Arizona Governor Doug Ducey recently announced a three-month-long multimedia campaign bolstering a dangerous, oft-disproven myth connecting the Super Bowl to an increase in human trafficking.
At a Dec. 8th meeting of the Arizona Human Trafficking Council, Gov. Doug Ducey announced a statewide media campaign to bolster a long-discredited urban legend: that large sporting events such as the Super Bowl serve as magnets for the sex trafficking of adults and children.
The myth that sex workers and traffickers descend on Super Bowl host cities en masse has been debunked more times than the chupacabra. But in his remarks to the Human Trafficking Council last week, Ducey promised the PR blitz would “raise awareness about human trafficking” in advance of the Big Game and provide “resources to all Arizonans through a partnership with the Arizona Departments of Public Safety and Homeland Security.”
Ducey, a two-term Republican who leaves office in January, thanked the council for its work over the past decade, which has involved training “more than 50,000 professionals” in how to spot human trafficking, an umbrella term that covers forced labor and forced sex work — though the moral panic‘s emphasis is inevitably on the latter.
He added that the council had offered a “learning” experience for someone like himself who has “worked so hard on landing mega-events” like the Super Bowl, the College Football National Championship and NCAA Final Four, which Ducey now knows “are actually venues that human traffickers take advantage of.”
Interestingly, the Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family (GOYFF), of which the council is a part, soft-pedaled the Super Bowl-sex trafficking link in a press release about the campaign, not mentioning the Super Bowl until the statement’s sixth paragraph.
But a PowerPoint presentation available on the GOYFF’s website indicates that the campaign’s focus is the Super Bowl, part of a “cycle of major public invents,” including the Phoenix Open and the Barrett-Jackson auto show, which “creates a spike in human trafficking activity.” The PowerPoint was created by the Phoenix advertising agency LAVIDGE, which is orchestrating the campaign for the council.
By “human trafficking activity,” the presentation obviously means forced sex work, aka, sex trafficking. The PowerPoint advises that “visitors to Arizona contribute to an increased demand for paid sex” during “peak tourism seasons” and “large-scale events.” Recruitment into the sex trade “starts young,” the PowerPoint explains, with “traffickers targeting victims on social media and in public spaces.”
As a result, Arizonans and those visiting the state from early December through February will be inundated with anti-trafficking messages, many of them borrowed from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s notorious “Blue Campaign.”
Per the PowerPoint, the campaign will include:
- A 12-week run of static and digital billboards in Phoenix, Tucson, Yuma and other areas.
- Large-format video screens above Circle K drink machines featuring anti-trafficking propaganda.
- Videos and signs above the pumps at gas stations to reach a “captive audience.”
- Anti-trafficking posters in women’s bathrooms in 16 malls statewide and at bars and restaurants, mostly in Maricopa County.
- 15 and 30-second spots on English and Spanish-language radio stations.
- Ads on TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram targeting Arizona teens “who could become potential victims.”
- A digital perimeter (aka, “geofencing”) encircling State Farm Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday bombarding visitors’ cell phones with anti-trafficking ads. Similar geofencing will occur during Super Bowl week at Arizona airports, malls, and in downtown Scottsdale and Phoenix.
- Messages for folks searching for pornography on Google, alerting viewers that the adult performers they’re watching “might be human trafficking victims.”
Arizona’s Super Bowl campaign is, of course, in addition to the anti-trafficking messaging that travelers already come in contact with at Arizona’s airports, largely through the Blue Campaign.
The cost of this three-month enterprise? Unknown as of this writing.
Representatives of the Governor’s Office have yet to supply a dollar figure for the campaign’s budget, and LAVIDGE has yet to respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.
According to a 2020 piece in the Arizona Republic, LAVIDGE’s CEO/President Bill Lavidge “helped recruit Ducey for his first run for governor and has been a large campaign donor” to Ducey’s campaigns.
In the press release on the campaign, Ducey describes human trafficking as “pervasive” and “an issue Arizona takes seriously.” He also claims “anyone can be a victim” of human trafficking, when this is clearly not the case.
Statistics do not support the contention that human trafficking is “pervasive” in Arizona. The FBI’s human trafficking numbers for 2020 show that Arizona law enforcement agencies reported 28 trafficking offenses involving forced commercial sex acts, with zero cases involving labor trafficking. Compare this to more than 3,200 reported rapes in Arizona for the same year.
On the federal level for the same year, according to the Human Trafficking Institute, which keeps an eye on such stats, only three human trafficking cases were filed in the U.S. District of Arizona, with just one conviction for the year. (Bear in mind, human trafficking is not the same crime as “human smuggling,” which concerns bringing, harboring or transporting unauthorized aliens in the U.S.)
Arizona is hardly an outlier. Arrests for human trafficking are rare in most states. The FBI’s 2020 human trafficking report shows a total of 2,023 incidents of human trafficking across 47 states: 1,693 in the category of commercial sex acts; 329 for involuntary servitude.
Regarding the Super Bowl-sex trafficking myth, Mariah Grant, director of research and advocacy at the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project, said there’s no excuse for perpetuating this urban legend at this late date. She noted that way back in 2011, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) released its seminal report, “What’s the Cost of a Rumor?” — which concluded that there is “no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution.”
Since then, various academic studies and articles published in a variety of outlets such as Reason magazine, the Dallas Observer, the Village Voice, Sports Illustrated and The Los Angeles Times, to name a few, have poured ice water on the panic. And yet, as evidenced by Ducey’s announcement, the costly rumor continues.
“Every year we have to reiterate that the evidence does not demonstrate that there’s going to be a spike in trafficking into the sex trades around sporting events, including the Super Bowl,” Grant explained. “We see time and again that it gets money for law enforcement and distorts reality.”
To this point, the website for the Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family touts a new, $10 million anti-human trafficking fund approved this year by the Arizona Legislature. The fund allocates $2 million to the Department of Public Safety’s Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (ACTIC) “for anti-human trafficking operations,” with the remaining $8 million to be awarded to local law enforcement agencies “for programs that reduce human trafficking.”
Yes, you heard it here first, people, “sex trafficking,” often used synonymously with “prostitution” by politicians, is now officially the same as “terrorism.”
The fund is not directly linked to the Super Bowl campaign, but it is a reminder that government “solutions” for human trafficking are carceral, conflating consensual adult sex work with sex trafficking, which involves either minors, who by law cannot consent, or adults forced to participate in the sex trade against their will.
Under the guise of combatting sex trafficking, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies round up hundreds of consensual adult sex workers (and their clients) in weeks leading up to the Super Bowl with huge sting operations rarely resulting in the arrests of actual traffickers or the rescue of victims.
Asked about the latest iteration of the Super Bowl-sex trafficking panic, Maxine Doogan, a renowned, San Francisco-based sex worker, writer and activist, called it a “psyops campaign for the American public” and the source of “a slush fund for law enforcement.”
Doogan disputed the suggestion that public safety will somehow be enhanced by law enforcement clamping down on prostitution as a means of tackling sex trafficking. In fact, the public’s safety will be “greatly decreased,” she argued, because “law enforcement officers are going to be doing prostitution sting operations on adults,” instead of prioritizing more common crimes, such as rape, domestic violence and murder.
Similarly, Tucson-based filmmaker, former sex worker and activist Juliana Piccillo expressed disgust at the governor’s media campaign and the $10 million giveaway to local cops so they can police sex workers.
“Law enforcement doesn’t reduce human trafficking,” Piccillo said. “It locks up vulnerable people and poor people who are resorting to sex work because that’s the best way for them to eat and buy a hotel room. I think it’s complete and total bullshit.”
The Arizona Human Trafficking Council’s Super Bowl-sex trafficking panic is in keeping with tradition.
The council was long the stomping ground of Cindy McCain, who as co-chair of the council from 2013 to 2021 relentlessly promoted harmful misinformation about sex trafficking, once calling the Super Bowl “the largest human-trafficking event on the planet,” a fiction she doubled-down on year after year.
Though Cindy left in 2021 to take a job with the Biden administration as an “ambassador” to a U.N. food program in Italy, her influence lingers over the council like a malign odor. The council is co-chaired by Claire Sechler Merkel, Cindy’s chief-of-staff during her husband Sen. John McCain’s failed 2008 presidential run. Merkel is currently the Senior Director of Arizona Programs at ASU’s McCain Institute.
Also sitting on the council: ASU professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, developer of the infamous Project Rose, which coerced sex workers into diversion programs until jettisoned by the Phoenix Police Department. Though Roe-Sepowitz has admitted to an anti-sex work bias, and though her work has been funded by the McCain Institute, she’s been forced to admit that there is “no empirical evidence that the Super Bowl causes an increase in sex trafficking.”
Yet, the council boasts that 5,000 volunteers will be trained on how to spot human trafficking at the Super Bowl. If Cindy’s own expertise in spotting sex trafficking is any indicator of that training’s efficacy, visitors to Phoenix should be wary.
In 2019, Cindy called the cops on a mixed-race mother and child at the Phoenix airport, later telling a local radio station that they were awaiting a sex trafficker, though she recanted after the Phoenix police corrected the record and said there was no trafficking or any other illegality involved.
So much for the Orwellian dictate that Cindy likes to repeat: “If you see something, say something,” which sounds like a slogan the Chinese Communist Party could get behind.
Cindy’s legacy is a hateful one, based on spreading falsehoods and empowering law enforcement to harass and arrest the innocent, the impoverished, and the less fortunate.
One of her pet causes, the Super Bowl-sex trafficking hoax, annually wastes millions of dollars best spent elsewhere. Super Bowl 2023 will be no different.