Super Bowl

There's No Tidal Wave of Sex Slaves Descending on the Super Bowl

Activists and politicians warn of a roving horde of "trafficked" prostitutes that researchers just can't find.


When the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos face off in San Francisco, experts warn us to expect Cam Newton and Peyton Manning to face burial under a tidal wave of human flesh—not the opposing team's defensive line, as you might expect, but a writhing mass of sex slaves inundating the Super Bowl and the Bay Area.

Or so government officials and moral panic types would have it.

"Super Bowl host cities typically see a jump not just in tourists, but also in some crimes, including human trafficking and prostitution," San Francisco's KGO warned earlier this month on Human Trafficking Awareness Day, an annual event held every January 11.

"The good news is that we are continuing our efforts to fight human trafficking," San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said the same day. "The bad news is that the problem continues to increase."

Gascón made his comments at a press conference deliberately tied to the big game, in anticipation of a wave of "trafficked" sex workers descending on the area.

That term–not "prostitution," but "trafficking"—is a deliberate choice, selected to confuse people accustomed to the plain language established over the long history of the buying and selling of sexual services. The reason why is obvious. While the trade in sex was once frowned upon in itself, that's no longer necessarily the case. A YouGov poll published this past September found Americans almost evenly divided, with 44 percent favoring legalization of prostitution, and 46 percent opposed. That's up from 38 percent support for legalization in 2012. Amnesty International is among the organizations seeking to recognize people's right to, in the organization's words, "the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work."

Opponents of commercial sex find themselves on the wrong side of shifting public opinion, so they pull a little rhetorical sleight of hand to get around that inconvenient word "consensual." The implication of the "trafficking" terminology is that prostitutes are slaves—and they're being hustled off to a major sporting event near you.

"Coercion is much rarer than 'trafficking' fetishists pretend it is," insists Reason contributor and former call girl Maggie McNeill. "The term 'trafficking' is used to describe many different things along a broad spectrum running from absolutely coercive to absolutely not coercive, yet all of them are shoehorned into a lurid, melodramatic and highly-stereotyped narrative."

Evidence for McNeill's take is apparent in the difficulty authorities often have in convincing the trafficking "victims" they rescue that they're in need of heroic intervention into their lives.

"A lot of times they don't see themselves as victims," Bay Area prosecutor Jennifer Madden told the Associated Press. "They don't fully grasp how they've come into this, how they are being exploited, and they may not be amenable to services."

Coercion is beside the point to a lot of activists. "[T]rafficking occurs even if the woman consents," wrote the University of Rhode Island's Donna Hughes, a prominent voice on the issue, in a 2000 Journal of International Affairs article.

And government officials and anti-trafficking activists are poised to rescue a wave of such trafficking "victims" when the Super Bowl comes to town. Once they convince them that they're victims, that is.

They may be waiting a long time.

"There is no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution," the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) reported in 2011. GAATW, which differentiates between consensual sex workers and those subject to coercion, points out that short-term events are likely to be more profitable for organizations and officials playing off of fears than for sex workers who have to pay traveling expenses out of whatever extra profits they take in from sports fans.

The Arizona State University's Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research—an outfit that combines research activities with a militantly anti-sex work stance—agrees. The organization "found no evidence indicating the 2014 Super Bowl was a causal factor for sex trafficking in the northern New Jersey area in the days preceding the game."

Last year, the ASU group repeated its efforts, ultimately reporting "there is no empirical evidence that the Super Bowl causes an increase in sex trafficking compared to other days and events throughout the year."

There was, however, "a noticeable increase in those activities intended to locate victims from both law enforcement and service provision organizations"—activities of the sort including press conferences featuring district attorneys. So, the surge was in cops and busybodies looking for something to do. Hmmm. Maybe—No, never mind.

In a 2014 article for Reason on Super Bowl sex scares, McNeill pointed out that the grandiosity of warnings about Super Bowl sex trafficking is matched by the bullshit clinging to authorities' subsequent reporting of event-related arrests. Anti-trafficking efforts in Tampa "bagged exactly one quarry, a 14-year-old pimped by two rather clueless individuals on Craigslist under the heading 'Super Bowl Special' (a detail regularly repeated as part of the prohibitionist catechism since then)." Officials claim other rescues of supposed sex slaves, but the details are always vague, often include vice busts unrelated to the big game—and even then fall dramatically below the numbers initially tossed about.

"Legends like this take on a life of their own, which cannot be ended by mere facts," she concluded.

But why? When research finds that there is no surge of sex slaves descending on major sporting events—and evidence strongly suggests that the sex workers in place are mostly there by choice (even if sometimes from a menu of bad options)—why does the myth linking "human trafficking" and events like the Super Bowl continue?

Because of "its usefulness as a fundraising strategy," concludes GAATW, as well as "being a more socially acceptable guise for prostitution abolitionist agendas and anti-immigration agendas."

The real tidal wave, then, is of politicians and activists profiting from public fears and seeking to gin up support for prohibitionist laws against commercial sex.

So long as Cam Newton and Peyton Manning don't get between that self-serving crew of sex-banners and nearby television cameras, they should be free to enjoy the relative safety of the gridiron.