The Super Bowl Trafficking Connection: Fact? Fiction? Something In Between?

FULL DISCLOSURE: I was raised partly in the Middle East, partly in India, and now live in the DC-metro region – all three major transit and destination points in the global human trafficking trade. So I come to the subject of trafficking and sex slavery with more passion than skepticism. Also, Rev. Lia Scholl, the author of “I Heart Sex Workers” is a very dear friend, the kind I consider family, and we remain professional sounding boards for one another.

There’s a shocking statistic going viral right now, the one that says: “There are between 100,000 and 150,000 underage sex workers currently active in the US.”

Except, I would submit that the problem has less to do with the Super Bowl than any situation where men are present in overwhelmingly large numbers – yes, women hire sex workers too, but let’s get real, it’s largely men. The corollary for women comes into play when you expand trafficking from sex slavery to indentured servitude and migrant labor. But I digress….

Susan Elizabeth Shepard questions the Super Bowl statistic, as have many others, and if you care about the issue of sex slavery, I urge you to read it as she makes some really good points – how that Super Bowl number came about; how it doesn’t hold up well to serious analysis; how it’s a really tough set of data to scientifically prove; and oh yes, the difference between sex and rape.

Unfortunately, it’s a long read on a deeply complicated subject, one with no clear, easily sound-byted answers, and no immediate marketing hook. Which is why it likely to get far less attention this weekend.

Here’s the thing. Apart from the fact that sex for hire is functionally against the law most everywhere in the US, we tend to see those horrific numbers and automatically assume sex workers are victims. And no doubt millions of young girls, both here in the US and worldwide, are sex slaves, in the trade very much against their will. I’m not disputing that for a minute. Furthermore, good for us that we care enough to notice when this shows up in our Facebook feeds – I don’t really want to live in a place where the majority of us are unmoved by those numbers. I’m grateful to say I don’t know anyone who doesn’t care and isn’t disturbed by those numbers.

But. The problem is that we’re painting with a very broad brush that includes voluntary sex workers – yes, they exist – with involuntary sex workers, that conflates prostitution with trafficking. Just as we’re oversimplifying the connection between the Super Bowl – a sitting duck given well-documented instances of sexual misbehavior by athletes – and a local uptick in sex trafficking and slavery.

We look at large events, and extrapolate from them in a way that doesn’t always help. And in a way, it minimizes the everyday, the less sensational, and the more stubborn societal reasons for why people become sex workers – poverty, lack of choices, or rather, the weird set of economic circumstances where taking your clothes off pays better than any other “honest” job might. How do we deal with that? If we really care as a society, how do we reach out to sex workers – men and women – in a way that is long lasting, respectful of their agency and self-determination, treats them as survivors rather than always looking for victims, and frankly, is more about them than us?

No clear, easily sound-byteable answers there either.

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It’s an easy marketing hook, but is it accurate?

I’ll be really honest. The Super Bowl trafficking connection is going viral and being picked up by major media. But the only reason I got wind of Shepard’s article is because it showed up in my Facebook feed via my friend Rev. Lia Scholl.

Scholl has ministered to sex workers and advocated for their rights for some 15 years. She knows a thing or two about the complexity of the issue and it deeply informs her work as well as her latest book, I Heart Sex Workers.  She posted Shepard’s article because it resonates with her experience and speaks to important themes in her book: that the sex trade is not as simple as it looks, that it’s not just a matter of rescuing sex workers, that – wait for it – sometimes they don’t want rescuing, and that our actions towards sex workers need to be about them and not us. Not for nothing did a sex worker once say to Scholl, “I like you, unlike the others, you’re not Captain Save-A-Ho!” It was such a telling statement, because Scholl’s approach is one that that respects sex workers’ agency, their self-determination, and yes, sometimes, their choices. That’s not usually what you hear when it comes to sex workers of any age, is it? Probably because it’s another long read.

Despite all that, Scholl’s publisher has used the Superbowl statistic as a marketing strategy on Facebook, complete with the offer a free e-book until February 3, 2014. I can’t blame them, no one can, Scholl certainly doesn’t. She’s just doing the best she can by presenting all the facts – even when they are inconvenient.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that there’s been an increase in prostitution-related arrests in Manhattan. And yes, it’s being connected to the Super Bowl. But the Times also says the following:

Rachel Lloyd, founder and chief executive of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, a nonprofit that provides services to sexually exploited and domestically trafficked girls and young women, said the attention that the Super Bowl had drawn to sex trafficking and the overall sex industry may be overblown and actually hurt victims. There is no evidence, she said, of a significant increase with major sporting events.

“Trafficking can happen anytime, anywhere,” she said.

Lloyd’s organization operates a shelter at an undisclosed location in New York that serves over 350 girls and women.

“Do I think we’ll get a couple of extra young women that week? Probably,” Lloyd said. “But there will be more law enforcement, and if you did law enforcement like this on a Tuesday night in March, you’d get victims. It’s happening enough that if you look for it, it’s happening.”

Indeed.

It’s smart to draw attention to the subject at a time when you have millions of eyeballs watching. But let’s not just blame the Super Bowl. That’s a oversimplification of a complex subject. And the survivors and victims at the heart of it deserve better, don’t they?  

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