Sex trafficking and the Super Bowl: Myths and the real issues

Volunteers and outreach services from across the country are working with city agencies to use the Super Bowl to open the public's eyes to human trafficking. By Emanuella Grinberg and Christina Maxouris, CNN

(CNN) -- The 2019 Super Bowl has drawn thousands of people to the host city of Atlanta, but not everyone's in town to join in on the festivities.

Volunteers and outreach services from across the country are working with city agencies to use the biggest sporting event in the United States to open the public's eyes to human trafficking, the crime of forcing someone to perform sex or labor for profit.

Some groups claim that the influx of crowds for the Super Bowl contributes to an increase in sex trafficking. But leading anti-trafficking groups, such as Polaris Project and the International Human Trafficking Institute, say no evidence supports the claim. Trafficking occurs year-round in communities around the country, they say, and that's where prevention efforts are most needed.

But that's not stopping outreach groups or the city of Atlanta from raising the issue during Super Bowl.

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, which is why the issue is already more prominent now than at any other time of the year. And, with the Super Bowl drawing large crowds to Atlanta, city officials, outreach groups and activists say they see an opportunity for a widescale public awareness initiative. The campaigns coincide with law enforcement efforts to step up patrols as crowds descend upon a city that its mayor says ranks third in the country for reports of human trafficking.

The nature of human trafficking -- be it for labor or sex -- is complex, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told the CNN Freedom Project. That's why the city is spreading the message now, when they have the public's attention.

"The Super Bowl is an opportunity for us to talk about it, but it's something we have to be vigilant about 12 months out of the year," Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told CNN. "It's about making sure that the thousands of men and women who work in our hotels understand what the signs are. It's about making sure our police officers understand what the signs are. It's about making sure the public is informed."

What the groups are doing

The extra dose of messaging is all over the city. Posters in the airport, convenience stores and gas stations list the warning signs of trafficking and a hotline number. Delta Air Lines' inflight videos carry the message, too. In churches in Atlanta throughout January, groups held public information sessions on how to spot trafficking in communities. Volunteers went into hotels to share the signs with employees.

Theresa Flores arrived in Atlanta in mid-January with more than 60,000 bars of soap.

On each, a message: "Are you being forced to do anything you do not want to do? Have you been threatened if you try to leave? Text HELP to BE FREE 233733."

Flores says she is a sex trafficking survivor and the founder of the S.O.A.P -- "Save our Adolescents from Prostitution" -- Project, a nine-year-old non-profit that aims to raise awareness about trafficking.

On a recent weekend, Flores says about 200 volunteers delivered the bars of soap -- along with missing children posters and tips for spotting trafficking -- to more than 330 Atlanta hotels.

"If you can talk to the housekeepers, do so," Flores told the volunteers in a church conference room before they fanned out across the city in three-person groups.

"They have a valuable wealth of information of things they see that nobody else sees. Talk to them about red flags."

The International Labor Organization estimates that 40.3 million people are trapped in human trafficking globally -- 71% of whom are women and girls and 25% are children.

No official estimates exist of the total number of people being trafficked in the United States, according to Polaris. The group estimates that the nationwide number is in the hundreds of thousands when estimates of adults and minors and sex trafficking and labor trafficking are aggregated.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline, which is operated by Polaris, maintains what is considered one of the most extensive data sets related to human trafficking in the United States.

In 2016, the most recent year for which complete data is available, the hotline received 30,918 substantive phone calls, emails, or online tip reports nationwide, according to an annual report.

Of the 27,201 phone calls the hotline received, 691 came from Georgia, accounting for 2.54% of the calls. But the hotline is only a measure of reported cases. Experts say the number of people being trafficked is likely much higher.

"The Super Bowl does not increase trafficking, sex buyers increase trafficking," said Nita Belles, founder and executive director of In Our Backyard. The Oregon-based anti-trafficking group set up shop in Atlanta for 10 days to hold public information sessions on signs of human trafficking and what to expect during the Super Bowl.

The group also operates a "command center" in an undisclosed location where they search for missing children who could be involved in trafficking. A large poster with photos of the missing girls hangs on the wall. Volunteers sit at tables in front of laptops scanning dark web escort ads. They pull relevant data for leads that they pass onto law enforcement agents on the other side of a makeshift wall.

One of the volunteers, Cheryl Csiky, says she was was trafficked for sex as a child. She began volunteering for In Our Backyard four years ago.

"It's heartbreaking to hear that it still happens," she said. "That's why I get up every day ... we need to save kids."

Is the Super Bowl a human-trafficking magnet?

The link between the Super Bowl and trafficking has been debated for years. News reports in the past warned that the influx of crowds increased sex trafficking. But Polaris and others say no evidence supports a causal relationship between the two.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline sees "slight upticks" in calls and reports during Super Bowl weekend, Polaris spokesman Brandon Bouchard said. But Polaris attributes the boost to heavier promotion of the hotline, not an increase in the prevalence of human trafficking on Super Bowl weekend, he said. If someone calls during the Super Bowl weekend to report being trafficked, "they were very likely being trafficked before that too," Bouchard said.

The FBI traditionally sees an uptick in online solicitation during large scale events like the Super Bowl, spokesman Kevin Rowson said. "The problem exists not just at major sporting events but throughout the year in communities all around the country."

Ahead of the 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis, the Women's Foundation of Minnesota asked the University of Minnesota to examine the scholarly evidence about the idea that the Super Bowl causes an uptick in sex trafficking, said Lauren Martin, Director of Research at the University of Minnesota's Urban Research Outreach-Engagement Center, which conducted the study.

The study found some empirical data to support claims that the Super Bowl, "like many other large and localized public events, correlates with an increase in the number of online ads for commercial sex in the host city."

"However, the Super Bowl does not appear to have the largest impact and evidence suggests the impact is short-lived," the authors wrote in a research brief.

The study says that the first documented concerns about the impact of major sporting events on sex trafficking were for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. Projections of high number of trafficking victims did not materialize, but the response "set the template" for how host cities and NGOs treated sex trafficking in subsequent major international sporting events, including Super Bowls, the UROC brief says.

The authors said they found a tendency across host cities for the media and others to "recycle unfounded and exaggerated numbers" of potential trafficking because of heightened demand caused by the event.

The authors warned of potential downsides of public awareness campaigns and the portrayal of law enforcement involvement as a form of "rescue." Some campaigns -- through their language and imagery -- portray sex trafficking as tantamount to kidnapping, the brief says. Victims are often reduced to stereotypes of young, naive white females in need of rescue, the study says.

But victims experience both overt and subtle forms of manipulation, violence and exploitation, the authors said. "Over emphasis on a total lack of physical freedom may make it harder for many individuals to see themselves in anti-trafficking campaigns," the authors say.

Moreover, this type of campaign imagery suggests that only certain types of victims are worthy of help, oversimplifying "the social, economic and other pressures involved in the commercial sex industry," the authors said.

The brief also warns of the potential negative effects of enhanced policing as part of the campaigns. Not all sex trafficking victims respond positively to law enforcement for a variety of reasons, the authors said, and some have had negative experiences with police in the past. Research shows, according to the authors, that even for trafficking victims, exiting the commercial sex trade "is a process that takes time and should be guided by the self-determination of each individual according to her or his own needs."

Anecdotally, Polaris has heard that more "prostitution" arrests occur over Super Bowl weekend, Bouchard said. "But that largely has to do with the fact that law enforcement are specifically looking for it then." And the trend in law enforcement is to focus on arrests of traffickers and those seeking to buy sex, not sex workers or those who are being trafficked, he said.

During the 2018 Super Bowl, a multi-agency operation participated in a "recovery focused initiative" to arrest those seeking sex for sale and provide social services to those being trafficked, the Minneapolis Police Department said.

Over 10 days, 89 people were arrested for purchasing sex, seven accused traffickers were arrested, according to data provided by the department. Additionally, 20 women identified as "recoveries" were put in contact with social services instead of being arrested, a spokesperson said.

Already in Atlanta, 33 people were arrested over four days this week in the metro area, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said in a news conference Wednesday.Four people were "rescued," she said.

In nearby Douglas County, 16 people were arrested in a joint operation the Department of Homeland Security on charges of human trafficking, pimping, prostitution and pandering the Douglasville Police Department said in a statement.

The dates of the arrests "were specifically selected to be near the Super Bowl, as this is always a time of increased prostitution and pandering activity in the host city," the department said.

What gets lost in the hype

The focus on sex trafficking during the Super Bowl runs the risk of concentrating resources on just one weekend, says Bouchard with Polaris, and only for sex trafficking, "when the focus needs to be year-round and across all types of human trafficking present in the United States," he said.

Another downside, he says, is it directs funding and responses to sex trafficking, at the expense of overshadowing labor trafficking.

But the Super Bowl brings together stakeholders to create much-needed responses and prevention approaches to sex trafficking, he said.

"We just encourage the efforts to recognize that this is a problem to address year-round."

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