Link between big sporting events, trafficking questioned

NEW YORK (ABP)—Some activists and elected officials point to major sporting events—such as the Super Bowl and the Olympic Games—as magnets that attract human trafficking for sexual exploitation.

But other advocates for trafficking victims insist reports are exaggerated and distract from the day-to-day reality of human trafficking beyond high-profile events.

human trafficking425“One Super Bowl after another after another has shown itself to be one of the largest events in the world where the cruelty of human trafficking goes on for several weeks,” said U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., co-chairman of the House anti-human trafficking caucus.

Cindy McCain, wife of U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, which will host the 2015 Super Bowl, has called the Super Bowl the “largest human-trafficking venue on the planet.”

But Rachel Lloyd, founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, says scant evidence backs up such claims.

“There is no huge influx of pimps and trafficked women and girls each year into whatever city the Super Bowl is being held,” Lloyd writes in a blog picked up by the Huffington Post. “There is no mass invasion of johns traveling specifically for the purposes of purchasing sex.”

Without question, law enforcement officials make arrests. In the days surrounding Super Bowl XLVII, CNN reported New York and federal authorities rescued more than a dozen teenagers who were believed to be victims of sexual exploitation and arrested 45 people on sex trafficking and related charges. 

And just prior to the Super Bowl, New York Daily News and some other media outlets reported arrests involving a major Asian prostitution and drug ring.

But the question remains: Do big events increase instances of trafficking, or does it just bring to the surface what already exists?

Tomi Lee Grover, founder of TraffickStop, sees conflicting evidence and misplaced emphasis.

modern slavery425(Chart from“There are exaggerations that have been perpetuated, but there is also not an adequate focus on addressing the demand side. Law enforcement’s primary concern is security, not whether men are buying. Additionally, the metrics for measuring success are arrests for prostitution rather than rescuing underage children. Most are sold online and not on the street, which requires a different detection and approach to address it,” said Grover, formerly a community ministries and restorative justice consultant with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Stories linking sex to large sporting events go back in antiquity to the first Olympic Games held in 753 B.C. in Olympia, Greece, where prostitutes were said to make as much money in five days during the Olympics as they did the rest of the year.

Misleading link started in 2004

A 2011 paper by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women says the first modern event where trafficking was misleadingly linked with a major sporting event appears to be the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, which invoked widespread warnings from Greek politicians about a rise in prostitutes and sex workers, according to the BBC.

Since then, sporting events like the Olympics, soccer’s World Cup and the Super Bowl routinely get tied to rumors of an influx of prostitutes that for some reason usually is numbered at 40,000. Laura Agustin, a sociologist who studies and blogs about migrant sex workers, calls it “a fantasy number” with no basis in fact.

gaatw report425Download the PDF report by Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women on trafficking at sports events at last time the Super Bowl was played in Phoenix, police said they heard about and prepared for an increase in prostitution but never uncovered any evidence of a spike in illegal sexual activity.

“We may have had certain precincts that were going gangbusters looking for prostitutes, but they were picking up your everyday street prostitutes,” Phoenix police Sgt. Tommy Thompson said after the 2008 Super Bowl. “They didn’t notice any sort of glitch in the number of prostitution arrests leading up to the Super Bowl.”

Experts speculate exaggerated claims persist for various reasons. Politicians look good in the eyes of voters with not-in-my-backyard bravado leading up to major tourist events.

Checking the facts

Publicity helps nonprofit groups that fight human trafficking raise money, and the media often dutifully quote self-proclaimed “experts” without checking the facts. Such campaigns also may allow ordinary folks to feel like they are doing something about a large problem that otherwise feels abstract and distant.

Lloyd, who started GEMS in 1998 to aid girls and young women at risk for commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking who were being ignored by traditional social service agencies, says she welcomes attention to the problem of human trafficking, but it’s better to rely on facts than hyperbole. 

“While integrity is really important to me and the work we do, there are also three practical reasons why the Super Bowl story harms the work more than it helps,” she wrote in her blog.


For one thing, it undermines the credibility of organizations like hers that fight human trafficking and gives credibility to naysayers who claim the problem doesn’t exist.

Second, she said, continually raising “false alarms” makes it harder to mobilize people to action when an alarm really is required, a time-tested truth illustrated in Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

Finally, it’s a waste of resources that could be used by agencies like hers in truly effective ways.

“Real change is long-term and systemic,” Lloyd wrote. “It's not about throwing some money at an issue for a few months and then moving on. …What is true, without question, is that commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking will undoubtedly happen in the New York/New Jersey area during the first week of February, and the second and third and fourth week of February and in March and April and every single day and every night throughout the year.”

Grover likewise called for “daily diligence” that focuses not just on high-profile arrests but ongoing prevention, intervention, education and restoration of victims.

“We have to think holistically about this issue, not just addressing symptoms,” she said.

--With additional reporting by Managing Editor Ken Camp

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