Super Bowl sex trafficking: Real or just a rumour?

It's commonly believed the risk and incidence of sex trafficking goes up when major sports events such as the Super Bowl are held, and host cities make plans to deter it, but there is debate about whether the concerns are justified.

New Jersey prepares for an influx of sex traffickers, but some say the concern isn't justified

Hotel and nightclub employees in Hamilton Township, N.J., get a presentation on how to spot signs of human trafficking. Officials trained thousands of law enforcement personnel, hospitality workers and airport employees to watch for signs of it before the Feb. 2 Super Bowl football game, when hundreds of thousands of people are expected to descend on New Jersey. (Mel Evans/Associated Press)

Members of Congress in Washington heard Monday that the Super Bowl is considered “the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States,” and that it’s “a breeding ground” and “magnet” for sexual exploitation. But is it really? That’s a matter of some debate.

 A foreign affairs subcommittee met to discuss how New Jersey is preparing for a possible increase in forced prostitution around Sunday’s big game and learned that a “robust anti-trafficking plan,” is in place, according to the committee’s chair Chris Smith.

Flyers have been handed out to emergency services staff, law enforcement, and other front-line staff to help them recognize potential victims. More than 10,000 people have undergone formal training, rallies have been held to raise public awareness, and airline and hotel workers are on the lookout.

“In less than a week, New Jersey will be hosting the Super Bowl, and along with welcoming enthusiastic fans, the state also is preparing for a likely influx of both domestic and international traffickers,” Smith, who represents New Jersey in Congress, said at the hearing.

“Sadly, but almost certainly, they will bring with them sexually exploited trafficking victims — many of them from abroad — in an attempt to cash in on the Super Bowl crowds. We know from the past, any sports venue — especially the Super Bowl — acts as a sex trafficking magnet.”

Hype is 'overblown'

There is a general belief that large sporting events such as the Olympics, World Cup and Super Bowl can increase the level of human trafficking while the event is taking place, but there are doubts about the validity of those concerns.

Julie Ham, a former researcher with the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women and author of a report on trafficking and sporting events, said the hype is “overblown.”

Activist Jackie Edmonds holds anti-trafficking awareness coasters that her group asked restaurants to use near the Super Bowl site in Arlington, Texas, in 2011. (LM Otero/Associated Press)
 “These concerns aren't valid. The idea that trafficking increases during large sporting events is an unsubstantiated rumour,” she wrote in an email.

“Given how serious trafficking actually is, it's really obscene seeing all these resources — money, time, political will — to tackle something that's not there. Or when this rumour is used as excuse to harass and intimidate sex workers,” said Ham. 

The GAATW report said there is no empirical evidence to support the idea and that the connection has been debunked by other groups as well. It looked at what happened at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 and found that sex work actually fell during that period, and an analysis of Super Bowl and World Cup events found no significant increases as predicted.

Annalee Lepp, an assistant professor in the University of Victoria’s women’s studies department and a member of GAATW Canada said in an interview that predictions about influxes of women for the purposes of prostitution don’t come to fruition. There was an estimate, for example, of 40,000 women being “imported” to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, but not one case of trafficking was documented.

Assumptions made about male behaviour

That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen there, or at other events, but the notion that human trafficking explodes when the Super Bowl is held doesn’t hold up. According to a report by Indiana’s attorney general on the Super Bowl there in 2012, two victims of trafficking were identified and there were a few cases under investigation at the time of the report.

“There is an assumption about masculine behaviour here,” Lepp said in an interview about where the idea that trafficking goes up originates.

With heavy security and police presence at the Super Bowl and tight border controls when international events are held, traffickers are likely to stay away from the events because of the higher risk, and the investments needed to set up shop aren’t worth the return, Lepp explained.

The New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking acknowledges there is a debate about the issue and posted a “response to those who downplay concern about the Super Bowl” on its website.

“Currently, there are very few ways of collecting statistics on human trafficking,” it said, adding that governments believe there is a “potential increase” and have tackled the issue for the last three years of the Super Bowl.

The problem of human trafficking in New Jersey will not end with the Super Bowl.—New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking

“The Super Bowl is also an opportunity to educate the community. People will stop and listen if you mention Super Bowl but not necessarily if you just talk about human trafficking,” the group said.

But it added that while a national sporting event can be used to talk about the issue, the conversation shouldn’t stop when the game is over. “The problem of human trafficking in New Jersey will not end with the Super Bowl,” it noted.

Legislators on Capitol Hill heard the same sentiment from a victim of trafficking named Holly Smith, who shared her story of being forced into prostitution when she was 14.

“Statistics and claims must be studied and verified. And prevention efforts cannot begin and end with sporting events,” Smith said. “Commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking will undoubtedly happen in the New York, New Jersey, area during the first week of February with Super Bowl XLVIII — and the second and third and fourth week of February. And in March and in April and every single day and every single night throughout the year.”

None of those involved in the issue disputes that human trafficking is a problem — where the disagreement lies is whether it is exacerbated by major sports events. Congressman Smith isn’t convinced by GAATW’s position.

“I would totally disagree with those who say there’s an exaggeration going on,” he told CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield on Thursday. “It’s a big problem.”