Sex trafficking and the Super Bowl?

Today, thousands of people will plant themselves on couches and barstools across the nation to watch two football teams compete for the most valuable prize in the NFL. I don’t know much about football and I don’t really have an interest in it, but tons of Americans love it and have a great time rooting for their teams, eating nachos, and commenting on brilliant advertising campaigns on this day every year. Regardless of how you feel about football or the hype surrounding the Super Bowl, you can’t help but hear about the game results, the commercials, and the intense preparation that surrounds whatever city hosts this phenomenon each year.

And nowadays, you probably can’t help but also hear something about sex trafficking when you hear stuff about the Super Bowl. Am I right? I would bet there’s almost no one who hasn’t heard at least something about a link between the Super Bowl and sex trafficking. Especially if you are on Facebook, you’ve likely seen articles posted and shared, and maybe you’ve even read a few yourself. If you have, you were likely flabbergasted by some of the stats presented, or maybe a little confused by some info that kind of seems to contradict other things you’ve heard about this problem.

It makes sense that people would be confused. I’ve seen articles just in the past week that have said the Super Bowl is the largest sex-trafficking event in the nation, while others say there’s absolutely no link whatsoever to an increase in sex trafficking because of the Super Bowl. There are lots of people arguing on both sides, both presenting evidence on both sides, and both sounding pretty convincing, especially if you are new to hearing about all of this.

I learned about sex trafficking about three years ago, which by federal law is: “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age,” (22 USC § 7102; 8 CFR § 214.11(a)). The most appalling thing to me was that it simply existed at all, but also that it happens here in the US in every single state, not just in some rare case in a remote country “over there” that I’ll never visit.

Now, let me come to my point about sex trafficking and the Super Bowl. There are a bunch of people out there right now, disputing the claims that big events such as the Super Bowl increase the demand for sex trafficking. Some articles are quoting that there have been no reported increases in the number of arrests during Super Bowl weekend in the various towns where the event was held. Some who are saying that there’s no proof, no hard statistics about how many people are really trafficked so we can’t say anything about it whatsoever. Some people are even saying that sex trafficking doesn’t really exist at all, but is just an idea made up by women who hate men and hate sex and want to make the rest of the world into a bunch of prudes.

Let me break down some very basic thoughts about sex trafficking and large events such as the Super Bowl.

1. Sex trafficking is most definitely real and happens every single day in every single state in our country, which is deemed the most free, powerful, and prosperous nation in the world. So right here in our backyards, young girls and boys, women and men, are being controlled by others through threats, drugs, violence, and a serious lack of safe options. These controllers are using their victims’ bodies as “merchandise” to sell over and over to people who are willing to pay for illicit sex. To a trafficker, this is nothing but a business. Their greed for money drives them to provide the “product” that is under demand… sex for sale.

2. The supply-demand scenario is the only thing that fuels any business, legal or illegal, anywhere in the world. There’s not really a big demand for parachute pants now that the 80’s have passed and MC Hammer’s songs are not topping the charts. I don’t see a lot of advertisements for parachute pants anymore. Get what I’m sayin?? Every business thrives on supply-demand logic. I saw news reports of pizza shops working feverishly to fold hundreds of extra boxes and quadrupling their batches of dough because they know that the demand for pizza will go up tremendously on Super Bowl Sunday. These are smart businesspeople. These folks know what they are doing. In the NY/NJ area where the Super Bowl is being held, I have no doubt that pizza shops, grocery and retail stores, and sports bars are doing the same thing… increasing their supply of merchandise to meet the inevitable demand that happens when thousands of out-of-towners descend upon their city on a specific weekend. I am pretty sure that people in NY/NJ already eat pizza and chips, and drink beer and soda. But on Super Bowl weekend, when everybody’s coming to YOUR town for the game, you’re going to stock up on the same things that people always purchase, because there will be more people purchasing them that weekend. I don’t have specific statistics to tell me this, it’s just logic and we’ve seen businesses do this over and over throughout the years. Sex traffickers do the same thing. They have a demand on every other day throughout the year, so when there’s a big event coming, they ship more “product” to where the demand will be, and that includes a city where the Super Bowl is being held. I don’t have a big list of proven statistics for that either. But I do know of several survivors of sex trafficking, many of whom personally attest to being taken to various cities around the country where big events were being held (everything from sporting events to doctors’ conventions to God-knows-what-because-half-the-time-they-never-knew-where-they-were-and-that’s-a-big-fat-red-flag-that-someone-is-being-trafficked)

3. Increased demand increases advertising. Ever notice that seasonal items enjoy a blitz of advertising at certain times of the year? Well of course. When we know that Christmas is coming up, we up the advertisements for stocking stuffers. When Halloween is coming down the pike, companies who produce costumes pay for advertising because they know the demand will be there. Business people aren’t stupid… they invest time and money in advertising when they know it will pay off the most. Did you know that advertisements for sex-for-sale (or whatever euphemism they might be disguised under) on web sites such as Backpage.com increase dramatically during the weeks leading up to big events, like the Arnold Classic and the Super Bowl? It’s already happened this week. I have seen it myself, looking online at ads in the NY/NJ area. Traffickers advertise on these sites all the time, but they take lots of extra time and effort to increase advertising tenfold during the weeks leading up to events like this. The supply and demand logic wins out for these people… they know their increased efforts are likely to pay off.

4. There’s a huge lack of “proven statistics” that show the real numbers of sex trafficking victims. You’re damn right there is. This sick business of sex trafficking is an underground endeavor. Our best estimates are probably sorely lacking. Big numbers get thrown around and sometimes that makes us paralyzed to the problem. But I will tell you this… The many stories I have heard from actual survivors who have been through this hell and lived to tell about it indicate that this is a bigger issue than we think it is. With all the awareness and police stings and campaigns that exist now, there are still many, many people trapped in sex trafficking that we have no idea about. Why? Because this is an organized crime. Do we have stats on every person who uses heroin or meth? No, because they do it in secret. The amount of arrests for illegal drug sales don’t in any way indicate how big (or small) the problem really is because those numbers only speak to the ones who were caught in the illegal activity. Duh. Same with sex trafficking. Our best guesses are only estimates based on what we know about this purposely underground crime. A lack of “proven statistics” shouldn’t make us dismiss this as not being a real problem, but should make us realize all the more that what we do know about sex trafficking only scratches the surface, and we need to do more to unearth this evil.

I have looked in the eyes of some of the most amazing women I’ve ever met who told of their experiences. Their true stories sound like horror films to us who have never known that kind of suffering. They tell of places they’ve been where it was not just them who were sold, but houses full of girls. They tell of men who frequent those houses asking for the youngest ones. They tell of being abused in the most horrific ways that we can’t even imagine. They tell of being purchased by well-known and “upstanding” members of communities. They tell of beatings they endured when they didn’t do what they were told. They tell of being left for dead on the side of the road or in a roadside ditch after a “john” had abused them. And they tell of being shuffled from city to city where big events were happening, because their traffickers knew there would be a demand. Their stories are all I need to be convinced that there is, in fact, a link between big events and an increase in sex trafficking. But the real problem doesn’t center around that. It centers around the fact that sex trafficking even exists at all, and that while there are people out there arguing over whether the stats are accurate, there are men, women, and children being abused and sold every single day right here in our city and in every state across the nation. I don’t need proven statistics to stay in this fight.

If there is even ONE person who this is happening to on Super Bowl weekend or any other weekend, I will fight for them, because no one should ever have to endure it.

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What exactly is human trafficking?

The topic of human trafficking has been on my personal radar for a little over 2 years now. It’s gone from being a heartbreaking issue that I used to hear about on the news to an evil that is personal to me, that I now can’t help but fight against. A lot has changed since I was first appalled by watching the movie Taken. A whole lot. I’ve learned that human trafficking isn’t just some vile notion in a movie plot. In fact, it’s hardly at all like the movies. It isn’t something that just happens internationally or in mafia rings (although it can be part of that.)  I’ve come to know that it’s not only real, but it happens right here in my country, my state, my hometown, every single day. I’ve learned that often, it’s much less about a person being kidnapped and much more about a person being coerced and manipulated. I’ve learned that a person doesn’t have to be taken over a border –or anywhere else–in order to be trafficked… it can happen right in their very own home by people who are supposed to be their protectors and defenders. I’ve learned that this modern-day slavery is often more about layers and layers of psychological bondage and rather than the metal shackles we picture when thinking about slavery as we’ve known it in our history books.

So what is human trafficking, really? You may not know this, but our nation’s law gives us a real working definition, that includes the fact that human trafficking is modern-day slavery. In the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act of 2000* (TVPA), it states:

b) FINDINGS.—Congress finds that: (1) As the 21st century begins, the degrading institution of slavery continues throughout the world. Trafficking in persons is a modern form of slavery, and it is the largest manifestation of slavery today.

Trafficking in persons is another phrase for human trafficking. Its legal definition is:

   The term ‘‘severe forms of trafficking in persons’’ means—

(A) sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or

(B) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage,  debt bondage, or slavery.

Notice the terms force, fraud, or coercion. These three words are key to the definition of human trafficking.

Force. That one is easy to understand. Someone holds a gun to your head. Someone beats you. Someone locks you up. They’ve used physical force against you to get what they want.

Fraud. You’ve been tricked. You signed up for a day labor job or to be trained as a nanny. But when you arrive you realized there never was such a job. You are now made to work 16 hours a day without pay, or to prostitute yourself or strip in a nightclub. You’re the victim of fraud, because the situation is not what you were told it was.

Coercion. This one may be the hardest for us to really understand. The actual definition** of the word coerce is:

Coerce

1. to compel by force, intimidation, or authority, especially without regard for individual desire or volition

2. to bring about through the use of force or other forms of compulsion; exact

3. to dominate or control, especially by exploiting fear, anxiety, etc.

So, you’ve been told that you’ll be beaten severely or killed if you try to leave, or if you tell anyone. Your family will be killed, and they know where your family lives. They videotaped you, and if you tell anyone, they’ll show the video to everyone you know. They remind you that you’ve got no place to go, and how if you left you’d be back out on the street with no food, no shelter, nothing and no one. They’re the best chance you’ve got. And you start to believe it. You’ve been coerced and manipulated.

All three of these things: force, fraud, and coercion, are means by which men, women, and children are trafficked. Most of the time all of these things are present, resulting in layers upon layers of physical, emotional, and psychological trauma that breaks down their defenses until they feel hopeless. Then the trafficker has them exactly where they want them.

So what next? What is the experience like for people who are trafficked? I myself cannot explain it thoroughly. I can only relate the stories I have heard, have been told, and have read second-hand. But the stories are real, and the experiences are truly terrifying. They are beyond what people living in safe, resource-rich lives can even imagine. But we can listen to their stories. We can hear—really hear—their voices crying out for hope and prevention and restoration. We can use these stories to fan the flame of righteous anger on their behalf, and decide that we will no longer allow this to happen right under our noses. We can allow that righteous anger to compel us to act, to speak out for the ones who haven’t yet found their voice.

How exactly do we do that? Believe it or not, there are really countless ways! In my next post, I will give a list of resources to educate yourself and to get involved on local and national levels. For now, you can start by memorizing the national hotline number (1-888-3737-888) and visiting the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s page to learn more. With this hotline number, you can call (and now even text “BEFREE”) to give tips when you see signs that make you suspect trafficking is happening. Don’t be shy about calling. You may save a life today.

More to come….

*Also known as the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, retrieved from:  http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/10492.pdf

** Definition of coerce, retrieved from: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/coerce