The Super Bowl Sex-Trafficking Story That Just Won't Die

With Super Bowl XLVIII on the horizon, it's now time for the annual "here come the prostitutes" story, an annual exercise is fear-mongering over a threat that never materializes.

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What happens when tens of thousands of football fans, 3,000 members of media, and untold numbers of corporate executives descend on one little city for the Super Bowl? Stories about an explosion in sex work, naturally. With Super Bowl XLVIII on the horizon, it's now time for the annual "here come the prostitutes" story, an annual exercise is fear-mongering over a threat that never materializes.

The premise is this: thousands of football fans — almost all men — are going to travel to New Jersey (or Miami or Tampa or Phoenix) for the biggest sporting event of the year. They are in a strange town, with money to burn, and an atmosphere full of testosterone. Naturally, they will seek out strip clubs and prostitutes, who in turn, will be shipped into the city by the bus-full by illicit sex traffickers trying to meet the demand of Super Bowl Weekend. 

"When you're about ready to have 400,000 men come to this area of the country, you're invariably going to have more people try to take advantage of that by providing prostitutes and prostitution," New Jersey's Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli told the AP, who is promising a crackdown as his area prepares to host the big game.

Stop us if you've heard this one before. Because you probably have. The same story was written about the Super Bowl host city in 2011 and again 2010 and again 2009 ... and again before basically every Super Bowl in living memory. (The Super Bowl has even been called the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.) Every city that hosts the NFL title game goes through this, but there's one problem with the narrative. It isn't exactly true.

In 2012, The Houston Press's Peter Kotz thoroughly tore apart that story, explaining that law enforcement officials in the cities where past Super Bowls occurred never actually saw increases in prostitution busts or the number of trafficked prostitutes, even despite increased efforts to catch johns, pimps, and traffickers. "We didn't see a huge influx in prostitutes coming into Tampa. The arrests were not a lot higher. They were almost the same," a Tampa police spokeswoman said in 2009, and a police spokesperson in Phoenix said in 2008 that there was nothing out of the ordinary: "We may have had certain precincts that were going gangbusters looking for prostitutes, but they were picking up your everyday street prostitutes," and not foreign women "imported" for the event.

Further, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) — which has a vested interest in promoting this topic — said in a report that there's no correlation between sporting events and a rise in prostitution. "There is no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution," the organization concluded. They also included this table which looked at the world's biggest sporting events, and the lack of evidence to back what they essentially say is a "myth."

The history of those events make this year's claims of trafficking even harder to believe and bring up questions of the gullibility of the media. The "Super Bowl = prostitutes" story begins to look more and more like a lazy journalistic trope or an urban legend. Or more cynically, a cheap attempt by some local politician using the Super Bowl media blitz to score points by standing up to the menace of sex work.

To be clear, sex trafficking is a legitimate issue outside of the convenient Super Bowl news bubble. But again, there's no evidence that a mass influx of sports fans increases the problem or contributes to it in some way. Ultimately, spreading misinformation can end up undercutting efforts to bring awareness to the very real problem of sex trafficking and forced prostitution. Focusing only on the Super Bowl and quick fixes like ramped up police patrol, doesn't address the bigger, ongoing problem of sex exploitation. As Rachel Lloyd, founder of the Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS) organization, wrote for the Huffington Post in 2012:

We've focused on quick fixes and good vs. evil responses that rarely address the true causes or empower the young people that we're serving. In doing so, we've played right into the hands of those who'd like to deny that this is even happening, those who are profiting handsomely from the continued exploitation.

Sadly, that probably won't keep Phoenix from reliving the story again in 2015.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.