(Wording in the third paragraph has been changed to clarify the nature of calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline.)
NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation)—Major sporting events like Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVIII in New York, featuring thousands of men away from home and plentiful alcohol on tap, may be magnets for sex trafficking but it is less certain that they significantly increase the problem than that they provide opportunities to deter it and raise awareness, according to anti-trafficking groups.
While there is no doubt that trafficked women will operate around the Super Bowl, there is no hard data on how much cash such major sports events add to the coffers of the multi-billion dollar global sex trafficking industry or on how much such events increase trafficking activity.
During past Super Bowls there have been minor increases in the number of calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline of the Polaris Project, a leading global organization in the fight against modern-day slavery. However, the organization notes that because the hotline receives calls requesting information as well as reports of trafficking those increases likely reflect heightened awareness of the crime
“Sex trafficking is not simply a Super Bowl or sporting event phenomenon. Sexual trafficking is happening around us all the time,” Dorchen Leidholdt, chair of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition and legal director of Sanctuary for Families, a New York-based organization providing services to victims of trafficking and sexual violence, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“This presents us with an opportunity to deter and prevent trafficking and to educate a public that still thinks trafficking is exclusively international… we know that the vast amount of trafficking in our country is domestic. That’s the kind of trafficking that’s going to happen around the Super Bowl,” she said.
Rachel Lloyd, founder and CEO of the Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), a New York-based group that provides services to sexually exploited and trafficked girls and young women, doesn’t dispute that trafficking will occur around the Super Bowl.
But she has said the undocumented popular belief that the Super Bowl attracts a massive influx of trafficked women and buyers has created an urban legend that threatens to undermine the importance of day-to-day year-round work on the trafficking problem. “That may not line up with the current Super Bowl/trafficking narrative and it’s not really what the media wants to hear, but it’s the truth,” she blogged in the Huffington Post.
Law enforcement agencies and activists in nearby suburban New Jersey, where the Bowl will be played, and in New York City, where most of the more than 80,000 game attendees and an estimated 400,000 more visiting fans will be staying and partying, are taking no chances and are ramping up their efforts.
In meetings with service providers and activists, police and anti-trafficking task forces in both states committed to aggressive strategies to detect and prosecute the prostitution of trafficked women and girls. These include educating staff in hotels and other hospitality venues on how to spot trafficking situations and conducting undercover sting operations designed to prevent them.
“I’m seeing, just in the anti-trafficking units in the New York Police Department, there is a greater understanding of the complexity of trafficking …and a deeper understanding that we have to go after the traffickers and the buyers and not criminalise people in prostitution,” said Lauren Hersh, head of the Global Trafficking Program and director of the New York office of Equality Now, an organization dedicated to legal reform that ends violence and discrimination against women and girls.
Women’s rights groups, working with law enforcement, are poised to help victims and have created new awareness programs designed to curb demand.
To underscore the message that sex trafficking is a problem beyond sporting events, the Polaris Project has launched a “365days” initiative. In partnership with Clear Channel Outdoor, it unveiled a pro bono outdoor billboard this week along streets and highways in New York and New Jersey. The eye-catching copy features “TRAFFIC REPORT: Over 21 million victims of human trafficking are trapped worldwide.”
“Sex trafficking is not just on the night of the Super Bowl. It is on every night in every city,” Megan Fowler, director of communications at Polaris, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Born of the efforts of women’s rights organizations and research indicating that fear of arrest and prosecution may be the greatest deterrent to demand, the McCann Erickson advertising agency has produced a pro bono campaign under the “Not-So-Super” tagline. Launching on Thursday and Friday, the campaign plans to distribute posters in Times Square and other venues stating: “NOT-SO-SUPER. BUYING SEX COULD COST YOU A YEAR IN JAIL.”
To drive that message home, the agency has designed three door hangtags that are being distributed to New York City hotels. Under the title DISTURBING in bold red type, they carry blurbs such as: “THE AVERAGE AGE OF ENTRY FOR GIRLS INTO PROSTITUTION IS 12-14 YEARS OLD”; “MILLIONS OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN ARE FORCED INTO THE SEX INDUSTRY EVERY YEAR,” and “A SEX TRAFFICKING VICTIM CAN BE FORCED TO HAVE SEX OVER 30 TIMES/DAY.”
There also will be a website providing more information and a video that is expected to go live Friday at www.notsosuper.org.
On Twitter this week New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie posted a series of tweets with a warning to sex traffickers and those who hire prostitutes. He wrote, “We are only a few days away from the Super Bowl. A time where sex trafficking is at high risk. So to anyone out there that is even thinking about it. don’t even try it. We have eyes and ears on the ground and on the web.”
One of the problems is that “a lot of trafficking is hidden in plain sight,” said Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, a New York-based international anti-trafficking group.
Despite efforts to shut them down, online sex marketplaces, such as www.backpage.com, offer page after page of “escorts,” some tagged as Super Bowl specials.
Bien-Aime pointed out that when “people are looking for the classic human trafficking victim, they won’t find her.” She referred to a common conception of a trafficking victim as battered-looking and foreign.
Instead, activists believe most of the trafficked women around the Super Bowl are home-grown, many of them very young and trafficked in their teens.
Said Sanctuary’s Leidholdt, “It’s typically young women who are being brought into hotels by older men, dressed in a certain way, sometimes looking frightened,” but just as often looking numb, having been conditioned by their pimps.
Education is crucial, not just for Americans but also for the foreign sex tourists who may come into town for the sporting event, said Leidholdt.
Education about trafficking, she said, “no pun intended, could be a game-changer.”