Super Bowl LV: Authorities Bust Tampa Sex Workers in Trafficking Panic

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Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, where the Buccaneers and the Chiefs will compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. (arctic_whirlwind via Flickr)
With Super Bowl LV at hand, Tampa's rife with trafficking panic and cops cracking down on the sex trade, but SWOP Behind Bars is pushing back on both.

It’s Super Bowl LV time in Tampa, Fla., which means local law enforcement is arresting sex workers in advance of Sunday’s kick-off between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Cops and prosecutors claim they’re combating “sex trafficking,” which by law involves either minors — or adults compelled to sell sex through force, fraud or coercion. But sex-worker rights advocates in Tampa’s Hillsborough County tell a different story.

Alex Andrews, co-founder of the non-profit, pro-sex worker group Sex Workers Outreach Project Behind Bars (SWOP Behind Bars for short) says she recently witnessed around 25 sex workers in custody during visits to the county’s first appearance court.

“Most of the sex workers that are coming in contact with law enforcement don’t even know the Super Bowl is this weekend.” — Alex Andrews, co-founder of SWOP Behind Bars

Her Florida-based group is in Tampa to push back on police harassment and the much-debunked myth that the Super Bowl brings with it a rise in sex trafficking. Over the span of the last ten years, numerous studies have consistently shown that there is no such cause and effect.

Still, every February, politicians in the host city decry the non-existent link between sex trafficking and the Super Bowl, and cops roust sex workers as a way of boosting their arrest stats.

“They always try to conflate sex work and sex trafficking right before the Super Bowl,” Andrews says. “They’ve been doing it forever.”

Last year, at Super Bowl LIV in Miami, cops arrested around 150 sex workers on prostitution-related charges as part of the war on “human trafficking,” a catchall term that includes both forced labor and sex.

Andrews, whose group has raised over $15,000 to date for a “2021 Super Bowl Sex Worker Bailout Fund,” says many of those arrested in Tampa are poor, homeless or living in marginal circumstances.

At court, Andrews says she saw an Asian woman in her 60s, detained for alleged sex work, who did not speak English. She says the woman ended up being held for two days before being released.

Another, a homeless trans woman of color, was hit with drug possession charges in addition to a prostitution count.

“Most of the sex workers that are coming in contact with law enforcement don’t even know the Super Bowl is this weekend,” Andrews explains.

Her group has helped bail out eight people so far, she says. Many with first-time offenses are being released on their own recognizance. Others have been hit with more serious counts, keeping them behind bars on higher bonds.

“The reality is, no one willingly chooses to enter the world of sexual exploitation.” — Sheriff Chad Chronister, giving his opinion of consensual adult sex workers

Court records reviewed by Front Page Confidential show that Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputies have, in the past few days, arrested several women on prostitution-related charges. Andrews believes other agencies have been involved in recent prostitution arrests as well.

(The Tampa Police Department did not respond to FPC’s inquiries, though a recent article in the Tampa Bay Times states that Tampa police have been visiting “adult businesses” to make sure they comply with the county’s “human trafficking ordinance,” which demands businesses post anti-trafficking signs.)

The Sheriff of Sex Trafficking

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister hyped the Super Bowl/sex trafficking hoax, by announcing the arrest of 71 men on January 11 — National Human Trafficking Awareness Day  — for allegedly agreeing to purchase sex from undercover deputies.

“With less than a month away from the big game, our covert operations continue, and will continue, seeking those who choose to sexually exploit others here in our community,” Chronister said during a press conference.

Dubbed “Operation Interception” in honor of the upcoming football extravaganza, Chronister portrayed this routine law enforcement sting as an attempt to proactively deter human trafficking before the Bucs and the Chiefs face off on Sunday.

And yet, the men arrested were charged with solicitation or similar offenses, not sex trafficking. Chronister characterized the operation as eradicating the pre-Super Bowl demand.

But Chronister has run similar stings in the past, ironically garnering far more arrests in the process.

What’s the sheriff’s opinion of consensual, adult sex workers?

“The reality is, no one willingly chooses to enter the world of sexual exploitation,” Chronister told reporters at the presser.

Chronister portrays sex workers as lacking agency, but he’s not relinquishing his prerogative to lock ’em up.

Asked to rationalize the sheriff’s callous prostitution sweeps, HCSO flack Natalia Verdina responded via email, stating bluntly, “Per Florida Statute 796, prostitution is illegal in the state of Florida.”

Verdina added that the HCSO “works closely with local partners” to ensure that “human trafficking survivors receive the help they need.”

The office of State Attorney Andrew Warren, prosecutor for all of Hillsborough County, offered a more nuanced answer when asked about its policy toward sex work.

“Those kinds of activities break up families. They make people lose their source of income.” — Alex Andrews on Sheriff Chronister’s “Operation Interception”

Warren’s spox, Grayson Kamm, emailed FPC a statement, saying that the prosecutor’s office “is committed to reducing human trafficking and standing up for victims.”

Should someone be “considered a victim instead of a defendant,” county prosecutors “will actively pursue that approach to their case.”

Meanwhile, Warren’s office continues to “aggressively” go after the sex trade “from multiple directions — demand, supply, and the logistics in between.”

Lose the Handcuffs, Copper

If the prosecutors and the police really want to affect sex trafficking, slapping the cuffs on a sex worker is not the way to go about it, argues Andrews.

“Police need to understand that arrest is violence,” she says. “And when people encounter violence, they’re not going to share their situation with police.”

She pointed to a survey from a major anti-trafficking organization, which claims that “91% of survivor respondents had a criminal record as a result of being trafficked.”

In a letter released on Feb. 2 by SWOP Behind Bars and signed by more than 100 allied groups and individuals, the number one policy proposal was, “Do Not Arrest People for Selling Sexual Services. Period.

The letter states that arrests make sex workers more vulnerable to trafficking and saddles them with a criminal record that can prevent them from obtaining safe housing and legal employment.

Police also have a documented record of intimidating, assaulting or otherwise victimizing sex workers, who largely fear cops as a result.

While her organization supports the decriminalization of prostitution, Andrews hopes to build bridges, even to law enforcement. Though that’s no easy task.

For instance, Andrews remained critical of efforts to “reduce demand” by busting clients, a la Sheriff Chronister.

“Those kinds of activities break up families,” she says. “They make people lose their source of income.”

And due to a new state law, if they are convicted of what is essentially a victimless crime, they could end up on a sex-purchaser registry for five years.

Educating the Masses

In addition to bailing people out and helping them with fines and court costs, Andrews and her cohorts want to disabuse the public of the misguided notion that sex trafficking is inextricably linked with the Super Bowl.

They have their work cut out for them. Tampa has been deluged with anti-trafficking propaganda over the past few months.

For example,

  • City fathers have reportedly allocated $250,000 for an advertising campaign, “Don’t Buy It Tampa Bay,” which includes billboards featuring the face of a woman and the admonition, “Human Trafficking Hides in Plain Sight.”
  • The UK-based group “It’s a Penalty” has flooded Tampa International Airport and various air carriers with ads, videos and signs, with seven pro-football players advising people, “Suspect It? Report It!”
  • Project G.O.A.T. (Global Offense Against Trafficking) has installed life-sized goat statutes, painted by local artists, all around town.
  • And the S.O.A.P Project, a perennial Super Bowl gadfly, is distributing little bars of soap with stickers bearing the number of the National Human Trafficking Hotline, oblivious to the Victorian overtones of their calling card.

So what if statistics from the FBI crime reports don’t back up the contention that sex trafficking is an “epidemic,” or if the recurring Super Bowl/sex trafficking meme is  part of a modern “moral panic” akin to the white slavery panic of the early 1900s.

Doesn’t this annual outpouring of concern at least “raise awareness” of the issue?

“We have all the `awareness’ we need there,” Andrews replies. “What we need is more awareness of homelessness, the lack of food and COVID impacting people’s lives.”

Previous Super Bowl stories from FPC:
Miami’s Super Bowl Sex-Trafficking Panic: Bogus Stats, Racial Stereotypes and Rampant Paranoia
and
Activists Continue to Exploit Super Bowl Sex Trafficking Myth to ‘Raise Awareness’ (and Money)
and
Sex Trafficking Conspiracy Theorists Peddle Same Old Lies in the Lead-Up to Super Bowl LIII

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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, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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