Super Bowl poses as opportunity for sex sellers

Danielle Ferguson

While you were watching the Super Bowl, drinking beer and munching on chips, you probably weren’t thinking about the thousands of men, youth and women who are being forced to have sex with complete strangers.

That’s because while millions of Americans watched Tom Brady attempt to throw a touchdown pass, thousands of youth, men and women were trafficked in and around Glendale and Phoenix, Ariz.

Sex trafficking — the use of violence, threats, fraud or coercion to force men, women and children into commercial sex against their will — and the Super Bowl have a history of being connected, so says a number of media articles around the nation.

However, the correlation might more be created by the media rather than hard data, as human trafficking happens every day, says Brandon Bouchard from Polaris Project, an organization that attempts to disrupt conditions that allow human trafficking. There were more than 10,000 news articles about sex trafficking and the Super Bowl in 2014.

“Polaris definitely falls on the side of saying that we don’t think there is a lot of evidence out there to support the idea that there is a massive spike in human trafficking,” Bouchard said.

Bouchard said Polaris has received an influx of phone calls and media requests about the Super Bowl.

“We want to make clear that awareness is meant to be conducted so that people understand this is a problem year round,” Bouchard said. “That’s an issue that goes well beyond the Super Bowl, in that there hasn’t been a prevalent study conducted for the United States, specifically on the issue of sex and labor trafficking or modern slavery in general.”

The first report focused on human trafficking and the Super Bowl came from Arizona State University after the 2014 game.

“Despite the assumptions made regarding the role that the annual Super Bowl events play in increasing sex trafficking, reliable data on the relationship between the Super Bowl and sex trafficking simply does not exist,” the study states.

While the study says there is no solid correlation between trafficking rates and the Super Bowl, it does say that online advertisements for escorts, strippers and other sexual services increase around the time of the game.

“We very well may see an increase in ads in this week compared to last week,” Bouchard said., a site often mentioned when speaking of commercial sex, featured about 1,000 advertisements for commercial sex as of Jan. 31, with more than half featuring some sort of “Super Bowl special.” The weekend before the Super Bowl, donned about 200 commercial sex ads the weekend of Jan. 16 to 18 in the same area.

In 2012, ads relating to a Super Bowl special in the Indianapolis area were about a quarter of the 1,000 ads, according to the study.

The study found that more than 74 percent of online ads reviewed in New York and New Jersey in the week leading up to the 2014 Super Bowl were found to be connected to at least one other ad or individual. One ad even tied to 11 different ads or victims.

The study followed each of the ads from the point of origin — another state — online toward the ultimate destination of the Super Bowl.

An increase in online advertisements doesn’t mean there is necessarily an increase in trafficking, Bouchard said. They could be more related to traffickers and pimps using the Super Bowl as a networking opportunity.

“What we think is happening is traffickers, pimps or the individuals posting these ads, are just using the Super Bowl as a marketing mechanism because they know people might be looking for commercial sex over this weekend, so they are using the Super Bowl as a hook to do that,” he said.

Teresa Downing-Matibag, director of the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking and ISU sociology professor, said she agrees.

“It looks like whenever there’s any kind of major convention or sporting event like the Super Bowl, traffickers use those as an opportunity to market whatever they have to sell,” Downing-Matibag said.

In the months before the big game, the state of Arizona prepared by training law enforcement and promoting public awareness through the “Arizona’s Not Buying it” campaign, saying that Arizona “won’t stand” for human trafficking.

Both Bouchard and Downing-Matibag said more research is needed for law enforcement to better prepare for events such as the Super Bowl to really find out if trafficking rates increase around the game, and if so, how to recognize and stop it.

Rita Carter, social action coordinator for Iowa Conference United Methodist Women, has participated in trafficking awareness campaigns in the Super Bowl’s host city for the past two years. She didn’t head to Arizona for this year’s game, but said a group of about 900 people were hoping to gather around the stadium holding photos of victims to raise awareness.

Carter also said she thinks more research needs to happen to help fight the cause.

“We do need more numbers, but that’s difficult to have,” Carter said.

When Phoenix hosted the Super Bowl in 2008, police said they didn’t find an increase in activity. 

“I think one of the things people automatically assume is that while you’ve got influential people in town, people with significant amounts of money and therefore a whole lot of prostitution is going to follow with that,” said Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Tommy Thompson in 2008 in a Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women report. “We did not notice an increase or anything out of the ordinary.”

Arizona State University isn’t alone in a trend of higher education institutions studying human trafficking. Through the University of Toledo, the National Research Consortium on Commercial Sexual Exploitation offers a Human Trafficking 101 course and online training, where anyone enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program can take the course online and obtain a human trafficking certificate.

The Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science is developing online tools to detect and identify sex traffickers.

Iowa State doesn’t offer any courses on human trafficking, but Downing-Matibag said she thinks the university is capable of the research.

“I think we have the capacity to research issues like sex trafficking and other forms of exploitation at Iowa State University. We have some of the best researchers in the world here,” she said. “But I’m not convinced at this point that we have an academic culture that would be supportive of our doing so.”

Downing-Matibag said she brings up human trafficking in all of the courses she teaches. She has even submitted proposals to teach a course on human trafficking — online and on campus — and it has yet to be offered.

“I have offered to bring in experts from around Iowa, from the attorney general’s office, from the Department of Public Safety,” she said. “I’ve offered to bring in experts from around our state to help give presentations and share what they know with students.”

For now, she, the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking and Carter are focusing on raising awareness and changing policy.

“It goes on all the time and it goes on during the Super Bowl,” Carter said. “Enjoy [the game], but look past it, and know there is more going on behind the scenes than we see on the T.V…and do work after the Super Bowl.”