Is There Really a Huge Upsurge in Sex Trafficking Over Super Bowl Weekend?

Singer Justin Timberlake performs during the halftime show of Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Feb. 4. Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

Four days before the Super Bowl in 1993, a coalition of feminist activists held a press conference to announce an alarming discovery: The biggest sports day of the year was also “the biggest day of the year for violence against women.” The claim caught on quickly, perhaps because it seemed to make intuitive sense at a moment when domestic violence was coming to be seen as a national crisis. Super Bowl Sunday is a day for men to drink and gamble and revel in violence, so why wouldn’t that stew of toxic masculinity spill over into living rooms across the country? The claim was repeated on Good Morning America, and the New York Times soon called the game the “Abuse Bowl,” reporting on “angry, frustrated men turning on their mates and children at the end of a game as if it were part of the ritual.”

As it turned out, there was no real evidence that Super Bowl Sunday correlated with a spike in domestic violence. The few statistics circulating, like a study reporting that beatings and hospitalizations in northern Virginia rose by 40 percent whenever the local football team won its game, turned out to have been exaggerated or misinterpreted. The rest of the evidence was anecdotal. The myth of Super Bowl Sunday as a “day of dread,” as the AP put it, still annoys domestic violence experts, but it has generally faded away.

Meanwhile, however, a new warning about the intersection of masculine menace and the NFL’s biggest day has arisen. The newer claim is that Super Bowl Sunday is “the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States,” as Texas’ then–attorney general (now governor), Greg Abbott, put it in 2011. The headlines now arrive as predictably as the game itself. 2016 in the Bay Area: “Super Bowl 50 Plagued by Prostitution, Human Trafficking.” 2017 in Houston: “Police Cracking Down on Sex Trafficking During Super Bowl Week.” Last year in Minneapolis: “Police Go On Offense During Super Bowl, Nab 94 Men in Sex Trafficking Stings.”

Like the notion of “Abuse Sunday,” the idea sounds plausible. After all, the Super Bowl attracts tens of thousands of visitors, presumably mostly men, who arrive in the host city with money and time to spare. As the Huffington Post put it in 2013, “The influx of fans fosters the optimal breeding ground for pimps looking to boost their profits.” Host cities and federal law enforcement agencies now commonly use Super Bowl weekend as an opportunity to crack down on trafficking—and to publicize their efforts. The city of Atlanta hosted an End Human Trafficking summit at a convention center on Tuesday, in anticipation of Sunday’s game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. On Wednesday, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen appeared at a press conference in which federal officials announced that they’d arrested 33 people in the Atlanta area for sex trafficking in the previous four days, and rescued four victims.

Because of the notion that traffickers flock to the Super Bowl, the host city now ends up attracting not just law enforcement but Christian anti-trafficking organizations and other activists hoping to find victims to aid or rescue. One Minnesota-based ministry is touting a weeklong “human trafficking mission trip” to Atlanta over Super Bowl weekend. An Ohio-based project is coming to town to distribute small bars of soap labeled with the number of the National Human Trafficking Hotline. A local coalition of ministries called SafeZone Atlanta planned to send volunteers to strip clubs and brothels in the weeks leading up the game. “Traffickers will come from all over the country, and some from places all over the world,” a Texas undergraduate who is leading a group trip to Atlanta this weekend told the Baptist Press. “Sometimes you’ll find that entire hotels are rented out by traffickers.”

It sure sounds alarming. But is there any reason to believe that the Super Bowl is really the “largest human-trafficking venue on the planet,” as Cindy McCain once put it? “No,” said Jennifer O’Brien, an assistant professor and researcher at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “There’s no evidence at all that the incidences or number of people being trafficked increases because of the Super Bowl.” Any major event that attracts large numbers of people to a particular area will mean an increased local demand for commercial sex, she said. But not all commercial sex is trafficking. (O’Brien says the best estimate is that between 5 and 20 percent of sex workers have experienced trafficking, meaning between 80 and 95 percent have not.) And even if sex workers and traffickers temporarily cluster in a particular location to meet customers, there’s no reason to believe that events like the Super Bowl—let alone the Super Bowl itself—cause an actual rise in incidences.

Reason reporter Elizabeth Nolan Brown took a close look at arrest logs in Houston after the 2017 Super Bowl and found not a single arrest for sex trafficking, soliciting a minor, pimping, or other charges connected to forced prostitution over Super Bowl weekend. The attention being heaped on this topic reflects larger trends in awareness of commercial sexual exploitation—the term now preferred by experts, since trafficking connotes travel, which is not the core problem. In 2005, Atlanta police warned that 1,000 women and girls between ages 13 and 25 were being forced to work as prostitutes. The city spent $600,000 on a task force to rescue them. They identified just four victims, as an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution later revealed.

Meanwhile, the Super Bowl myth lives on, no matter how many times it is debunked. That’s not to say Super Bowl weekend trafficking doesn’t exist, or that it is not worth investigation. But the pressure on local police departments to keep an eye out for trafficking victims over Super Bowl weekend means they end up subjecting many nontrafficked adult sex workers to raids, arrests, and prosecution. And as O’Brien pointed out, bad data makes it harder to develop interventions that would actually make a difference to real victims. “It’s a lovely idea that something as horrific as sex trafficking, and particularly sex trafficking of children, which gets a lot of attention, is limited to the Super Bowl and that we can as a nation or as a culture rally around this awful thing that happens in connection to this one event,” she said. “That’s an easier idea to grasp than the reality, which is that trafficking and exploitation happen every day in every state in every community.”