The Super Bowl, Sex Trafficking, and Sensationalism

Public awareness of human trafficking is at an all-time high, especially in the wake of the Super Bowl, which has been called the "single largest human trafficking incident in the United States" by Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbot and the "largest human-trafficking venue on the planet" by humanitarian Cindy McCain, wife of Arizona Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain.

Anti-trafficking billboards line interstates across the nation. Celebrities like Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, Angelina Jolie, and Bono lend their voice to the anti-trafficking movement. There are countless social media groups, community groups, and church groups dedicated to the new "War on Human Trafficking."

Don't get me wrong, we need public awareness of human trafficking -- it's modern-day slavery in which people are forced or coerced into labor or the sex trade. But unfortunately, making the issue into a crusade can lead to misconceptions about the nature and cause of trafficking, which in turn spurs urban legend and reactionary legislation based on hysteria.

Despite public assertions by governmental leaders and philanthropists that the Super Bowl is a sex trafficking mecca, there seems to be little evidence supporting their claims. Even anti-trafficking groups, whom one would think would jump at the chance to point out any increase in the forced sex trade, dispute that the Super Bowl and other large sporting events are marked by an increase in sex trafficking.

In "What's the Cost of a Rumor?" the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) says that there is no empirical evidence linking large sporting events and high rates of human trafficking:

"The assumed link between large sporting events and trafficking for prostitution has been argued most forcefully by groups who believe that eradicating sex work will decrease trafficking (i.e. prostitution abolitionists). These groups have claimed that large groups of men results in an increased demand for paid sexual services, and that this demand will supposedly be met through the trafficking of women. . . . This simplistic equation relies on problematic assumptions about masculinity, business practices within the sex industry, sex workers' capacity to take action, and the root causes of trafficking. . . . The hype around large sporting events and increases in trafficking for prostitution is often based on misinformation, poor data, and a tendency to sensationalise. Despite the lack of evidence, this idea continues to hold great appeal for prostitution abolitionist groups, anti-immigration groups, and a number of politicians, scholars and journalists."

So, what is the cost of a rumor?

While increased awareness and steps toward rectifying a critical social injustice are good things, attempts to accomplish action through hysteria and fear mongering can lead to misinformation, misconception, and the collapse of any efforts for real change. Honestly, jumping the gun usually creates more problems than it does solutions.

Case in point: Recently in the Oklahoma City metro, scores of mothers blew up their Facebook news feeds with warnings about a young woman going door-to-door selling children's books. Without evidence, and without provocation, these worried parents proclaimed that the saleswoman was linked to child sex trafficking, and their concern was so great that local police and the media were called to investigate.

Of course, the college exchange student was simply trying to sell books. Her questions about whether the homeowner had children were legitimate questions for a children's book peddler, and not an attempt to find children to spirit away into the sex trade.

Sex-trafficking paranoia: 1, reactionary public perception: 0.

The above story illustrates how misconceptions about trafficking lead to panic. "Child sex trafficking" usually involves runaways and disenfranchised youth under the age of 18, who, as vulnerable teens, are easy prey for pimps and sex traffickers. It does not generally involve toddlers and elementary school children who are abducted by gypsies from their homes or the local playground.

Still, human trafficking has become a cause célèbre, and as such, it is the subject of proposed legislation in many states. In Oklahoma, several new laws identifying and supporting victims of human trafficking were enacted late last year, and in the current legislative session, at least a dozen bills have been drafted in an effort to crack down on trafficking:

  • Increase the statute of limitations for prosecuting human trafficking to 12 years
  • Make human trafficking an "85 Percent Crime," requiring anyone convicted to serve a minimum of 85 percent of his or her sentence before parole eligibility
  • Require anyone convicted of human trafficking to register as a sex offender
  • Change the term "child prostitution" to involve the prostitution of anyone under the age of 18, rather than 16

While these may seem like good ideas, many of them are already covered under existing laws. In fact, both state and federal laws already mandate that any person under the age of 18 involved in commercial sex acts is considered to be a victim of human trafficking.

Like I said earlier, I'm not trying to minimize the situation. My heart goes out to victims, and I think our laws should justly punish those who sexually exploit others. Human trafficking is a serious problem, but treating a social issue as the boogeyman can backfire, as the "war on drugs" has shown us.

Most of the victims aren't kidnapped from the front yard... they run away from it. Instead of wasting time and money on rumor-mongering and passing redundant legislation, perhaps we should be looking to the root of the problem for solutions.