The Super Bowl Is Actually Not The Biggest Day For Sex Trafficking

Photo: Rex USA.
It's Super Bowl Sunday! That means more than 100,000 Americans are in Phoenix to cheer for their team, drink a lot of beer and, according to often-cited stat, help support the year's single biggest day for sex trafficking

Just a few days ago, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas brought up this idea on the floor of the Senate:.“While most Americans are going to be getting prepared for the Seahawks and the Patriots to tee off in the Super Bowl, the dirty little secret is that the Super Bowl actually is one of the highest levels of human sex trafficking activity of any event in the country."

It pops up every year: the Super Bowl is the biggest day of the year for either sex trafficking or prostitution. The problem is, it’s a myth — or at least, not the whole story. Since 2011, organizations including the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women have disputed the claim that human trafficking increases during big sporting events, including the Super Bowl.

There’s no evidence to support it, these organizations say. That year, the Dallas Observer talked to two local law enforcement officials in Super Bowl cities. Both said they saw no increase in arrests for prostitution related to the big event, though one mentioned a department cracking down harder than usual on “everyday street prostitutes,” according to a sergeant. PolitiFact dug deep into the numbers and concluded the idea was "Mostly False." 

Beyond just a false headline, though, the Super Bowl Sex Trafficking myth is actually problematic. Here are the two biggest issues:

The myth confuses victims of trafficking with sex workers.

Sex trafficking is a terrible crime with victims subjected to unimaginable emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. They are forced into performing sex acts for money they’ll never see. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security calls trafficking a “modern-day form of slavery.” Victims are often children.

But there are adult sex workers who would not classify themselves as victims. Lumping sex work or prostitution in with sex trafficking suggests sex workers have no agency or free will in their choice of profession. Many of these women and their advocates say the best way to protect sex workers would actually be to decriminalize prostitution, because being forced to work in the shadows leaves women sex workers extremely vulnerable to attacks and abuse — and may incentivize illegal trafficking.

And if the hype about trafficking during the Super Bowl causes local police departments merely to penalize local sex workers more than usual, well, that’s not achieving much of anything.

The myth takes the spotlight away from the problem of year-round sex trafficking.

Cornyn, who was introducing a bill to help stop child sex trafficking when he mentioned the Super Bowl myth earlier this week, means well. It’s understandable that advocates for victims of sex trafficking want to use the Super Bowl myth and others like it to increase support for their cause, gain traction politically and solicit donations. Maybe not such a big deal, right?

But in its 2011 report, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women points out that there could “collateral damage” from the spread of the myth, including wasted resources and crack-downs on sex workers. Meanwhile, real efforts to stop sex traffickers go underfunded and unpublicized. 

Sex trafficking is an everyday problem occurring across the U.S. all year round, not just the one hosting the Super Bowl during a given weekend in the winter. Though the myth makes for a good story, it’s probably one we should stop telling.
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