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Is the Super Bowl really a magnet for sex trafficking? Why the myth is a menace

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 5 February 2021 13:18 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Jan 29, 2020; Miami, Florida, USA; Vince Lombardi Trophy on display during a press conference before Super Bowl LIV at Hilton Downtown. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY/File Photo

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Myths and misconceptions over the largest U.S. sporting event are feared harming sex workers

By Kieran Guilbert

Feb 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – COVID-19 will loom large over Sunday's Super Bowl, but as thousands of fans brave restrictions to attend the biggest U.S. sporting event, authorities are sounding their annual alarm about another threat: sex trafficking.

With tens of thousands of fans expected to take part in festivities in Tampa, Florida, around the game, police, football stars and even ride-hailing apps such as Uber are warning that traffickers could capitalize on increased demand for paid sex.

Billboards, commercials and even a collection of goat sculptures are part of this year's awareness-raising blitz as officials monitor the web to target people buying sex online and teach cab drivers and hotel staff to spot potential victims.

But while 'The Super Bowl: a magnet for sex trafficking' might make for an attention-grabbing headline, is it true?

No, say academics from different universities who have studied the event and found no evidence to suggest it leads to an uptick in trafficking. So why does it matter anyway?

Some advocates fear the furore fuels misconceptions and myths on the issue, wastes time and resources, and leads to sex workers being wrongly labelled as victims or criminalised.

Here is what you need to know about the Super Bowl and sex trafficking:


What's the history behind the hype?

Big sporting events - from the World Cup to the Olympics - regularly spark fears over an influx of sex workers to the host city and the likelihood that some will be trafficking victims.

The 2004 Athens Olympics was the first spectacle linked to trafficking yet predictions of a high number of victims did not materialise, found a study by the University of Minnesota (UMN).

Nevertheless, ensuing events such as World Cups in Germany and South Africa and the London 2012 Olympics were preceded by warnings over sex trafficking surges and appeals for authorities to carry out arrests and look for victims, the researchers said.

Separate studies published in the Lancet and the British Medical Journal found there was no evidence to support "these recurrent moral panics" at major sporting spectacles.

"Evidence does not support the claim that the Super Bowl creates large numbers of potential (sex trafficking) victims or the claim of Super Bowls being the biggest event-based impact (on the crime)", the UMN academics said in their research.


So why the scare over sex trafficking at the Super Bowl?

Each year in the build up to the Super Bowl, the hype cycle begins anew with local officials talking about the threat of sex trafficking and the media rehashing unsubstantiated and distorted numbers of potential victims due to heightened demand.

These estimates - which often conflate sex workers and trafficking victims - range from 10,000 to more than 150,000.

About three-quarters of U.S. print media outlets propagated the "Super Bowl sex trafficking narrative" between 2010 and 2016, said a paper in the Anti-Trafficking Review journal.

The alarm may be somewhat fueled by the fact that the Super Bowl has been found in academic studies to lead to a slight increase in online escort adverts on sex marketplace websites.

Yet various researchers have stressed that such ads are not indicative of sex trafficking and must not be misrepresented.

Polaris - which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline - has previously told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the Super Bowl does not cause a significant increase in trafficking and cautioned against simplifying a "365-day-a-year problem".


Can the myths and misinformation prove harmful?

Activists and academics have warned that false narratives can perpetuate stereotypes of weak women in need of rescue by men, and stigmatise sex workers who commonly face harassment and discrimination because prostitution is illegal.

Police launch raids billed as "anti-trafficking operations" ahead of each Super Bowl, but most arrests target men buying sex or women who sell it - with little to no sign of exploitation.

For example, one police force in Florida last month launched a "trafficking" crackdown which saw female detectives posing as sex workers on the streets. The 71 ensuing arrests were all linked to prostitution, with no reference to human trafficking.

In fact, nonprofit Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Behind Bars has set up a bail and legal assistance fund for those arrested in anti-trafficking stings around the Super Bowl.

"(Arresting sex workers) in the guise of anti-trafficking measures is reprehensible," said Emily Kenway, an independent expert and the author of "The Truth about Modern Slavery".

"It is harmful to sex workers who need rights and respect, but also hugely disrespectful to those people who actually are trafficked who need a proper strategy of support," she added.    


Related stories

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Hype aside, no sex trafficking surge seen at Super Bowl

Sex and the Super Bowl: What has trafficking to do with it?


(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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