Why the Super Bowl and Human Sex Trafficking Are Linked, Even If They’re Not

Tricked documentary human sex trafficking Super Bowl Phoenix
Online sex trafficking ads shown in the documentary, “Tricked.”

It’s Super Bowl XLIX all week in Phoenix, right smack dab in the middle of my travel assignment here. I love football and hate the Patriots, so yes this is an exciting time for me! The Super Bowl is broadcasted around the world, watched by roughly 110 million people each year and attended by 75,000 fans, with many more watching in bars around the city, in 2015. But while to some this is a huge party or a traffic nuisance, to others it’s considered an opportunity to sell and buy men and women that have become modern day slaves to the underground trade of sex trafficking.

The largest event in American football, the Super Bowl is also thought to be amongst the largest event of human sex trafficking in the country. To clarify, this supposed surge in human trafficking doesn’t happen on Super Bowl Sunday, but in the surrounding area (Phoenix, 2015) in days before and after the game. Though debunked by some, this trend has only recently been noticed and thoroughly researched, and you are about to see new evidence from this research cropping up over the next several weeks after the Super Bowl ends on February 1st.

Here to shed light on the many misunderstandings and oversights surrounding human sex trafficking in America, Tricked, a documentary that hit theaters in 2013, will finally be released to DVD on February 3rd, 2015. The movie gets its name from the obvious trickery behind the force, fraud, and coercion by which victims are entered into the trade, but also details nuances of how the public generally views human sex trafficking. Many still don’t believe that sex trafficking is a human rights issue. Others think that legislation is the answer, as producer of Tricked Jane Wells puts it, “that somehow all of the trends we’re seeing of more violence, younger children, and police enforcement problems will disappear with legalization.” This has not been the case in places like Amsterdam, where still thousands are forced into sex slavery every year.

Still others don’t recognize that the sex trafficking industry enslaves more than just women, including men and transgender persons, and that pimps are not all men either. And perhaps the most nearsighted misconception that Americans allow themselves to believe, even those that are buying sex, is that most of the men and women sold for sex are there by choice, when in fact about 90% of them are not. Co-director of the film reiterates the illusion he and Wells encountered during their research:

We also found that ‘johns’ would come right out and say to us, “Oh, I never choose the girl that’s actually in a disadvantaged position. I’m smart enough.” And we bring up the numbers, saying, “Well, the vast majority of the women out there truly didn’t choose this on their own.” And yet the guy would still say, “Yeah, but you know, I make sure I only pick up ones who are just doing this to get through dentistry school, et cetera,” So that’s a situation where the guys, in many ways, are tricking themselves. (You can read the rest of the interview with the Tricked creators here.)

And now, one more trick we might all be fooled by as of late is that sex trafficking actually does increase during Super Bowl time in the sporting event’s host city. Though research is limited, the only tangible shift in the market that has been documented around Super Bowl time is more aggressive buying. As for hundreds of sex slaves and prostitutes being shipped in for the event, it doesn’t need to happen because the demand is already there. Any numbers you’ve seen regarding sex trafficking transactions taking place during the week of the Super Bowl area most likely pretty close to the numbers that take place 365 days per year in cities across America. The only real shift that seems to have recently happened with sex trafficking during Super Bowl time is that the media becomes more tuned into it. And by default, so do you.

So, why the Super Bowl, if it’s not empirically proven that sex trafficking increases all that much in days surrounding the event? Wells explains:

Because the Super Bowl is such a quintessential part of the American narrative, I think it’s also an excellent way to underscore that this is a domestic issue. Because there’s still a sense among Americans that it happens elsewhere, not right here at home.

Super Bowl XLIX Phoenix human sex trafficking
United Way volunteers hand out pamphlets to raise awareness.

Cindy McCain, wife of Arizona senator John McCain, has been heavily backing the claim that sex trafficking does in fact increase around the Super Bowl and other major sporting events, despite the lack of empirical evidence, and Arizona police force has been visibly cracking down. During one day of walking to and from the doctors office in downtown Phoenix (a 7-block journey each way), I was handed 3 flyers by people trying to promote awareness about sex trafficking in America. News reports are already out that the human trafficking task force in Phoenix has already landed 13 federal prosecutions, over 350 arrests of ‘johns’ and pimps, and offered services to 26 juvenile victims and 180 adult victims.

While the Super Bowl may not be any greater opportunity for sex trafficking than any other day in America, the awareness that has risen around it has resulted in positive outcomes. In a message to international leaders on the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace, Pope Francis said, “We are facing a global phenomenon which exceeds the competence of any one community or country. In order to eliminate it, we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself.”His message couldn’t be any clearer, awareness is key to solving this problem.

Awareness, in this instance, doesn’t only mean understanding that the sex trade exists on a global scale, in rural towns and big cities around you every day, but should also become a personal and international effort to debunk the common misconceptions surrounding it, such as that only women and children are enslaved or that most of the victims in the industry are actually there by choice. As my research on this whole topic has shown me, we could all benefit from educating ourselves on the subject matter properly and then challenging ourselves in the preconceived notions we already have about human sex trafficking.

As Tricked reveals, pimps are cunning, tech-savvy, and skillful in how they manipulate their victims, and the documentary’s creators urge viewers to explore and think about the socioeconomic factors that make these victims most vulnerable to force, fraud, and coercion. By donating or volunteering with programs that help women get out of and recover from human trafficking, or with support to potential victims that are effected by similar socioeconomic situations (aka homeless shelters, drug recovery, immigration programs, etc.), you can make a big difference.

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