If you’re like most Americans, you probably spent last Sunday watching the Seahawks and the Patriots face off in what may be America’s favorite sporting tradition, the Super Bowl. Maybe you ate wings, analyzed the commercials and watched Katy Perry’s halftime show wondering what on earth the now-infamous Left Shark was doing.
Amidst the excitement of the game, most Americans probably weren’t thinking about one segment of the population whose experiences remain invisible during events like the Super Bowl—sex trafficking victims. They probably weren’t worrying about the fact that large sporting events often have dire consequences for the victims of sex trafficking that may experience particularly harsh treatment by pimps, who often respond to sporting events by raising nightly quotas and treating victims with increased brutality. They likely weren’t aware of the surge in online advertising of commercial sex on sites like Backpage.com that accompanies events like the Super Bowl, with some pimps going so far as to offer teenage girls in so-called “Super Bowl Specials.” They presumably weren’t thinking about how when hundreds of thousands of men convene in one city, demand for commercial sex inevitably increases, bringing with it increased risk of sexual exploitation and victimization.
True, most Americans may not have been thinking about sex trafficking during the Super Bowl, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Estimates indicate that between 15% and 20% of American men have purchased sex. With large events like the Super Bowl, that demand for commercial sex becomes more concentrated in one area – the city that hosts the Super Bowl. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated that 10,000 prostitutes were brought into Miami for the 2010 Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, the purchase of sex is not a victimless crime, particularly when minors are involved. In 2009, Florida’s Department of Children and Families identified 24 child victims of sex trafficking at the Tampa Super Bowl. And surges in the demand for commercial sex aren’t limited to the city that hosts the game. Indeed, this Super Bowl Sunday represented the culmination of a two-week sex trafficking sting in which 570 “johns” and 23 pimps were arrested across the country – a good start, to be sure, but not much more than a drop in the bucket.
To be sure, there are critics of these arguments, many of whom are also anti-trafficking advocates contending that the Super Bowl sex-trafficking statistics are overblown and distracting. They argue that we should be focusing on sex-trafficking year-round, not just one weekend a year.
These are fair points—sex trafficking is a 365 days-a-year issue and statistics are difficult to obtain – and advocates must always be cautious not to hyperbolize. But that doesn’t mean that the questions raised by the Super Bowl aren’t valid. After all, the fact that it’s hard—though not impossible—to find evidence of sex trafficking increases related to the Super Bowl may be the very reason that pimps and traffickers are drawn to it. Amidst the crowds and the hysteria, it’s easy to operate under the radar, to hide criminal activity.
Beyond this, however, we should be embracing the Super Bowl as a springboard for a continued discussion about sex trafficking. We can’t let the conversations slip away with the Super Bowl behind us. After all, the questions raised highlight points that we should be mindful of year-round.
First, the Super Bowl draws attention to domestic sex trafficking, an issue is often downplayed in discussions about sex trafficking, which tend to focus on the problem overseas. But sex trafficking is happening here, in our country, in our state, in our community. Estimates indicate that up to 300,000 adults and children are coerced into sex or labor slavery in the United States each year. The average age of entry into prostitution in the US is 12-14 years old. These aren’t “exotic” foreign women who we can brand as “the other” – they are our fellow Americans, our neighbors, our daughters. And sex trafficking in the US is big business – a pimp can make $200,000 each year per girl, and most pimps control 4-6 girls at a time. The FBI has actually identified our state, North Carolina, as a hotspot for trafficking due to its highways, coasts and military bases. Now, all of this isn’t to say that international trafficking isn’t important, rather that we must be willing to fight trafficking in our own communities as well as abroad.
Second, human trafficking during the Super Bowl highlights the magnitude a criminal industry so huge that it haunts one of our most beloved American traditions. The scope of human trafficking can hardly be overstated. Worldwide, there are between 21–36 million people in sex or labor slavery today. There are more people in slavery now than at any other point in human history. And slave labor is big business, with some estimates saying that it generates $150 billion worldwide each year. That makes slavery a more profitable endeavor than Big Oil, US Banking, Google or Tobacco.
And, finally, the debate over the Super Bowl emphasizes the critical need for year-round action by legislators, activists and people like us. Those who criticize the sports-trafficking link get at least one thing right—this is a conversation we need to be having all the time. We must push our law enforcement agencies to stop treating victims like criminals, to get them the services they deserve. Last month, the US House of Representatives passed 12 bills providing stronger protections for victims of human trafficking. Write to them, and tell them to keep up the good work. Explore what you can do in your community to fight trafficking. Learn about how demand for commercial sex fuels the victimization of children and adults.
The average life expectancy for a child victim of sexual slavery is seven years. Victims of sex trafficking can’t wait until the next Super Bowl. Neither should we.
Katie Becker is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday.
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