Last year, the Arizona Governor's Office approved $1.5 million in funding for a media campaign to promote a widely-debunked myth: that the Super Bowl causes a spike in sex trafficking.
Two months after Arizona’s lame-duck, Republican governor, Doug Ducey, announced a statewide, multi-media campaign to promote the insidious, long-discredited notion that the Super Bowl causes a surge in sex trafficking, the office of his Democratic successor, Katie Hobbs, released an estimated price tag for the media buy: nearly $1.5 million.
Sure, that’s nowhere near the $200 million Ducey blew lining the Arizona-Mexico border with shipping containers. Though it helps make the point that government exists to waste money and make our lives worse.
A purchase order approved in 2022 by the head of the Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family (GOYFF) lays out expenditures for a 12-week anti-trafficking campaign. Included in the PR blitz: digital and static billboards in Tucson, Yuma, and Phoenix; signage and video at Circle Ks and gas stations; posters in mall and bar restrooms; online advertising around adult-content searches (creepy); and “geofencing” around malls, airports and of course Glendale’s State Farm Stadium, where Super Bowl LVII will take place Sunday, Feb. 12.
The document parallels a PowerPoint presentation given to the Arizona Human Trafficking Council last year by the Phoenix PR firm LAVIDGE. An overview of the campaign included with the order bears LAVIDGE’s logo and states that the “public awareness campaign” will support “the State of Arizona’s efforts to prevent human trafficking.” According to the overview, the campaign began in December 2022 and will continue through the month of February 2023.
Ducey formally announced the campaign on Dec. 8, but his office refused to comment on the campaign. So far, the office of Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, who took office in January, has declined to comment as well.
Similarly, the LAVIDGE Company, founded by Bill Lavidge, a generous political donor to both Ducey and Hobbs (and a sponsor of Hobbs’ inauguration), has not returned numerous phone calls and emails seeking more info on the campaign.
Despite the campaign’s use of the umbrella term “human trafficking,” it is clearly focused on the subset of “sex trafficking,” which involves either minors, or adults via force, fraud or coercion. The plan gives top priority to the Super Bowl, though it offers lip service to other major events overlapping Super Bowl LVII activities in the Phoenix area.
Sex worker-rights groups, harm-reduction activists and their allies have denounced the campaign for: 1) perpetuating a moral panic that has been repeatedly obliterated by academic studies, press reports, major newspaper editorials, global anti-trafficking organizations, and even (sometimes) the police themselves; and, 2) putting the lives and safety of sex workers at risk. The activists also have established the website stoptheraids.org to push back on police harassment of their community.
On Monday, Feb. 6, a coalition of activist groups held a demonstration at the Phoenix Footprint Center during “Super Bowl Opening Night” to demand an end to police harassment of sex workers, which we know from recent press reports to be ongoing. Around 20 persons participated in the action, handing out flyers, chanting slogans, carrying signs, and speaking to the local press.
When I showed the activists the governor’s purchase order, obtained through a public records request, they were outraged.
“What the fuck?” exclaimed Arlene Mahoney, executive director of the Southwest Recovery Alliance, and one of the organizers of the demonstration. “That’s disgusting.”
Asked what her group, which helps drug addicts survive and advocates for the decriminalization of prostitution, would do with such largesse, Mahoney and her colleague Kylee Newgass went through a laundry list of wants and desires out of reach of their org’s shoestring budget, like, housing for addicts, a drug-testing machine, campaigns for the decriminalization of sex work and drugs, etc.
“I would use the money towards real evidence-based interventions to meet the self-determined needs of folks that are in real crisis, based upon what the community wants,” Mahoney said.
Monica Jones — an iconic transgender sex worker, a victim of the infamous anti-sex work program, Project ROSE, and the subject of an upcoming documentary — had definite ideas about how the money could better be used.
“Let’s put that towards harm reduction,” Jones said. “Let’s put that toward condoms. Let’s put that towards safe injection sites and everything else, if you really want to lower the risk and catch traffickers.”
Sadly, catching actual traffickers seems to be less of a concern to law enforcement than simply rounding up consensual adult sex workers in order to make a big splash in connection with the Super Bowl.
At issue is money, lots of it, in the form of federal grants to law enforcement. For instance, after Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles, law enforcement held a large press conference to pat their own backs for making nearly 500 arrests across California.
However, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) eventually admitted most of the arrests made during the week-long project were for misdemeanor prostitution-based offenses, not for heinous felonies such as sex trafficking.
Police claim they are “rescuing” sex workers from being the “victims” of sex traffickers, although the cops’ form of “rescue” tends to be as coercive as the traffickers’. It inevitably involves handcuffs, detention, and the threat of prosecution, unless the sex worker declares themselves to be a victim and enters a diversion program.
“The real rescue would be the decriminalization of sex work,” Jones explained. “The real rescue is letting people work and own their own bodies.”
Maxine Doogan, a San Francisco-based sex worker, writer, and activist, was also at Monday’s demonstration, flying in from Alaska to try and educate the press and the public about the terror police inflict on sex workers.
Doogan cited a massive study by the USC Gould School of Law, which found that police raids and sweeps are ineffective at preventing sex trafficking or arresting sex traffickers. The study concluded that such anti-trafficking operations are “a form of over-policing that re-traumatizes victims, perpetuates systemic racism, and undermines the aims” of federal anti-trafficking statutes.
“It’s important for us to say that sex work is not sex trafficking,” said Doogan. “Arresting us does not rescue sex trafficking victims.”
She added, of the raids on her people:
“It causes a whole bunch of harm, not only to sex workers, but also to the public at large, taking money from the public’s resources. We just want that to stop.”
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