DARK NET: Selling Sex At The Super Bowl

The big game is notorious for sex trafficking, but what's really going on?

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Feb 03, 2016 at 4:46 PM ET

The image of busloads of trafficked sex workers arriving in the Super Bowl host city to service scores of game-goers is firmly planted in the public imagination. Before the 2011 Super Bowl, held in Dallas, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot told USA Today that the Super Bowl is “commonly known as the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.”  

A regular statistic cited by the media is that 10,000 trafficking victims were transported to Miami for the 2010 Super Bowl. This number, which has been included in articles for publications such as Forbes and The Huffington Post, is often attributed to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Yet, that oft-cited number doesn’t hold water. “The 10,000 number is false,” said Staca Shehan, head of the Child Sex Trafficking Unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “It is inaccurate and an unfortunate misquote from the Miami Super Bowl,” she added. “It is not appropriate to inflate [the numbers] just to increase awareness. This is not a one-Sunday-a-year problem.”

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The week leading up to the Super Bowl does in fact show a distinct uptick in online advertisements for sex workers on websites such as Backpage and Craigslist. Despite the Super Bowl being the poster event for sex trafficking awareness—press conferences by law enforcement on how to identify and combat trafficking abound in the weeks leading up to the event—there is much uncertainty, myth and inflation of fact regarding the transportation and solicitation of sex trafficking victims during the big game.

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Some organizations, such as Safe Horizon, a victim assistance agency, say that an increase in sex trafficking at the Super Bowl does not exist. “There is very limited factual evidence that links [sex trafficking and the Super Bowl]. At Safe Horizon, we are of the mindset that this is not happening,” said Brian Pacheco, director of Public Relations at Safe Horizon.

Additionally, in a 2011 report by The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (focused on the World Cup and Olympics as well as the Super Bowl) it was concluded that “despite massive media attention, law enforcement measures and efforts by prostitution abolitionist groups, there is no empirical evidence that trafficking for prostitution increases around large sporting events.”

Aside from the inflated statistics around sex trafficking at the Super Bowl, misconceptions as to the definition of sex trafficking cloud the judgment of the general public and the mainstream media. Sex trafficking doesn’t necessarily require the transportation of its victims. In order to be a trafficking victim, you need only have to be coerced into performing acts against your will.

The hook for many reports regarding sex trafficking at the Super Bowl is that people are brought to the host city in large numbers for solicitation. And while it is theoretically likely that sex workers travel to the big game—the simple economics of capitalism, supply and demand, fuels this market behavior—fewer people arrive in the host city to sell sex than traditionally reported.

“[The games in] Houston and Indianapolis stirred the idea that people were being brought [to the Super Bowl] by the busload,” said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention and Research at Arizona State University, “but those kinds of statements, you can’t support those.”

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Beginning in 2014, Roe-Sepowitz and her team at Arizona State University conducted a two-year study on the impact of the Super Bowl on sex trafficking to build a more reliable set of data related to the solicitation of sex through online advertisements, as well as the possible transportation of trafficking victims to the host city.

To Roe-Sepowitz, the most reliable way to find out more about trafficking behavior was to track and analyze online advertisements on Backpage using the Sex Trafficking Matrix, a system that filters advertisements for signs of potential trafficking victims, both minors and of-age. The ads are evaluated manually and with a screening algorithm, and indicators of trafficking include language in the advertisement, content of the photograph, phone number listed, accompanying artwork and placement time.

These indicators are the byproduct of a truth set, developed by Roe-Sepowitz and law enforcement agencies in various cities throughout the country and Thorn, a tech-driven anti-trafficking organization founded by Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher.

Roe-Sepowitz and her team screened advertisements for suspected trafficking, then went out into the field to confirm their assumptions; the truth set—which the Matrix is based upon—was developed entirely from first-hand accounts of trafficking victims given to law enforcement. Once an indicator was confirmed, it was programmed into the Sex Trafficking Matrix.

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For the 2015 Super Bowl, held in Phoenix, Roe-Sepowitz used this matrix to identify 1,333 total advertisements (discounting duplicates and re-posts) for both voluntary and involuntary prostitution in the ten days leading up to the Super Bowl, as well as on game day itself—a 30.3 percent increase from the same time frame the previous year.

Using the Sex Trafficking Matrix, over 65 percent of these ads were flagged as possible victims of trafficking. The vast majority of the flagged ads featured a phone number with an area code from outside of Phoenix, leading Roe-Sepowitz to conclude that the majority of people selling or being sold for sex during the 2015 Super Bowl came to the city for the event. It’s possible, of course, that these individuals traveled to from outside of the city of their own volition or, even more simply, that they had moved to the city but retained a cellphone number with an outside area code.

Despite the uncertainty over whether trafficking is involved in a substantial way, the uptick in online advertisements for sex workers during the Super Bowl has been cited as far back as 2011. That year, Mark Latonero, Ph.D, conducted a study at the University of Southern California on human trafficking online, and tracked the number of advertisements on Backpage during the 2011 Super Bowl in Dallas, Texas. He wrote that, compared to the average daily number of posts for escorts in the four weeks leading up to the game, the numbers of posts on Super Bowl Sunday spiked at a 136 percent increase.

For this year’s game, law enforcement in the Bay Area have been making preparations for months to combat the perceived threat of increased trafficking. In October, Palo Alto’s City Council passed a resolution to raise awareness and implement relevant policies and procedures. “And in particular we’re calling out the Super Bowl,” said Councilwoman Liz Kniss. They specifically cited the hospitality industry, saying that educating employees of the red flags of trafficking could help catch traffickers and rescue victims. The Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce has disseminated materials on the signifiers of sex trafficking to 37 hotels in the city and surrounding area as part of a larger effort across the entire Bay Area.

Safe Horizons, the victims assistance agency, views the attention focused on trafficking at the Super Bowl by the police as counterproductive. “Because of the claims around the Super Bowl and sex trafficking, there is more enforcement put out in the community, putting tremendous resources towards trafficking and targeting anyone that engages in sex work, but those who aren’t trafficking victims become more vulnerable to law enforcement,” he added.

According to Sergeant Flores of the Special Victims Unit in the Human Trafficking Division at the San Francisco Police Department, arresting and charging voluntary sex workers is not the goal of law enforcement in the Bay Area. “If we come in contact with non-human-trafficking people, we will interview them, provide them with services and let them go,” he said.

The one take-away from Roe-Sepowitz and members of law enforcement—something that everyone can agree on, regardless of data specifics—is that sex trafficking is not just seen on Super Bowl Sunday, and not just seen in the city in which the game is held. People, including minors, are being coerced into sexual servitude against their will all over the country. Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, operated by Polaris Project, has received reports of 14,588 domestic sex trafficking cases.

The relationship between sex trafficking and the Super Bowl, and how to combat and understand it, is extremely complicated. “There is no perfect choice in this situation,” said Roe-Sepowitz.

Although the role of the Super Bowl as a proponent of sex trafficking has only recently started coming into focus, the game can, at least, act as a springboard for public awareness. “Modern day slavery is still here,” Sergeant Flores said. “Is it going away after the Super Bowl? Absolutely not. But hopefully this will give a platform for people to use in the future.”