference between right and wrong. They’re too busy being grossed out by the fact that anyone has sex in a different way than they have it.

Human trafficking is a real issue in many places in the world. It’s endemic in Saudi Arabia, for instance, where domestic workers from Africa, the Philippines and elsewhere are obtained to live in what amounts to virtual slavery. They’re not trafficked “for sex,” they’re trafficked as labor — but in a domestic situation in a nation choked by its sexual taboos, domestic workers, male and female, are often subjected to sexual violence.

Oh, and did I mention workers in virtual slavery “not being trafficked for sex”? Well, in China, that iPod you might fondle daily is made in factories where workers are transported far from their hometowns to work long hours in horrifying conditions for wages that amount to slavery. All over Africa, transit to Europe is a sought-after commodity, and the economy of the European Union wouldn’t run nearly as smoothly as it does, for all its impending doom, if there hadn’t long been a semi-underground economy of immigrants living in dangerous conditions and working for horrifyingly low wages. And that’s leaving out the issue of what economic conditions in their home countries made that trip to Europe to become a de facto indentured servant seem like the best damned idea in the world. One of the most destructive trends in Africa in the post-Colonial era is the large-scale requirement that men travel long distances to find work. In fact, it contributed not just to an enormous rise in sex trafficking within Africa, but to the spread of HIV — particularly along the Kinshasa Highway, also known as the “AIDS Highway,” that runs through the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an enormous exodus of workers in the ’80s and ’90s resulted in a huge number of men away from their homes and wives — and a resultant explosion in prostitution, often by women who choose that way to make a living, all right, but only because they don’t have another choice.

In short, any half-baked crackpot who thinks that the global phenomenon of “human trafficking” is first and foremost about sex — well, I’d lay odds that they have a problem with sex, not slavery. “Sex slavery” may titillate and horrify the Normals, but it’s de rigueur for the poorest of the poor in many parts of the developing world, and it doesn’t have jack kitty crap to do with the Super Bowl. In fact, it has very little to do with what the average anti-sex religious crusader in the United States even recognizes as sex. The context of human trafficking in the developing world is so tragic that any serious consideration of it makes the self-righteous Chastity Commandos passing out soap at the Super Bowl seem like pathetically clueless, self-obsessed idiots. I would say they’re well-intentioned…but the truth is, they’re not.

As I said, willful ignorance, at a certain volume, becomes indistinguishable from malice. And, in the case of some self-appointed “anti-trafficking” activists in the United States, it’s malicious to begin with. These activists have convinced themselves that the way to fight evil is to fight not slavery, but sex. To do that, they’ve concocted a mess of half-truths and outright lies about who U.S. sex workers are and what they do.

Human trafficking is about global economics. It’s a poison cocktail mixed from two giant waves of decolonization: Western European decolonization from the ’40s through the ’70s, and Soviet decolonization post-1990. The Cold War flooded the developing world with small arms; post-Cold War market forces merely altered the currency used to pay for them — from dollars and rubles to smuggled Emirati gold and Sierra Leonean diamonds. Add to that an avalanche of Neoliberalism, in which Milton Friedman’s followers like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Hu Jintao and Boris Yeltsin built a world where public infrastructure was auctioned off to private individuals for private gain — all while blathering out the lie that privatization and deregulation provide more freedom. (They do…for the ultra-rich.)

Yet media reports always focus on trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, not for labor profiteering.

And yes, in a globalized world where women’s sexuality can be controlled by cartels, governments, and criminals, the phenomenon of women being lured from other countries by being promised jobs and then being compelled to work in brothels or massage parlors is real — and yes, it’s happened in the United States. But do such phenomena, trotted out by anti-sex activists when they’re sex-related and ignored by those same activists if they’re related to corporate profit motives, indict sex work as a whole? No — they indict human trafficking. Pretending that “human trafficking” is primarily about sex, or that sex work itself is somehow the problem, ignores the pro-big-business, anti-employee, anti-union economic apocalypse that has made workers in many parts of the world virtual slaves. And it’s dragging the United States and Europe down the exact same path.

Hysteria focused on some mythic phenomenon that can’t be addressed because it doesn’t exist is a win for two camps: the anti-sex conservatives, and the businesses that benefit from economic slavery.

All that is profoundly different from the consensual, voluntary exchange of money for sex by women who are empowered to make choices. And even that doesn’t go up during the Super Bowl, based on the data provided. Cops and crackpot activists need to direct their attention elsewhere.

Speaking of which: As I said above, sometimes ignorance isn’t just indistinguishable from malice; it is malice.

Well, institutional malice should be called what it is: Racketeering.

Many of these activists are Catholic nuns. So…being part of an organization that’s fostered the systematic institutional protection of serial child abusers for decades…is that more or less of a bad thing than cooking up an imagined phenomenon to sell an anti-sex message? Might some of these activists have directed their efforts toward fixing the Church’s own problems, instead of ones that don’t exist?

If you had spent your time saving “just one” child from abuse by a priest, Sisters…how many bars of soap would that have been worth?

Image from Photobucket.

Thomas Roche

Thomas Roche's first novel, The Panama Laugh, is a gonzo military science fiction zombie apocalypse that has been compared to the writings of Jim Thompson and Hunter S. Thompson. He is also a widely published author of sex-positive erotica and the occasional purveyor of horror and crime-noir short stories, and a commentator on sex, crime, culture and politics.

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{ 1 comment }

1 Billy Bob February 5, 2012 at 4:15 pm

If prostitution we legalized then any human trafficking would be greatly reduced. It’s a basic fact of life that men like to have sex and will go to significant effort to do so. So all the laws against prostitution only serve to create a shady environment where other illegal activities thrive. If you went to get a haircut and the girl looked scared and unhappy then you’re probably never return and you’d also consider calling the cops. On the other hand if you go to get a blow job and the girl looks scared then you are likely to assume it’s because she’s worried about being arrested and you certainly don’t want to get involved by calling the cops. The truth is that there is nothing wrong with sex and there is nothing wrong with paying someone for a service. Prostitution should be legalized and regulated. *That* is how you would stop human trafficking.

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