Activists Continue to Exploit Super Bowl Sex Trafficking Myth to ‘Raise Awareness’ (and Money)

Blurry color photo of a streetwalker approaching a driver in Turin, Italy, taken in 2005 by Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department, downloaded from Wikimedia Commons
Every year, like clockwork, activists reprise the ol' Super Bowl sex-trafficking hustle and make bank doing so. (Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department, via Wikimedia Commons)
Anti-trafficking activists and cops cling to the canard that the Super Bowl brings an annual increase in sex trafficking to the host city, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

As the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots prepare for kickoff Sunday afternoon at Minneapolis’ US Bank Stadium for Super Bowl LII, local officials and activists continue to peddle the myth that the Big Game brings an influx of sex-trafficking to the host city — a recurring bit of bunk that comes around like clockwork every year as the NFL championship matchup approaches.

But this year, there’s a twist: Rather than argue with fact-finders who point out that little or no evidence exists to back up what the Village Voice once called “the Super Bowl prostitution hoax,” the anti-trafficking crowd has vaguely ceded the point, arguing instead that all big events, including the Super Bowl, involve a temporary bump in sex trafficking.

Because “sex trafficking” is a term these folks habitually conflate with “sex work,” the Super Bowl thus becomes an opportunity to educate the public about the perils of commercial sex and boost advocacy groups’ profiles (and thereby, their ability to fundraise).

Meanwhile, the local constabulary cracks down on run-of-the-mill prostitution through various police operations that target the world’s oldest profession and its clientele.

Leading the charge for Super Bowl LII is the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, a nonprofit organization with assets in excess of $23 million that, according to its website, invests in “innovation to drive gender equity” in the North Star State.

The group is one of 40 involved in the Super Bowl’s Anti-Sex Trafficking Planning Committee, a public-private partnership that reportedly will spend $1 million in raising awareness about sexual exploitation during Super Bowl week.

color illustration by Jack Kurzenknabe that depicts New England Patriots players in a huddle
A gaggle of gentlemen who have something other than sex trafficking on their minds (Jack Kurzenknabe, via Flickr)

Terry Williams, vice president of strategic initiatives for the Women’s Foundation, serves as co-chair of the planning committee. In an interview with Front Page Confidential, Williams explained that the $1 million pays for a media blitz that includes billboards, public-service advertisements (PSAs) on TV, wraparound ads on buses and light rail, and training for thousands of volunteers and hospitality-industry employees in how to spot sex trafficking as it occurs.

The effort consists of two main projects funded by the Women’s Foundation, she said: the “I Am Priceless” campaign, which targets girls under the age of fourteen, and “Don’t Buy It,” which is aimed at males eighteen and above.

The “Don’t Buy It” PSA covers a lot of ground, with actors portraying real persons who warn of the dangers of striptease, prostitution, and sex trafficking.

One woman explains that “prostitution is about power, control, and oppression”; a man insists that “women are not products,” and that “guys act like being a real man means dominating women.”

Asserts a bald, bespectacled fellow: “Stripping and porn are harmless, it’s not hurting anyone, so what’s the big deal?”

He then crosses his arms defensively. The next shot depicts a middle-aged woman who relates with disgust how her daughter had to go to the emergency room “seven times” during her time as a porn actor, “because of the constant violence and trauma.”

Men as Peacemakers, a nonprofit based in Duluth, Minnesota that receives funding from the Women’s Foundation, designed the ad as part of its “Don’t Buy It Project,” which encourages men to sign a pledge to not purchase sex, patronize strip clubs, or consume pornography.

Though Williams asserts that there’s an “uptick in trafficking anytime you bring large numbers of people into the community,”  her group isn’t saying the Super Bowl is any worse than “hunting and fishing openers.” It’s just that the event’s popularity allows the Women’s Foundation’s  to get its message across to “millions and millions” of people.

“We’re really using this as an opportunity to talk to the public about the issue,” she told Front Page Confidential. “Our message in Minnesota has been that it’s an issue 365 days a year, that the public needs to be aware of the issue.”

Williams denies that her group is exploiting the Super Bowl and perpetuating the myth that it is connected to sex trafficking.

“We’ve got to start talking to men and boys about sexual exploitation in general,” she said. “So we’re really using it as an educational opportunity.”

Williams adds that the Women’s Foundation has spent $7.5 million to date on “Minnesota Girls Are Not For Sale.”

Asked how she defines “sexual exploitation,” Williams said, “We’re talking about trafficking, we’re talking about objectification of women, we’re talking about campus rape, we’re talking about the whole gamut of ways in which women and people can be exploited.”

Is the Women’s Foundation anti-porn?

Williams said the group sees “the link between pornography and sexual exploitation and trafficking.”

What about the decriminalization or legalization of prostitution?

“We don’t know enough about it yet,” Williams said. “We don’t know about the unforeseen consequences. So I really couldn’t comment on that.”

Kristen DiAngelo thinks that’s a cop-out. A sex worker and activist based in Sacramento, California, DiAngelo is the co-founder and executive director of that city’s chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of those in the sex trade. She regularly speaks at conferences nationwide on the subject of sex trafficking.

“People going to the Super Bowl are not at risk of being trafficked, so you’re educating the wrong crowd. Now, what does that crowd have to offer? Deep pockets. OK, now that makes sense to me.” –Kristen DiAngelo, co-founder and executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Sacramento

“If you’re saying that you deal in this arena, you should know about it,” DiAngelo said of Williams’s non-comment. She added that Amnesty International has called for the decriminalization of consensual sex work.

She was particularly dismissive of the “Don’t Buy It” ad, noting the discrimination and stigmatization sex workers face, particularly from law enforcement.

“When we conflate appropriate sexual boundaries, consensual sex work, and trafficking, we get this kind of public hysteria,” DiAngelo said.

DiAngelo, who’s familiar with the nonprofit arena from her work with SWOP, suggested an obvious motive for the Women’s Forum’s ad campaigns surrounding the Super Bowl: fundraising.

“If we’re talking education, those people going to the Super Bowl are not at risk of being trafficked,” she said. “So you’re educating the wrong crowd. Now, what does that crowd have to offer? Deep pockets. OK, now that makes sense to me.”

Securing funds merits an explicit mention in a June 2017 academic study by Lauren Martin, director of research at the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center.

Commissioned by the Women’s Foundation, Martin’s report explores the topic of sex trafficking and the 2018 Super Bowl. One takeaway: “[M]aking a link between a mega sporting event and sex trafficking can lead to significant funding and social service efforts.”

But the paper also describes significant downsides to making this link: for instance, Some advocates’ use of racist and sexist tropes, such as a “rescue narrative” that may involve a young, white female victim and cops or social workers who free her from what is euphemistically called “the life.”

Martin noted that a pattern of hyperbolic rhetoric about sex trafficking preceding a big sporting event tended to undermine the credibility of sex trafficking as a legitimate issue. She cites a 2011 statement by Texas attorney general (and now governor) Greg Abbott, who prior to Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas, called the game “the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.”

Anti-trafficking groups predicted as many as 100,000 prostitutes descending on the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, 38,000 child sex slaves among them. Neither group materialized, and the Dallas Observer reported on the paucity of arrests by both local and federal law enforcement.

Similarly, though Martin does not cite this quote, a year in advance of Super Bowl XLIX coming to Glendale, Arizona, in 2015, Cindy McCain, wife of U.S. Senator John McCain and the doyenne of anti-trafficking crusaders, upped Abbott’s ante, labeling the Super Bowl “the largest human-trafficking event on the planet.”

Ironically, research funded by the McCain Institute for International Leadership, where McCain sits on the institute’s human-trafficking advisory council, undercut her claim in 2014 and 2015. The 2015 report from the ASU School of Social Work stated that there remains “no empirical evidence that the Super Bowl causes an increase in sex trafficking compared to other days and events throughout the year.”

That statement dovetails with the conclusions of a 2011 report from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), an association of 80 nongovernmental organizations from around the world, which studied the possible connection between big sports events such as the World Cup and the Olympics. The GAATW found the assertion to be “false,” criticizing the misuse of resources and advocating for the decriminalization of sex work.

Notwithstanding such research, Cindy McCain, who co-chairs the Arizona Governor’s Human Trafficking Council, and other activists have continued to beat the anti-trafficking drum around large athletic events. In August 2015, six months after the aforementioned report was issued, McCain lambasted the NFL for having “done nothing” about sex trafficking.

Actually, the NFL had already begun marching to Cindy McCain’s tune. In 2012, league spokesman Brian McCarthy called the alleged Super Bowl-sex trafficking connection an “urban legend” and “pure pulp fiction.” But by 2015, McCarthy said it was a “serious problem” and touted the league’s partnership with law enforcement.

In fact, the Super Bowl sex-trafficking scam has been debunked more times than the existence of Bigfoot, or Elvis faking his own death. It has its own Snopes page. And Politifact skewered it. So did Sports Illustrated.

Yet, every year, as February draws nigh, the same flimflam ensues. Take 2017’s Super Bowl LI in Houston. In the run-up to the big game, news outlets warned of the impending sex-trafficking extravaganza, and local cops vowed a crackdown.

A few days after the Patriots’ overtime win against the Atlanta Falcons, the Houston Police Department (HPD) announced that over a ten-day period, it had made only 107 Super Bowl-related arrests: a 43 percent drop from 2004, the last time Houston hosted the game.

Of those 107 arrests,  21 were prostitution-related. Of the 21 people who were arrested, 18 were sex workers.

In non-Super Bowl-related work during that ten-day period, HPD’s vice unit made more than 200 arrests tied to prostitution or sex trafficking: Of the 56 prostitutes who were arrested, four were found to have been trafficked. The HPD’s vice division captain told reporters that 200 arrests was not an unusual number for such a sweep.

Given that law enforcement is incapable of providing the data necessary to justify the Super Bowl-sex trafficking craze, those looking for evidence of sex trafficking rely on the numbers of adult ads online to support their theory of a bump in illicit sex in the host city during Super Bowl week.

In reviewing other studies that monitored sites for escort ads, University of Minnesota researcher Lauren Martin concluded that the Super Bowl, “like many other large and localized events, correlates with a local increase in the number of advertisements” for commercial sex. But Martin found the data “inconclusive as to the extent of trafficking by a third party.”

That hasn’t stopped activists and police from concluding that a rise in ads for commercial sex equals a spike in sex trafficking. When one local TV news outlet asked Sgt. Grant Snyder, the Minneapolis Police Department’s anti-sex trafficking point man during Super Bowl week, whether victims of sex trafficking would be brought into town specifically for the Super Bowl, he responded hesitantly in the affirmative.

“I think they will, I know they will,” he said.

In this and other interviews, Snyder said that any increase in sex trafficking or commercial sex in Minneapolis connected to the Super Bowl would be due to the size of the city’s temporary population increase, not the type of event involved.

Snyder has promised a different approach from law enforcement with regard to sex trafficking at this year’s Super Bowl, one that’s geared away from large-scale arrests. But in a January 18 presentation to the Minneapolis City Council’s public-safety and emergency-management committee, Snyder seemed to signal that Minneapolis cops would employ stings to target johns.

Front Page Confidential contacted the Minneapolis Police Department seeking to interview Snyder or any other spokesperson who could speak about the issue. The department’s response: Snyder and others with similar knowledge were unavailable.

New York attorney Kate Mogulescu remains skeptical of the new tack being taken by activists and police.

Mogulescu’s expertise is in human trafficking. She created the Exploitation Intervention Project, a Legal Aid Society initiative that provides defense attorneys for most of those accused of prostitution throughout the city’s five boroughs . Now she’s an assistant professor at Brooklyn Law School, where she runs a clinic that defends many of the same people.

In 2014, Mogulescu wrote an op-ed for the New York Times  in which she decried the “annual oversimplification” of the issue of human trafficking, whereby “we conflate all prostitution with trafficking and imply that arrest equals solution.” Those arrested and convicted for prostitution, she noted, face “lifelong criminal records.”

Mogulescu tells Front Page Confidential that she finds the altered rhetoric of many trafficking advocates to be problematic. “It doesn’t make that distinction between trafficking and prostitution,” she said, adding that the “services” activists tout are typically offered only after someone is arrested and diverted to social services in lieu of prosecution.

“My concern always is just that all of this helps to substantiate policing, policing, policing,” she said. “I cannot think of another type of crime where victims are so disinterested in working with law enforcement.”

That, in turn, leads her to conclude that the crackdowns are more than anything “a puritanical crusade against sex.”

One of the most troubling consequences: Human trafficking involving forced labor and other labor abuses unrelated to sex work is ignored, despite the fact that such exploitation is widespread in various industries, such as agriculture and domestic service.

“I think there is some exploitation and abuse in the sex industry,” Mogulescu elaborated. “But I don’t think it rises to the panic level that’s described.”

She and her colleagues have represented sex workers who’ve been charged with human trafficking, even though “their conduct doesn’t come close to that.”

For the time being, she remains cynical, saying the situation hasn’t changed much since she wrote about it in 2014.

“We see this big criminal legal system apparatus falling precisely on the most marginalized women — women of color, poor women of color — in the sex industry, whether it’s just prostitution arrests, or in these human-trafficking arrests, which are really dubious.”

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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.

One comment

  1. >Because “sex trafficking” is a term these folks habitually conflate with “sex work,”

    As if the two were different …

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