5 Sex Workers Speak Out On The Super Bowl Sex Trafficking Myth
This piece was written before 2016's Super Bowl in Santa Clara, California. But as happens every year, sex trafficking has been back in the news in the days leading up to Houston’s hosting of the event in 2017.
Another day, another dollar. Another year, another chaotic morass of misinformation, misguided arrests, and moralistic hand-wringing. I speak, of course, of the Super Bowl, and the pervasive myth that with it comes an inevitable influx in sex trafficking.
Like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” the troubling trope that testosterone-fueled johns fuck their way through major sporting events and burn through money and human collateral — some of whom are trafficked and/or underage — is so well-trodden, you could recite it verbatim and with eyes wide shut.
To be perfectly honest, I had donned my boots and tromped alongside many feminist comrades who believed this narrative to be true, bolstered by weighty data, harrowing tales, and an instinctual feeling that where men gathered, so too did sex trafficking.
But what I discovered is that those on the front-lines — from sex workers themselves to activists and NGOs — have been trying to combat this fictitious, if compelling, myth for decades. And worse yet, this narrative directly harms those it claims to protect, all the while obscuring other — valid — human rights violations at play.
When the smoke clears, the elaborate rhetorical and statistical “movement” to fight the rise in sex trafficking during the Super Bowl amounts to little more than capitalism and neo-puritanism writ large.
This year finds the Super Bowl in Santa Clara (San Francisco’s very own backyard) and the FBI has mounted a dedicated outreach program, partnering with anti-trafficking organization Polaris (more on that in a minute) to try, for the very first time, to place trafficking victims at the center of their investigative cross-hairs.
“If there’s anything we can do to help out all of our trafficking victims, then we want to ensure we’re employing those resources for them,” Tiffany Short, the bureau’s child victim program coordinator, told KCRA.
And they’ve got chilling numbers to justify the influx of police, agents, and stings, as well as the sweeping use of costly resources. As the Associated Press’ The Big Story put it:
“The FBI and local law enforcement agencies claim they arrested 360 sex buyers and 68 traffickers and the recovery of 30 juvenile victims in a six-month operation in anticipation of the 2015 Super Bowl. The year before that, the FBI said authorities recovered 16 children between the ages of 13 and 17 and arrested more than 45 pimps and their associates in Super Bowl-related operations.”
The trouble is, myriad organizations — and, in particular, the Global Alliance Against Traffic In Women (GAATW) — deftly argue that these numbers are manipulated, exaggerated, and often straight-up falsified. Their 2011 report, What’s The Cost Of A Rumor?, outlines the myriad inaccuracies that are trotted out again and again as truth, perpetuating a damaging cycle of squandered resources and the further marginalization of at-risk populations, including migrants and racial/ethnic minorities. Compound this with the ineffective — and harmful — outreach efforts, protocol, legislation, and attitudes currently proffered by law enforcement and many ill-guided anti-trafficking efforts, and you’ve got one hell of a Gordian knot.
The GAATW report notes, as a quick reminder, that:
“Trafficking in persons is a very serious human rights violation and is defined by three elements — the movement of a person; with deception or coercion; into a situation of forced labour, servitude or slavery-like practice. Trafficking is not the same thing as sex work.”
It also breaks down the disparity between the predicted influx in sex trafficking and what has actually happened:
The GAATW argues that there are far more productive ways to combat the trafficking and exploitation that do exist surrounding international sporting events other than sex work, including migrant workers’ rights in the construction industry, workers’ rights in the sports clothing and equipment industries, and the recruitment of young athletes.
They insist that in order to counter actual sex trafficking, law enforcement must foster ongoing relationships with sex workers — as opposed to trying to arrest or “raid and rescue” them — until sex work is decriminalized altogether:
“Groups directly affected by trafficking and/or anti-trafficking measures must be consulted to ensure that anti-trafficking measures are effective, reflect community priorities, and don’t result in further harm . . . If there is increased funding allocated to anti-trafficking initiatives around large international events, sex workers rights groups and other peer-led or self-organised groups should be prioritised for support.
“Some anti-trafficking awareness raising campaigns have been limited to promoting a certain ideology (e.g. demonising clients of sex workers), or promoting emotions such as fear (e.g. dangers of migrating) or paternalism (e.g. helping those ‘who cannot help themselves’). Considering the amount of resources channelled into awareness raising campaigns, it’s surprising how few provide concrete information on the practical options that would be helpful to trafficking victims, exploited migrants, or to those that might assist them.”
The Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education and Research Project (ESPLERP) — a community-based coalition advancing sexual privacy rights through litigation, education, and research — echoes these concerns.
They recently published a press release criticizing the myth that along with the tens of thousands of sports fans flocking to the city for the upcoming Super Bowl, a sordid band of pimps and trafficked prostitutes will arrive too. They also took aim at the amount of money poured into the coffers of anti-trafficking groups; in the U.S. alone, $686 million is earmarked annually for them.
ESPLERP argues that the majority of that money is euphemistically used to “create awareness on sex trafficking” — but also to “pay their board members six figure salaries. Hardly any of that money goes to the people they claim to be rescuing.”
The organization also criticized the FBI’s anti-trafficking partner Polaris, which, despite its rhetoric, “has stated that they do not provide direct services to ‘victims.’” Said Bella Robinson, a board member of ESPLERP:
“I am outraged that the Polaris Project gets millions a year in funding, to create policies that violate the human rights of sex workers, and put them at great risk of violence, often from the police during the raids they claim are rescues. #EndHumanTrafficking is a scam and it’s one of the biggest criminal enterprises I have ever seen. And it is all supported by our tax dollars.”
It’s also worth noting that the CEO of Polaris, Bradley Miles, is married to its co-founder Katherine Chon, who is now the Director of the Office on Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. On their own site, the OTIP’s self-description of its services is euphemistic at best: “OTIP collaborates with Federal partners and other government and non-government stakeholders to raise public awareness, identify research priorities for ACF’s anti-trafficking work, and make policy recommendations to enhance anti-trafficking responses.”
As Kate D’Adamo, National Policy Advocate at the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center succinctly says, “When we limit anti-trafficking efforts to john stings, we are failing everyone — sex workers and trafficking victims alike.” (To read more on Kate’s thoughts, check out our Q&A here.)
The Establishment decided there are few people who could speak to this phenomenon more effectively than those working in the trenches of sex work — so here are their takes.
I experience a feeling just this side of ennui when people bring up sex trafficking and the Super Bowl. It’s a very special mixture of frustration and boredom. I’ve heard sex workers talking about it for years: sex trafficking at the Super Bowl is a myth.
Susan Elizabeth Shepard wrote about it here two years ago. Just last year The New York Times ran an article myth-busting the Super Bowl’s imaginary connection with sex trafficking. In it, Kate Mogulescu — founder and supervising attorney of the Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project at the Legal Aid Society — makes plain that even many trafficking organizations have found no substantial increase in human trafficking surrounding major sporting events.
I hoped maybe the paper of record’s coverage would put the issue mostly to rest. It didn’t. The San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking has taken advantage of Super Bowl 50’s location in nearby Santa Clara to highlight their efforts with a well-publicized press conference and awards ceremony earlier this week, reinforcing the notion that there is some sort of endemic connection between the Super Bowl and human trafficking. As SFGate.com’s Kale Williams notes, “With the upcoming Super Bowl as a backdrop, advocates used the press conference to celebrate the work being done to step up enforcement . . .”
“Trafficking” and “sex work” are frequently conflated — rhetorically — by anti-trafficking organizations, so when I hear the phrase “step up enforcement,” I cringe. I think of the real bodily and emotional harm done to sex workers any time law enforcement involves itself more closely in sex workers’ lives through policing — including harassment, arrest, and violence. When policing increases around the site of a major event like the Super Bowl, all of the burden and trauma associated with it is felt directly by sex workers working in the area where the event is staged, in this case the Bay Area.
I am bored by this myth and frustrated by its consequences. Why does the public seem to latch onto the notion that a suddenly increased male population will necessarily result in a frenzied tornado of sexual need? Why does the public love the idea that this need will be satisfied by human beings bought and sold for its purpose? In light of evidence that this is simply not happening, it says more about the people perpetuating such a grotesque and violent myth than it does about those of us asking for rational appraisal of its existence.
Interestingly enough, Denver Broncos practice squad safety Ryan Murphy was sent home Tuesday after being questioned — not arrested — in a prostitution sting in nearby San Jose. Sports Editor for The Nation’s Dave Zirin told me that in a non-Super Bowl setting, a team’s PR pros — the “fixers” — might be able to keep the event out of the press, but with the ongoing scrutiny surrounding the Super Bowl, something like that is impossible. It caused me to wonder if part of Murphy’s dismissal from the Super Bowl (but not a dismissal from the team) had to do with the marriage of the Super Bowl and sex trafficking in the minds of so many people invested in the NFL’s image.
In truth, I feel sorry for Murphy, an Oakland native, who won’t get to be there for Super Bowl Sunday. I believe in bodily autonomy. We all have the inherent right to do whatever makes sense or pleases us with our bodies — including buying and selling sex. So even if Murphy did hire a sex worker, he did nothing wrong.
Everyone loves a sex slave story, and the FBI has been giving it to them for years.
Despite annual reality checks from the Global Alliance of Trafficking in Women and other groups like the Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project, the FBI has persisted in its claims that hundreds of juvenile sex slaves are trafficked to the Super Bowls. According to the math of Norma Jean Almodovar — ex LAPD employee, sex worker, activist, and author — for all of the claims made about child sex slaves to be true, 750 million men per year would have to be paying to rape children. That’s about five times the actual male population of the U.S.
I’ve had my own run-ins with FBI numbers. In the 2013 Uniform Crime Report, the FBI overreported the number of prostitution arrests in my home state of Alaska by 602. During 2014’s Operation Cross Country, the FBI claimed to have arrested three pimps in Anchorage. However, later records requests showed that no one was charged with sex trafficking or even anything related under either state law or Anchorage municipal law during that week, or even that month.
More recently, during 2015’s Operation Cross Country, the FBI claimed to have rescued 149 children in one week. These children, they said, were “victims of prostitution” who were being used, and rescued, “in seedy hotels and on dark roadsides.” The youngest victim they claimed credit for was 12 years old. But when the case with the 12-year-old hit the news it turned out that the girl had not been involved in the commercial sex industry at all, nor had she been found on a dark roadside or in a seedy hotel. Instead the girl was a victim of child sexual abuse that was allowed or even facilitated by her mother.
After only a couple years of paying attention to the FBI’s claims and making records requests, I am amazed that any news organization continues to take their press releases at face value.
People often ask me why it matters if officials lie about sex trafficking if they’re doing it for a good cause. If just one child were saved, wouldn’t it justify the lies? Possibly, but it would not justify the harm done to sex workers and sex trafficking victims alike during and as a result of the stings law enforcement conducts under the guise of rescuing sex-trafficked children.
Two women who have been affected by FBI stings have chosen to tell their own stories, in their own words and their own voices. They have taken certain risks to do so because they want the public to be informed of what being rescued by the FBI really means. Please listen to their stories here: Keyana’s Story and Tonya’s Story.
It’s no surprise to see governmental units at any level — from the federal to the local — embracing lies and propaganda that further their political agenda; after all, given how much politicians lie when running for office, it hardly seems likely they could kick the habit after being elected. And cops are even bigger liars; in 1998, noted defense attorney and law professor Alan Dershowitz testified before Congress on the extent of the problem, quoting a police source who said, “Cops are almost taught how to commit perjury when they are in the Police Academy … they’re almost always lying.”
But it’s still pretty astonishing to see how egregiously cops and politicians lie about the subject of sex work, especially when the truth is plain to see even in their own in-house statistics. They well know that there aren’t tens of thousands of missing persons reports filed every year on white, middle-class preteen girls mysteriously abducted from homes, schools, bus stops, and shopping malls and never heard from again.
They well know that for every underage sex worker they encounter, there are more than 20 adult women in the trade. They well know that the vast majority of sex workers are just trying to make a living, and can’t produce a “pimp” even when the cops offer to drop charges in exchange for testimony against him. And they certainly know that there is no surge in harlotry, coerced or otherwise, around the Super Bowl (or any other mega-event) because their very own arrest records tell them so.
Even with the obscene amounts of money and noxious numbers of cops dumped into Super Bowl-themed, anti-whore pogroms, they still make very typical numbers of arrests. This is why the FBI and local police departments now fold months of police operations into one number and stamp it with the “Super Bowl” brand: it’s the only way for them to make their statistics look even remotely like a surge in prostitution activity. And as long as the press and the public eagerly lap up whatever garbage government actors dump into the trough, this systematic manipulation will continue to happen, because there is absolutely no incentive for them to tell the truth, and many millions of lovely green incentives (from both federal and private “sex trafficking” grants, not to mention “asset forfeiture” loot) for them to continue lying.
Perhaps because I’m not closely tuned into what happens — sociopolitically and on a regional level — with large sports events, the frothing news about sex-trafficking spikes during the Super Bowl caught me by surprise. After all, there’s been nary a ripple — neither an increase or a decrease — in regards my client base. In fact, the work I do is geared toward business professionals and artsy wealthy types — their disinterest in sports often mirrors my own — so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at all.
A recent article in San Jose Inside provided a more nuanced discussion of the differences between sex trafficking and voluntary sex work — including those who may be reluctant, yet voluntary, sex workers. (Who aren’t as visible on social media as sex work advocates or their adversaries.) It also served to debunk the myth that the Super Bowl is feeding an inflated demographic of sex-trafficking victims. Logistically, the article points out, it just doesn’t make sense.
The article also points out that voluntary sex workers are in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation — they’re both an invaluable resource (should authorities actually pursue their help in preventing sex trafficking) but also at high risk if they did decide to come out publicly against trafficking.
Would I, as a voluntary sex worker and member of a big, resourceful community in the Bay Area, like to help stop trafficking? Absolutely! But to do so exposes me to huge risks: financial (my clients rely on discretion, many of them), legal (what I do isn’t exactly up to code in the legal labor book), and social. Because of the lack of differentiation in the ways anti-trafficking is being carried out, voluntary sex workers are being pitted against those in the anti-trafficking movement, and to join the anti-trafficking movement in a public way as a sex worker would be to put oneself at great peril.
Pitting voluntary workers against (basically) every other major player in this equation rules out the possibility than any real change will happen, and oversimplifies the assumption that all sex workers, voluntary or not, fall into a certain demographic — making an antidote impossible.
What should be occurring is a larger discourse about a much larger problem, which can be framed as the difference between coercion and choice, with capitalism serving as the connective tissue between the two; exploited labor is a fundamental component to capitalism — as it exists here and elsewhere — and it’s much larger than just sex work.
The well-worn trope that the Super Bowl attracts sex traffickers to the city where it is held is not a new one; it comes up every time there’s a major sporting event across the world. As Melissa Gira Grant put it reporting on New Orleans’ Super Bowl in 2013, this myth is “an innocuous fantasy — until seized upon by those who find it threatening or politically useful.”
And indeed it is a myth; during the 2015 Super Bowl, according to San Jose Inside reporter John Flynn, Phoenix law enforcement, for all the hype and hand-wringing, “identified 71 adult prostitutes, arrested 27 sex-solicitors, and found nine underage sex workers who may or may not have been trafficked.”
Again and again, these anti-trafficking operations — whether they arise because of a sporting event or are ongoing, years-long federal projects like the FBI’s Operation Cross Country — locate very few coerced or underage sex workers, but do a great job of targeting adult, consenting sex workers and their clients. In practice, these operations probably do little to combat coercion in sex work; in subjecting all sex workers to raids and arrests, they create a climate of danger for all sex workers. They foster distrust between sex workers and the law enforcement and service providers who purport to help them; they drive coerced sex workers further underground.
Stories about trafficking sell newspapers and draw eyeballs to screens, and most of the people who read these stories mean well. But the organisations which fuel these myths are supported at the highest echelons of state and corporate power for a reason — their work conflates coerced and voluntary sex work, and lends justification to state campaigns against sex workers — and particularly immigrant sex workers.
As I said in Marxism for Whores, the work of women who migrate is often seen as dirty, humble or embarrassing, whether it is cleaning fish, wiping bottoms, or doing sex work. The United States is embroiled in a bloody debate about migration; it’s also mired in a debate on the roles and rights of women, austerity, and our political future.
I believe that the wars against sex work and drugs are often proxies for these debates. If the media can convince readers that all sex work is bad and involves a level of coercion, it justifies the state’s criminalization of our work, bodies, and lives. Intersectional feminists and progressives should debunk the Super Bowl trafficking myth, and should interrogate the very concept of trafficking. Sex work, like all work, is a mixture of consents and coercions. The way to fight coercion in sex work is not to raid — it is to fully decriminalize our work, so we can organize and fight for good working conditions.