The Super Bowl shows how truly mainstream sex trafficking conspiracy theories are. With Super Bowl LV coming up this Sunday, the now-routine round of warnings about sex trafficking around the big game has once again surfaced. (There's even an art awareness project that involves goats, and special spot-a-trafficker training for Uber drivers.)
So, here is your annual reminder that there's no truth to the idea that forced and underage prostitution pick up around the Super Bowl (or other big sporting events), nor that "human traffickers" will descend on the city where it takes place. Tampa can rest easy (at least about that), and we can all marvel at the persistence and audacity of this myth.
The idea that violence against women picks up around the Super Bowl started gaining steam in the 1980s, though back then the specific claim was that domestic violence picked up during sporting events generally and that wife-beating was epidemic on Super Bowl day.
The domestic violence/Super Bowl claim was tied more to advocacy and legislation around protecting "battered women" by intensifying policing and punishment of their abusers (see this story I wrote on President Joe Biden and the Violence Against Women Act for more on that misguided and hyper-carceral bipartisan crusade) than it was to credible evidence. But it caught on nonetheless, capturing news headlines. And like its more current iteration, this myth refused to fade away for many years after being discovered as fake news. ("This myth was debunked three days after it first broke in the media in 1993, but seven years later it's still making the rounds," complained a fact-checker in 2000.)
At some point early this century, the claim shifted to sex trafficking (i.e., prostitution involving people under age 18 and/or fraud, coercion, or force).
The Super Bowl sex trafficking claim—and wild human trafficking claims more generally—is based in part on desires to stamp out all sex work by conflating consensual exchanges with violence and abuse.
"Alleged attempts to tackle #humantrafficking in response to mega sporting events are too often based on conflating #sexwork in general with the separate issue of trafficking within that sector, & using that to crack down on consensual sex workers trying to make a living," tweets U.K. writer Emily Kenway, author of the new book The Truth About Modern Slavery.
Super Bowl sex trafficking claims also seem to have gained steam as using terrorism to justify all manner of militarized policing and surveillance grew less politically popular in many factions. Saving children and vulnerable women from sexual monsters, real or imagined, never goes out of style. This means claims of an influx of Super Bowl sex traffickers has helped the feds put a positive spin on security theater around the event, while giving local cops an excuse to do vice stings and call them rescue missions.
Without fail, however, the "Super Bowl sex trafficking" stings almost exclusively lead to more misdemeanor prostitution arrests, ensnaring sex workers and their would-be customers. These stings tend to take place throughout Super Bowl weekend and the week or even full month or more before.
"The consequences of criminalization are devastating," said Alex Andrews, who runs the nonprofit Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Behind Bars. "The public has been led to believe that increased resources for law enforcement efforts will go to 'saving' victims of sexual exploitation, when in fact arrests only hurt those they claim to help."
SWOP Behind Bars is running a bail fund to assist sex workers arrested in these stings with getting out of prison after police have seized all their cash. (The group has also put out a very good guide to what should be done instead of our current approach: "On the Super Bowl, Safety and Solidarity.") Partnering with the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, Metro Inclusive Health, LIPS Tampa, and Big John's Bail Bonds, Andrews' group "has set up a bail and legal assistance fund for sex workers detained by 'anti trafficking' stings around this year's Big Game."
"Already 71 people have been arrested," SWOP Behind Bars reports:
While many will be released on their own recognizance (ROR), repeat offenders can face up to one year in prison in the state of Florida. Sex worker advocates will show up for first appearance hearings to bond out those not granted ROR. Additional volunteers will meet people once they are released from jail to connect them with services.
Meanwhile, local news and mainstream outlets (including the Associated Press) keep churning out bullshit warnings about the Super Bowl being a magnet for sex traffickers, even though dozens of news outlets have challenged the idea (I rounded up some of them last year here), academic researchers have debunked it, and even government mouthpieces like the Polaris Project say it's inaccurate.
"Before 2018, 76% of U.S. print media helped propagate the myth of spiking numbers of sex trafficking during the Super Bowl," report researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Minnesota.
While online ads for sex work may increase around large events, including the Super Bowl, it doesn't follow that sexual exploitation or even the number of discrete sex workers in an area has increased, they say. In fact, "the evidence showed a reduction in the availability of clients during some sporting events, such as the Olympics, which may shrink commercial sex markets."
"Our main finding was that available empirical evidence did not support a causal or correlative link between Super Bowls and sex trafficking," said study co-author Lauren Martin, an associate professor at Minnesota, in a 2019 news release.
It's fashionable these days to gawk at believers of QAnon conspiracy theories, which posit that Democrats, celebrities, and rich elites are trafficking children. But while QAnon puts a partisan and next-level whacko spin on sex trafficking panic, it's hardly just rooted in far-right fever dreams and unstable minds. For more than two decades now, we have seen the U.S. media and political establishment work in tandem with radical feminists, Christian morals groups, and federal crime, security, and intelligence agencies to spread the idea that sex trafficking, especially of children, is out of control and overlooked.
For 20 years, the left, right, and center have been pushing out-of-thin-air claims like that hundreds of thousands of American children are trafficked for sex each year, or that sex trafficking is a $9.5 billion business, or that the average age of entry into prostitution is 13 years old, or that "68,000 victims are trafficked right in front of our eyes, often on commercial flights."
QAnon is a product of mainstream culture and politics as much as anything else, and the persistence of Super Bowl sex trafficking myths provides a perfect illustration of this.
A reminder that censorship backfires, even when it's for allegedly noble aims:
"Performance prostitution" ban being considered in Casper, Wyoming. "A City Council vote in Casper, Wyoming was delayed [Tuesday], after a council member pointed out that a newly phrased legislative proposal criminalizing 'performance prostitution' would affect local online sex workers, particularly those with an OnlyFans account," reports Gustavo Turner at XBiz.
The proposal changed the ordinance to create the new crime of "performance prostitution," which it defined as "any touching, manipulation or fondling of the sex organs and/or aerola [sic] by one person upon themselves or by one person upon the person of another, whether by touch of the physical use of other items, for the purpose of sexually arousing or sexually gratifying the person who paid for and/or financed the sexual arousal or sexual gratification."
But at yesterday's meeting, Council Member Kyle Gamroth pointed out that the definition would criminalize online sex work in the city.
"I was just curious," Gamroth asked, "would that make somebody, like, if they were using an OnlyFans account or something to generate some revenue on the side, would that make that illegal."
"You know, if they were using that sort of phone application? Because I would be very hesitant to support something that, you know, criminalized someone using an OnlyFans account to generate some money on the side," he added.
- The House will vote on whether to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R–Ga.) of her committee assignments:
• Law professor Thom Lambert, who describes Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) as "a friend," takes aim at Hawley "lying" about GameStop.
• We are never getting out of Afghanistan.
• The "cop-free library movement" is calling on cities to reexamine the relationships between public libraries and police.
- This is going nowhere good fast:
• On a Biden administration "reality czar."