McCain Institute Gaslights Public with Op-Ed on Super Bowl/Sex Trafficking Panic

The McCain Institute's promotion of Cindy McCain and her white-savior rhetoric concerning sex trafficking began with the institute's founding in 2012 (Screenshot via the Internet Archive)
A McCain Institute op-ed in the Arizona Republic calls the Super Bowl/sex trafficking link a "myth," but the institute has pushed that same myth for a decade or more.

If Arizona State University gave degrees in gaslighting, Cindy McCain and her lackeys at ASU’s McCain Institute would have long ago earned their PhDs in public chicanery.

Case in point: A recent op-ed authored by two McCain Institute flunkies and published by the Arizona Republic  assures us that all of the hullabaloo we’ve heard in the past, and continue to hear, about a spike in human trafficking caused by the Super Bowl is a “myth,” one that can do “real harm.”

The op-ed informs readers that “the widely repeated myth that the Super Bowl (or any other major sporting event) causes an uptick in human trafficking has been debunked repeatedly . . . There is no definitive data that points to a significant increase in trafficking during the Super Bowl.”

True enough. But what the opinion piece does not explain is that the McCain Institute and its beer-heiress benefactor, Cindy Lou Hensley McCain, have been the prime pushers of this unhinged urban legend for at least a decade.

“What are you going to do to be accountable to all of the people you’ve harmed over the years . . . the hundreds of people arrested behind these untruths? How are you going to make that up?” — Juliana Piccillo of SWOP-Tucson to the McCain Institute

Sure, they cleverly disavow the “myth” when it suits them, while expending tremendous effort to “raise awareness” about sex trafficking right around Super Bowl time. (Ironically, the illustration for their op-ed is a flyer from a group that promotes a link between sex trafficking and major sporting events worldwide.)

Cindy McCain currently serves as President Biden’s representative to the U.N. Food Program (her reward, such as it is, for endorsing Biden in 2020), but she has been a major part of the McCain Institute since her late husband used millions of dollars in leftover donations to his unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid to found the think tank.

Cindy co-chaired the McCain Institute’s Human Trafficking Advisory Council and chaired the institute’s board after Sen. McCain croaked. She also co-chaired the Arizona Governor’s Human Trafficking Council, giving her role greater prominence.

As you might expect, the McCain Institute has slavishly amplified her embrace of the Super Bowl/sex trafficking panic.

But that insane urban legend has been exposed as a fraud ever since the Global Alliance Against Traffick in Women (GAATW), an umbrella group of 80 anti-trafficking organizations, concluded in a seminal 2011 report that “there is no evidence that large sporting events increase trafficking for prostitution,” aka, sex trafficking.

Cindy Peddles a Hoax

GAATW has not backed off its conclusions, which have been confirmed, over and over again, by academic studies, reports, news accounts, editorials, even members of law enforcement.

And yet, Cindy and the McCain Institute have persisted in peddling this hoax.

A few examples:

The institute’s op-ed writers are as disingenuous as their spiritual Mama Bear. They refer to “human trafficking,” an umbrella term for labor and sex trafficking. But they are focused almost exclusively on sex trafficking — a heinous crime involving minors in commercial sex, or adults coerced into the sex trade.

The op-ed writers bemoan the “‘misplaced attention to ‘cracking down’ on human trafficking at the Super Bowl” —  not because this law enforcement response harms victims and non-victims alike, but because it “erroneously causes people to believe that human trafficking mostly or only accompanies major sporting events.”

Stop the Raids Group Shot
A group shot from the Feb. 6 ‘Stop the Raids’ protest at the Footprint Center’s ‘Super Bowl Opening Night’

Nor is there an acknowledgment that the “cracking down” is largely on adults engaged in prostitution, a misdemeanor offense most Americans believe should be decriminalized. Rather, Abrams and King argue that there is “undoubtedly some good” that comes of the Super Bowl/sex trafficking panic, which includes law enforcement raids and arrests.

Tucson-based filmmaker and former sex worker Juliana Piccillo was unimpressed with the op-ed. As a co-founder of the Sex Workers Outreach Project’s Tucson chapter, Piccillo is familiar with the harm the McCain Institute has done to her community.

“It’s just the same old, same old,” she told me after reading the piece. “They’re simply giving a nod to the irrefutable evidence that we’ve forced into the public eye that there is no trafficking problem at the Super Bowl.”

Piccillo observed that the McCain Institute’s solutions are still “carceral,” and the institute does not include the “true stakeholders” — sex workers.

“Like, how about some accountability?” she asked. “You’re admitting you’ve misled people for years. What are you going to do to be accountable to all of the people you’ve harmed over the years . . . the hundreds of people arrested behind these untruths? How are you going to make that up?”

Piccillo believes the McCain Institute’s new line is in response to the organizing being done by sex workers to oppose the Super Bowl/sex trafficking panic.

This includes a website, opposing police harassment during Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, and a recent, sex worker-led demonstration in Phoenix that received positive coverage in the local media.

“They’re rebranding in the face of us calling them out on a lie,” she said. “But you can’t have it both ways.”

She added: “Until sex workers are at the table, leading the conversation, [the McCain Institute] is just promoting misinformation, coercing people into choices they wouldn’t have otherwise made.”

ICYMI, Please see:
Ducey OK’d $1.5M Ad Buy to Promote Super Bowl/Sex Trafficking Hoax
Sex Workers Protest Police Harassment, Media Misinformation at Super Bowl LVII’s ‘Opening Night’

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times,, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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