Dan Abrams, host of "Dan Abrams Live" on cable news outlet NewsNation Now, interviews former Cali prosecutor Maggy Krell about "Super Bowl sex trafficking," feeding panic over the much-debunked myth.
If you think humanity is far from the days of burning witches and examining animal innards for omens, check out the Jan. 14 edition of cable news show Dan Abrams Live, in which veteran TV reporter Dan Abrams interviews former California prosecutor Maggy Krell about the supposed scourge of “Super Bowl sex trafficking” — a pernicious myth that has been debunked more times than Bigfoot, the hollow Earth theory and the “faked” moon landing combined.
At least since 2011, when the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women released a report stating that, “there is no empirical evidence that trafficking for prostitution increases around large sporting events,” both academics and news outlets as varied as the Village Voice, Sports Illustrated, Snopes.com, Politifact, Reason.com, Reuters, and on and on have torn this zombie urban legend to shreds, only to see it rise again, like an army of the undead, every January as the Super Bowl approaches.
In other words, both Krell and Abrams likely know that this annual anti-trafficking frenzy, with its carnival barker atmosphere and its profligate use of law enforcement resources, ends up being little more than a massive prostitution sweep, in which scores of (consensual) sex workers are cuffed and few actual sex traffickers are nabbed.
Yet, to acknowledge such pitch-and-switch flimflamery would rob Abrams and other news jockeys of the opportunity to exploit a lurid moral panic. Likewise, it would deprive Krell of a chance to plug her delusional new book, Taking Down Backpage, in which she paints her failed 2016 attempt to railroad Backpage’s former owners on false “pimping” charges as “the most important case in the history of the world.”
Um, no, it wasn’t. And Krell didn’t “takedown” Backpage. The feds did in April 2018, after Krell left the Cali AG’s office. But I digress.
Though Krell’s book earned a mention during the 7.5-minute segment, Abrams was laser-focused on imaginary hordes of sex traffickers, ready to lay siege to Los Angeles when Super Bowl LVI takes place on Feb. 13.
Check Abrams’ lead-in:
“While we still don’t know which teams are going to be competing on the gridiron sadly there is one thing we do know, prowling the sidelines, outside SoFi Stadium, there will no doubt be criminals hoping to capitalize on the massive event that draws tens of thousands of fans and spectators every year: sex traffickers are among the tourists, temp workers, ticket holders who travel to the Super Bowl looking for customers willing to pay for sex with their vulnerable victims.”
Minus a shred of skepticism, Abrams informs his viewers that the L.A. County Sheriff’s office “has already said that it’s bracing for an influx of human traffickers and reminding people to be on the lookout.”
Indeed, Sheriff Alex Villanueva recently told reporters that the Super Bowl “ends up being one of the major events that draws human traffickers to the region.”
Villanueva’s comments have garnered pushback from free speech advocates and sex workers alike. Groups such as the Free Speech Coalition and the Sex Workers Outreach Project- Sacramento have formed a “Stop the Raids Committee” calling on Villanueva to stand down.
The committee recently released a statement, which reads:
Every year, federal and local law enforcement, conduct harmful, dangerous raids on sex workers in advance of the Super Bowl, under the guise of fighting sex trafficking.
But year after year, these Super Bowl raids have failed to identify few, if any actual trafficking victims. Instead, they disrupt and destroy the lives of sex workers, who are subsequently forced through the criminal justice system for a publicity stunt. A new report from the USC Gould School of Law’s International Human Rights Clinic strongly advocates against raids, calling them “ineffective” against trafficking and “traumatizing” to sex workers, predominantly women of color.
This year, Superbowl LVI will be held in Los Angeles. We are asking the LA Sheriff’s Department to stop this brutal, unwarranted practice. We are asking the media to refuse to be complicit in this annual ritual, and speak to sex workers who are being rounded up, harassed and criminalized in order to provide positive headlines for the police.
Pimping a Moral Panic
FWIW, “human trafficking” is an umbrella term involving both forced labor and sex trafficking. The latter includes children involved in commercial sex or adults induced into the sex trade via force, fraud or coercion.
Reporters and politicians often conflate human trafficking with sex trafficking and sex trafficking with misdemeanor prostitution, aka, consensual commercial sex among adults, which a majority of Americans believe should be decriminalized.
Talking heads like Abrams are rarely concerned with forced labor. It’s illicit sex that makes the topic of sex trafficking catnip for them, regardless of sex trafficking’s relative rarity in comparison to far more common violent crimes such as murder, aggravated assault and rape.
In recent years, even major anti-trafficking orgs such as Polaris have felt the need to dial down the rhetoric from the days when Cindy McCain pimped the idea that the Super Bowl is “the largest human-trafficking event on the planet.”
What evidence does Abrams offer to demonstrate that the Super Bowl and sex trafficking deserve his tabloid-y treatment?
Abrams points to the recent sentencing in federal court of a Connecticut man, Edward Walker, for sex trafficking two women and a 17-year-old minor during the 2020 Super Bowl in Miami. Abrams displayed a mugshot of Walker, a bearded, African-American man who caught 25 years for his crimes. Abrams also quotes court documents as saying Walker “loved broken girls.”
Does this mean sex trafficking is rampant at the Super Bowl? Hardly.
Local police, as they normally do in a host city, largely rousted sex workers in the runup to Super Bowl LIV. According to one report, “Miami-area cops arrested 147 people for engaging in simple prostitution in the 12 days before the Super Bowl.”
Abrams’ other piece of anecdotal evidence is also less than convincing.
“Last year when the Super Bowl was held in Tampa, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office arrested 75 people who were attempting to buy or sell sex, deputies saved half-a-dozen victims,” Abrams says.
True, this is what Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister announced during a press conference on Feb. 11, 2021, in which he proudly displayed the collected mug shots of everyone his deputies took into custody during “Operation Game Over,” which lasted about a week.
Chronister’s office billed it as a “human trafficking operation” in a news release. But only three men out of the 75 arrested faced trafficking charges.
A close look at the display boards of mug shots next to Chronister in online videos of the presser reveals that many are of the arrestees are women: 27 in all, or 36 percent of the total arrests. The charges against the women were mostly for misdemeanor prostitution offenses.
“We’re trying to dry up the demand,” Chronister explained.
And in doing so, the sheriff saddled a number of sex workers with a criminal record that will make it extremely difficult in the future for them to get 9-to-5 jobs or housing.
What about the clients of sex workers — the so-called “Johns” — who are arrested for attempting to buy time with another consenting adult, Abrams asked Krell?
Krell told Abrams that “the consequences are not that severe” for such men.
That is, unless you count public shaming, a criminal charge and having to register with a state agency, as convicted sex buyers must do in Florida, as “severe.”
As sex worker rights activist Alex Andrews told me last year in relation to the Super Bowl sweeps in Tampa, “These kinds of activities break up families, they make people lose their source of income.”
Krell also discussed how California law requires the posting of anti-trafficking notices in certain businesses, airports, etc. And employees of the hospitality industry are made to undergo human trafficking training. In other words, hysteria and turning in “suspicious” people to law enforcement are encouraged.
Such heightened scrutiny has backfired, however, in cases such as one in 2019 involving Cindy McCain, who called the cops on a woman and her mixed-race child at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport because McCain suspected the woman was trafficking the kid. Phoenix police later contradicted McCain’s cockamamie claim that she stopped a sex trafficking incident in its tracks.
Reason magazine senior editor Elizabeth Nolan Brown has written extensively about such incidents, which have happened several times over the years, usually as the result of the very kind of training Krell praises on Abrams’ show.
. . . these specific bits of speculative bigotry—the fear that folks are using commercial airlines to smuggle kids into “sexual slavery”—are part of a paranoid scheme spread by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other authorities as part of “see something, say something” efforts. And as part of this, flight attendants and airport staff now get trained to intervene in what federal officials (falsely) portray as an epidemic of airline-based sex trafficking which can be spotted by good Samaritans who know the “signs.”
These initiatives have been helped along by groups like the McCain Institute, where Cindy McCain heads an “anti-trafficking” arm and dubious viral stories about a “hero flight attendant” and others who trust their guts and save the day. But the only victims who seem to be unearthed in real life are the interracial couples and families who have been profiled and accused.
At the conclusion of Abrams’ Super Bowl sex-trafficking segment, Krell cops the line that the Super Bowl is a teaching opportunity when it comes to sex trafficking, a common talking point with many anti-trafficking organizations.
“We use the Super Bowl to talk about this problem,” Krell says. “But this happens in every single day in every single city, not just cities that have a Super Bowl. This is happening every single day of the year, unfortunately.”
Thing is, the FBI’s stats, among others, do not back up the harebrained contention that sex trafficking is endemic to the United States.
Yes, sex trafficking exists, and it’s a heinous crime, one deserving of severe punishment.
But thankfully, it’s not nearly as widespread as irresponsible journalists and self-serving former prosecutors would have us believe.