Is the Super Bowl the “largest human trafficking incident” in the United States?

(This concludes the excerpts from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery, I’ve been posting for the past weeks. I hope you have found these useful, and insightful. Human trafficking – and the response to trafficking – are both complex topics that require study and understanding if we want be be effective in our actions. I end this series with perhaps the most common myth about human trafficking as we just a few days away from the Super Bowl. As mentioned, multi-agency task forces are formed to operate in the week up to, and including, Super Bowl weekend. As I write this colleagues have already initiated operations in Minneapolis, and with success.)

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In the run-up to the 2011 Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas, the Texas Attorney General (now Governor) Greg Abbott made several comments regarding human trafficking and the Super Bowl including, “It’s commonly known as the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.”[i]

Like any good myth, this comment went viral and took on a life of its own. It is now common in the weeks before the Super Bowl to see news articles and social media posts promoting this myth. Yet little evidence exists supporting this claim.

The Arizona State University School of Social Work closely examined human trafficking surrounding both the 2014 Super Bowl in New Jersey and the 2015 Super Bowl in Arizona.[ii] Though the results were inconclusive, this study includes a useful examination of online advertising, levels of demand, and other topics related to online advertising of commercial sex. The report, issued in February 2015, states,

In years past, media reports have speculated that the Super Bowl was one of the most prominent national events where sex trafficking occurs; however, researchers have yet to substantiate these statements. While there is no empirical evidence that the Super Bowl causes an increase in sex trafficking compared to other days and events throughout the year, there was a noticeable increase in those activities intended to locate victims from both law enforcement and service provision organizations.

The statement includes a significant observation: the increase in law enforcement and VSP activities aimed at locating victims. Any increase in effort to locate victims and traffickers should increase results. This—by itself—should not be seen as proof of an increase in human trafficking around the Super Bowl.

In recent years temporary task forces have been created within the host city to focus on human trafficking, typically operating from the weekend before the game through Super Bowl Sunday, about ten days. The most basic research methodology would demand a control study with the same effort being made, for the same amount of time, in the same or a similar city. The Arizona State University study points to this lack of control groups and other research challenges that need to be addressed.

Exacerbating this myth are headlines like this from a 2015 Los Angeles Times article, “National sex trafficking sting nets nearly 600 arrests before Super Bowl.”[iii] The casual reader may believe the article cites arrests in the host city, but the article actually addresses sting operations in 17 states during the two weeks before the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl, like any other major event in a large city, provides an opportunity for crime to increase, including sex trafficking. Dispelling this myth is not to say trafficking doesn’t occur at all at the Super Bowl, but focusing on specific events can give the impression that anti-trafficking activities are important only at specific times. But we know the truth: Sex and labor trafficking occur every day, and efforts need to be consistent every day of the year.

[i] Jervis, A. (2011, February 1). Child sex rings spike during Super Bowl week. USA TODAY. Available at http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2011-01-31-child-prostitution-super-bowl_N.htm

[ii] Roe-Sepowitz, D., & Gallagher, J. (2015). Exploring the impact of the Super Bowl on sex trafficking. Phoenix: Arizona State University School of Social Work. Available at https://www.mccaininstitute.org/programs/humanitarian-action/exploring-the-impact-of-the-super-bowl-on-sex-trafficking-2015

[iii] Queally, J. (2015, February 2). National sex trafficking sting nets nearly 600 arrests before Super Bowl. Los Angeles Times. Available at http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-sex-trafficking-sting-super-bowl-20150202-story.html

One thought on “Is the Super Bowl the “largest human trafficking incident” in the United States?

  1. Pingback: Dispelling the Myth about Super Bowl & Trafficking – PATH South Lake Tahoe

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