The Arizona Republic recently perpetuated the Super Bowl/sex trafficking panic by unquestioningly reporting sketchy stats bandied about by supposed experts.
How did Phoenix’s paper of record, the Arizona Republic, get so many things wrong about the Super Bowl/sex trafficking panic in its recent reporting on the topic?
In the days leading up to Super Bowl LVII, the paper casually conflated prostitution and sex trafficking, gave only lip service to questioning the highly-discredited idea that the Super Bowl causes a spike in sex trafficking, and mindlessly regurgitated disproven stats spoon-fed to reporters by politicians, police and self-anointed experts.
One reason the Republic flubbed its reporting so badly: it ignored the voices of sex workers on the topic.
By contrast, other local news outlets — including KJZZ, Arizona Family, and the Phoenix New Times — reported on a Feb. 6 sex workers-rights demonstration in downtown Phoenix, interviewed activists, and made note of a website established by a coalition of local and national groups advocating for the decriminalization of all sex work: i.e., stoptheraids.org.
Commenting on a recent Republic report that effectively endorsed the idea of arresting presumed victims of sex trafficking in order to supposedly “save” them, activist/sex worker Maxine Doogan, part of the “Stop the Raids Committee” behind the eponymous website, noted her community’s exclusion.
“We’re never included in these round tables or these sex trafficking task forces because their outcomes are already preordained: more surveillance of the public and more money in [the participants’] pockets,” Doogan said.
Sex worker advocates have a motto: “Nothing about us, without us.”
Indeed, when news outlets decide to report on a story without including the most important stakeholder group involved, they’re guaranteed to get it wrong.
Below are some of the more glaring errors from three news articles published recently by the Arizona Republic on the topic of sex trafficking and the Super Bowl.
I. “Sinema gets NFL to commit to making Arizona model for helping trafficking victims national,” [sic] Feb. 10, 2023
Actually, the “model” described in this piece resembles the infamous Project ROSE, a diversion program designed by the Phoenix Police Department (PPD) and ASU Professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz that forced social services from religious organizations upon arrestees.
Project ROSE was abandoned (at least in name) about a decade ago after heavy criticism from the ACLU of Arizona and other groups.
In the Republic piece, Roe-Sepowitz, who boasts creepy, Victorian views of sex work, is part of a roundtable that takes place at the Phoenix Dream Center, an institution that describes itself as a “Christ-Centered Outreach Ministry” and asserts that “a healthy, personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the ultimate answer to all of life’s troubles and the path to living an abundant life.”
As you can glean from the headline, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was a participant in the round-table discussion. The Republic paraphrases her, stating, “Sinema wants this model to be used in other states, where, unlike in Arizona, individuals arrested for prostitution are jailed.”
Thing is, Arizona law prescribes a mandatory minimum sentence for those convicted of misdemeanor prostitution: 15 days for the first conviction.
Per statute, a guilty party “is not eligible for probation or suspension of execution of sentence until the entire sentence is served.”
The statute further states that,
“A person who has previously been convicted of three or more violations of this section and who commits a subsequent violation of this section is guilty of a class 5 felony, shall be sentenced to serve not less than one hundred eighty consecutive days in jail and is not eligible for probation or suspension of execution of sentence until the entire sentence is served. This paragraph does not prohibit a person from being sentenced to serve a period of incarceration in the state department of corrections.”
Note the bold I’ve added above, which prescribes a minimum sentence for repeat offenders and allows for time in prison. In 2009, a woman named Marcia Powell died an agonizing death, caged in the searing Arizona heat, while doing a 27-month stint for prostitution.
Trans-rights icon Monica Jones was in town for the recent Feb. 6 demonstration that the Republic ignored.
Jones was arrested in 2013 and did time for “manifesting an intent” to engage in prostitution under the Phoenix city code, or, as its detractors called it, Phoenix’s “walking while trans” law.
II. “Campaign to call attention to human trafficking spotlighted by Super Bowl, NFL players,” Feb. 7, 2023
The idea that large sporting events are magnets for sex trafficking is rightly viewed as a moral panic, unsupported by reason, research or facts.
However, groups such as the London-based organization “It’s a Penalty,” exist to exploit and maintain this moral panic — reportedly to the tune of nearly $1 billion a year — by running awareness campaigns connected to major sporting events worldwide.
“It’s a Penalty” was in Phoenix just before the recent Super Bowl here, and the Republic covered the group’s media event in the article linked above. In doing so, the Republic abandoned any objectivity in reporting on the group’s press conference, which featured several professional sports “ambassadors.”
The article is written in an embarrassingly fan-boy style.
“The numbers are staggering,” we’re told of the group’s over-the-top sex-trafficking propaganda, which includes a short video online featuring none other than Liam Neeson, star of the sex-trafficking-themed action film series, Taken.
Problem is, these “staggering” numbers don’t hold up to scrutiny.
For the Republic’s editors, may I suggest that, in this case, Google is your friend.
“More than 100,000 children are sold for sex in the U.S. each year, according to ECPAT-USA,” we’re told in the Republic piece.
The writer doesn’t explain this, but ECPAT-USA is one of several anti-trafficking NGOs in existence.
Alas, that stat of “100,000 children” being “sold for sex” is spurious, hailing originally from a study long revealed to be junk science.
Kessler reported, “In response to The Fact Checker’s findings, Carol Smolenski, executive director of ECPAT-USA, said the organization removed the figure from its Web site and no longer will use it.”
However, “It’s a Penalty” still uses the figure. The Republic could have determined the problem with the stat by Googling “ECPAT-USA” and “100,000.”
Additionally, the Republic reports: “Arizona was the 18th-highest U.S. state for human trafficking in 2022, according to the Polaris National Human [Trafficking] Hotline.”
Polaris runs a hotline, partially funded by the government, which literally anyone can call. But Polaris’ numbers do not reflect actual criminal cases. Even Polaris doesn’t make this claim.
In fact, I reached out to Polaris. A spokesperson responded via email with the following:
“I think the important point to fact check would be less about the specific number of identified situations of likely trafficking in a year and more about the wording that suggests the figure that they have is any way a prevalence estimate. It is not. We are always extremely clear about this with partners and media. It is never accurate to say that the data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline shows that a particular state has the most or the least trafficking in a year because the Trafficking Hotline can only report on situations of likely trafficking THAT WE KNOW ABOUT. This may well be a dramatically different number/figure than what is actually going on . . . This is an important distinction with a substantial difference.”
WaPo’s Kessler has addressed politicians citing stats from Polaris. Kessler notes that “Polaris derives these figures from an analysis of calls” to the hotline, “which receives calls, texts, chats, emails and other online reports.”
Kessler states, “If the staff members answering the calls or other inquiries identify elements of fraud, force and coercion, then that gets listed as a possible instance of human trafficking.” Kessler observes that the hotline’s stats involve “potential cases” and “only about 30 percent ended up being reported to law enforcement.”
Reason magazine’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown puts it best when she states that “the large numbers Polaris puts out are not—thank goodness—verified cases of abuse and criminal activity; they’re just a tally of contacts to the hotline,” which include “pranks, cranks, and people reporting sightings of consensual sex work.”
So, what about this ranking, which claims Arizona to be 18th in the nation for human trafficking? It sure makes Arizona sound like a hotbed of human trafficking.
But according to the FBI’s human trafficking report for 2020, there were 28 cases of human trafficking investigated by local and state agencies in Arizona that year.
Compare that to more than 3,200 rapes in Arizona for 2020.
No credible threats — save for the threat of hyperbole surrounding sex trafficking.
This Republic piece paraphrases interim PPD Chief Michael Sullivan as saying that “many of the agency’s approximately 2,600 sworn personnel are working long hours, including the department’s human trafficking task force as mega events such as the Super Bowl can lead to an influx of people — including minors — being trafficked.”
Let’s repeat that last part again: “mega events such as the Super Bowl can lead to an influx of people — including minors — being trafficked.”
Sullivan lets the cat outta the bag in the very next graph, telling the Republic,
“This is a chance to be able to make sure that we can educate people about the horrors of human trafficking . . . And we’ll continue to do that work every day, whether it’s this week or the weeks after the Super Bowl as well.”
This statement is at odds with the suggestion that the Super Bowl and other “mega events” bring with them “an influx” of people “including minors” who are “being trafficked.”
You know, like in Neeson’sTaken movies.
Reporters should be skeptical of what police officials are telling them, particularly when these officials are speaking out of both sides of their mouths.
Sex trafficking happens, and it is heinous.
But hype and hysteria and bogus stats lead to the kind of police harassment and violence described by the USC Gould School of Law in a recent study. The study concludes that the result of such policing is counterproductive, harmful, carceral.
And that result is antithetical to what, ideally, journalism should be about — comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable and treating the miked-up popinjays of authority with all the skepticism and derision they so richly deserve.