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Human trafficking and the Super Bowl: Is the media making it worse? - The LAMP

Human trafficking and the Super Bowl: Is the media making it worse?

By January 17, 2012 News One Comment

T-shirt design from a 2010 effort to end human trafficking at the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl is less than three weeks away, and while fans are anticipating a showdown on the football field, Indiana state lawmakers are anticipating an influx of women and children trafficked into the state for the purpose of selling sex. Earlier this month, a Senate committee unanimously approved a bill to toughen the state’s laws against human trafficking. Various news outlets have lauded Indiana state lawmakers’ efforts, and the discourse is all the same – the exigency, the indignation. Human trafficking is an abhorrent crime that must be stopped, at any cost. However, there is little questioning on behalf of much of these news outlets regarding the legitimacy of these claims, which rely on a language of fear and misleading, confusing definitions of human trafficking.

An example of such language is in this press release found on the state’s website, which asserts that human trafficking “…include[s] the recruiting, harboring or selling of a person, especially a child, for purposes of prostitution, commercial sex acts, forced labor or involuntary servitude” and with the Super Bowl approaching, “…the disturbing reality is that such gatherings in other states have drawn criminal rings that traffic young women and children into the commercial sex trade (emphasis added).” To back up this claim, they include information regarding numerous arrests for prostitution during last year’s Super Bowl in Texas, adding that these arrests included a victim of human trafficking.

The problem here is that prostitution is not equal to human trafficking. Suggesting that the terms ‘prostitution’ and ‘human trafficking’ are interchangeable, while maintaining the belief that human trafficking is defined by the sexual exploitation of individuals, further marginalizes those who have made a consenting decision to sell sex.  As a result, prostitutes are placed somewhere on a spectrum between criminal and victim—after all, selling sex in most of the US, be it consensual or non-consensual, is against the law. Thus an individual arrested for prostitution may be referred to as either a ‘trafficking victim’ or in some cases even as a ‘trafficker’, when this is often not the truth. Equating a consenting individual as a ‘victim’ on par with those who have been forced into sexual servitude is simply another means of control. It perpetuates anti-prostitution sentiment that has existed for centuries, but under the guise of humanitarian efforts. How can there be effective anti-trafficking laws when there is a failure on behalf of so many legislators, anti-trafficking groups, and the media to identify it?

There has been little press following last year’s Super Bowl in Texas questioning the legitimacy of claims that large sporting events result in an influx of trafficking victims. One exception is this piece from The Dallas News, reporting that FBI agent Robert Casey Jr. “…saw no evidence that the increase would happen, nor that it did. ‘In my opinion, the Super Bowl does not create a spike in those crimes,’ he said. ‘The discussion gets very vague and general. People mixed up child prostitution with the term human trafficking, which are different things, and then there is just plain old prostitution.'”

The media hype surrounding the Super Bowl provides an outlet for such misconceptions to persist in the minds of the general public, and the ensuing anti-trafficking legislation provides law enforcement even more opportunity to further target all sex workers, not just those who are assumed to have been trafficked against their will. The legalization of sex work, which may include providing workers with health benefits and a safe work environment, could prevent the continuous marginalization of those consenting to sell sex. To refer to all sex workers as ‘victims’, not just those who have been trafficked against their will, is to ignore the blatantly obvious fact that anti-prostitution laws have contributed to much of the issue. In addition, the legalization of sex work could very well lessen the ‘need’ for trafficking individuals. There must be better resources to assist those who are trafficked against their will. Using a broad definition of ‘victim’ may help boost funding for anti-trafficking organizations, and it may help sensationalize stories for news outlets. However, in the end, this media frenzy does little to confront an already complicated issue.

–Caitlyn Garcia

Caitlyn Garcia is a student at William Paterson University, double-majoring in French language & literature and political science.