Sex workers and allies plan a teach-in for the media and the public on Monday, Feb. 6 at "Super Bowl's Opening Night" at Phoenix Footprint Center, and it can't come soon enough.
A coalition of sex worker-rights organizations will demonstrate from 5-8 p.m. today, Monday, Feb. 6, outside the Footprint Center in Downtown Phoenix as part of a “public and media education action” ahead of Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, now less than a week away.
According to a statement issued by the “Stop the Raids Committee” — which includes local and national groups that advocate for harm reduction and the decriminalization of prostitution –the demonstration will demand an end to harmful raids and stings done by local and federal cops under the guise of “rescuing” sex trafficked individuals.
Demonstrators will also attempt to warn the media “to beware the claims made by law enforcement to justify” police harassment and arrests of sex workers, such as the oft-disproven urban legend that the Super Bowl leads to a spike in sex trafficking.
The press release states:
Every year, police departments use long-debunked claims of sex trafficking at the Super Bowl to justify mass arrests of sex workers and clients. During these periods, police often use entrapment (even posing as children), or use misleading titles like ‘Human Trafficking Operation’ to hide the fact that few if any arrests involve trafficking, in an effort to secure positive press coverage and more funding.
The group will be outside the Footprint Center as it plays host to “Super Bowl Opening Night,” a media extravaganza where, according to the NFL website, fans will pay to watch as “hundreds” of reporters and other press “interview the Super Bowl players and coaches for the first time during their only public appearance in Phoenix before taking the field for Super Bowl LVII.”
The coalition’s effort to counter harmful police propaganda about their community follows its denunciation of an expensive media campaign coordinated by the Arizona Governor’s Office and the coalition’s establishment of a website — stoptheraids.org — to push back on harmful misinformation surrounding sex trafficking and the Super Bowl.
Indeed, recent reports from various mainstream outlets have shown that local reporters are promoting the Super Bowl/sex trafficking myth in spite of the Camelback-sized mountain of research that has debunked it over the past decade.
Not only is this “moral panic” a colossal canard on the order of the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s, the hysteria and misreporting supports harmful and counterproductive police action, causing violence toward and the arrests of victims in the name of saving them.
Journos Gone Bad
Watching Phoenix media outlets spread dangerous myths about sex trafficking and its non-existent Super Bowl connection is a little like watching the good citizens of Hawkins, Indiana fall victim to “The Mind Flayer” in Season 3 of Stranger Things. You’ll recall that the supposedly hard-bitten, experienced journos of The Hawkins Post also succumbed to The Mind Flayer in the series.
Journalists are supposed be, at all times, skeptical — particularly of official narratives spouted by politicians and police. But as Noam Chomsky has shown in his brilliant exegesis of Western journalism, Manufacturing Consent, journalism in a democracy contends with powerful forces keeping stories at bay that challenge the status quo.
I recently pointed out the errors of a Fox 10 report on the Super Bowl and sex trafficking, which would have been improved greatly by the inclusion of alternate viewpoints critical of the official police line. But Fox 10 is just one of several local news outlets that have recently perpetuated the Super Bowl/sex trafficking myth.
One of the more surprising offenders is ABC 15, which has a history of doing stories critical of law enforcement and local prosecutors. But a Feb. 2 report led ABC 15’s newscast by making all the usual mistakes: conflating misdemeanor prostitution with the heinous crime of sex trafficking, misusing statistics to suggest sex trafficking is pervasive, applauding law enforcement solutions and strongly suggesting that the Super Bowl causes a spike in sex trafficking.
Check the ABC 15 title, “Not enough data to show that the Super Bowl is largest sex trafficking event.” The implication seems to be that with “enough data,” the falsehood could be proven true.
Actually, “enough data” exists to fully disprove the myth. More than enough.
In 2011, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), an umbrella organization of more than 80 anti-trafficking groups, published a groundbreaking study, “What’s the cost of a rumor?”
The study thoroughly debunked the idea that large sporting events like the Super Bowl lead to a rise in sex trafficking. GAATW later called the concept “manufactured media hype,” which “always generates a lot of media attention, action by anti-prostitution groups and law enforcement, and funding for anti-trafficking activities by state actors and NGOs,” though “there is no evidence to support the claim.”
Studies published in Lancet, the British Medical Journal, and most recently, a 2019 University of Texas study published in the Anti-Trafficking Review have all thrown water on this hoax.
Over the years, pieces in The New York Times, the Washington Post, Sports Illustrated and Reason Magazine have all called out the falsehood for what it is.
And just before last year’s Super Bowl in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times wrote of the Super Bowl/sex trafficking panic that:
It’s a myth. It has been debunked many times over, including by some leading organizations that fight trafficking. Academic studies and serious news reporting have found no connection between trafficking and the game and no uptick in trafficking activity as game day approaches.
So ABC 15’s premise is bogus from jump. It’s like saying there’s just not enough evidence to disprove the existence of the chupacabra, Big Foot, Slender Man, or the Jersey Devil.
The segment opens with an ABC 15 anchor offering some startling statistics, stating that , “There were 494 arrests of traffickers and buyers leading up to the Super Bowl last year.”
Problem is, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies run that same operation in California every year, and the arrests are largely “prostitution-related,” as the Bay Area Mercury News reported.
At a press conference trumpeting the results of the 2022 iteration of “Operation Reclaim and Rebuild,” police officials, including former Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, had to admit as much.
At the presser, Villanueva stated that of those arrested 201 were “sex buyers.”
Villanueva, who was defeated in a bid for reelection last year, then went on to blast Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon for refusing to prosecute arrests for loitering with intent to commit prostitution and for buying sex were misdemeanors.
At one point, Villanueva said:
“The sex buyer, that’s going to be a misdemeanor charge. The loitering . . . those were also misdemeanors. So those are the two of the bulk ones that generates a lot of the arrests. When you get into the trafficking part, you get into the felonies. Those are smaller numbers, but obviously, you have a higher success of filing.”
Villanueva stated that 34 “traffickers and exploiters” were arrested and that law enforcement had “rescued” 74 adults and 8 children.
One anti-trafficking activist at the press event attempted to link the Super Bowl to a spike in sex trafficking, but LASD Captain Richard Ruiz made clear that the 2022 results were representative of what would have taken place if the seven-day operation had occurred any other time of the year.
So ABC 15’s claim that there were “494 arrests of traffickers and buyers leading up to the Super Bowl last year” is, at best, highly misleading.
The Problem with Debunking
The old saw that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” is accurate here. If I had time, I could write a dissertation on all the inaccuracies and slippery statistics in local news reports concerning the Super Bowl/sex trafficking hoax. But to what end?
At the very least, ABC 15 and other outlets should balance their coverage by speaking to sex workers and groups advocating for the decriminalization of prostitution.
Excluding them and focusing on those with an anti-sex worker bias such as the Phoenix Police Department, Dominique Roe-Sepowitz and the folks at the Arizona Anti-Trafficking Network misinforms the public and helps further victimize sex trafficking victims.
Indeed, as reporters can learn on stoptheraids.org, a 2021 study by the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law concluded that: “Anti-sex trafficking operations identify few victims or traffickers and instead result in the arrests of many victims and sex workers…”
Obviously, the onus is on the police and policymakers to end these activities.
But by promoting the Super Bowl/sex trafficking hoax and supporting law enforcement’s unhinged obsession with arresting sex workers (i.e., adults alleged to be violating misdemeanor prostitution statutes), the media is perpetuating a zombie lie that should long ago have been decapitated.
Children of the Night first broke this story in Hollywood and Nationwide. Together with many Sex workers we hit the media hard and broke the story on Phil Donahue. We covered the streets with outreach cards, told families not to bring their children to LA for the Olympics because we overheard pimps telling new recruits they would get them in the Olympics and set them up with rich men from around the world. It turned out to be just the contemporary recruiting story and was not true. But it was a great publicity story which was much more powerful than the story WE WERE WRONG.