Increased sex trafficking during the Super Bowl is a dangerous myth, these L.A. sex workers say

Illustration (iStock/Washington Post illustration) (WaPo)

Abigail Higgins, Special To The Washington Post

Ahead of Super Bowl LVI on Sunday, the city of Los Angeles has been taking the usual steps to prepare to host the event: painting the field at SoFi Stadium, setting up equipment for the halftime show.

As part of that effort, there have been campaigns to stop human trafficking: Last month, signs started popping up in hundreds of Los Angeles airport bathrooms; and solemn video messages from National Football League stars have been playing on loop in the terminals, warning that offenders will face prosecution.

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Almost every year, a swell of media reports and law enforcement news conferences ahead of the Super Bowl sound the alarm about sex trafficking. It’s been a long-held idea that major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, the World Cup and the Olympics, trigger a surge in trafficking.

But several academic studies have found no causal relationship between large sporting events and an increase in sex trafficking. (Human trafficking refers to the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain labor or commercial sex. Reliable statistics about human trafficking are hard to find, especially when it comes to sex trafficking.)

In recent years, sex workers’ rights groups have more vocally criticized the idea that there’s increased sex trafficking during the Super Bowl. Although some anti-trafficking organizations have distanced themselves from the notion, as well, it persists – and continues to give law enforcement a reason to expand their budgets and make dozens of arrests, sex workers’ rights groups argue. These arrests are often a crackdown on sex workers who aren’t being trafficked but are trying to do their jobs, advocates say.

In the lead-up to Super Bowl LIV two years ago, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office said it made dozens of trafficking-related arrests and recovered 20 trafficking victims. An investigation by Miami New Times found that many of the arrests were of sex workers who were “simply looking to make ends meet.”

It’s an issue about which Los Angeles activists say they are particularly concerned, given that the sporting event will be held in the city’s Inglewood neighborhood, which is predominantly Black and Latino but rapidly gentrifying. Advocates point to the recent clearing of homeless encampments in the neighborhood as a sign that the needs of the city’s most marginalized are not being prioritized as the city prepares for an event that is projected to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars.

“There’s going to be an excess of vulnerable people in jail as opposed to receiving services,” said Soma Snakeoil, a sex worker and co-founder of the Sidewalk Project, an advocacy and direct services organization that works with houseless people in Los Angeles. “Sex work is not human trafficking and human trafficking is not sex work, and conflating the two and then using the idea of human trafficking as a way to arrest sex workers is incredibly, incredibly dangerous.”

This year’s messaging around increased trafficking during the Super Bowl started at a mid-January news briefing, when Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva warned that the Super Bowl was “one of the major events that draws human traffickers to the region,” as Fox 11 Los Angeles reported.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department told The Washington Post that its Human Trafficking Task Force (HTTF) will be working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and several local police departments to respond to human trafficking during the Super Bowl.

Trafficking “doesn’t just get you a penalty; it gets you time behind bars,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said at a news conference in January. He appeared with the It’s a Penalty campaign, the anti-trafficking organization behind the signage at Los Angeles airport. This is the organization’s fifth Super Bowl campaign and its 12th during a global sporting event, said It’s a Penalty chief executive Sarah de Carvalho at the same news conference.

“The implication that a major sporting event is a sole reason for human trafficking and exploitation to occur in a city is harmful and misleading,” said Anisa Easterbrook, communications and marketing manager for It’s a Penalty. “However, our experience of running these campaigns during sporting events – survivor stories and hotline data show that there can be a correlation between a high influx of people into a city and traffickers using this as an opportunity for exploitation.”

Sex workers’ rights advocates, meanwhile, argue that this messaging does more harm than good.

“People are going to be getting arrested at high rates, and those disruptions are going to continue the cycles of poverty that people are stuck in because of criminalization,” said Alex Makulit of US PROS, one of the advocacy groups organizing Stop the Raids, an awareness campaign and online symposium focused on the risks they say sex workers face ahead of the Super Bowl.

The U.S. government commits large amounts of money to combating human trafficking. In December 2021, the Department of Justice announced nearly $87 million “to combat human trafficking, provide supportive services to trafficking victims throughout the United States, and conduct research into the nature and causes of labor and sex trafficking.”

But the government’s approach has been criticized by some. A 2021 report by the USC Gould International Human Rights Clinic found that anti-trafficking efforts rely primarily on law enforcement “raids” or “sweeps.” These are “largely ineffective” at preventing trafficking or protecting survivors, the report found, even though law enforcement typically portrays them as successful.

According to a statement by Kristina Rose, director of the Office for Victims of Crime at the Department of Justice, the U.S. government also funds direct services such as housing and legal assistance to trafficking victims.

“Trafficked minors often first interact with criminal justice authorities through arrests, and may not readily be identified as crime victims,” Rose said. “This is especially true for Black, homeless, and LGBTQI+ youth, who report being targeted for arrest as a result of profiling on the basis of race, sexuality, and gender nonconformity.”

Rose added that OVC hopes to “generate innovative approaches” to address this problem.

According to Snakeoil, police raids “disproportionately target already marginalized communities,” including immigrants, unhoused folks and trans sex workers. “The trauma that people experience when they are put in jail is just incredible,” said Snakeoil, adding that a criminal record can affect future employment and housing prospects.

The California Department of Justice said in a statement that “survivors of trafficking shouldn’t have to worry about being penalized just because they may have been involved in commercial sex work.”

Kristen DiAngelo, executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project – Sacramento, said that housing insecurity and poverty are what drove her into the grip of a trafficker. As a teenager living in Los Angeles, she supported herself through in-person sex work and porn. When she was pushed out of this work amid a citywide law enforcement crackdown on underage workers, she said, she was put in touch with a man who would eventually traffic her for 10 years.

“Ten years of my life I lost,” DiAngelo said. “Nobody from the outside world gets to tell me how horrible it is.”

But throughout her life, she said, “I was more afraid of the police than my trafficker.”

DiAngelo alleged that she has suffered violence at the hands of police. In her work at SWOP, she said, she regularly receives calls from sex workers with similar experiences. Research by the American Civil Liberties Union has found that sex workers “are often physically or sexually coerced by police through threat of detention, violence (including rape), or extortion.”

As it relates to increased police presence around the Super Bowl, it’s not that sex trafficking isn’t a concern, said DiAngelo – it’s that advocates like her don’t believe law enforcement is the right answer. What sex workers need, she said, is stable housing, access to basic resources, and the kind of safety she believes that decriminalizing sex work can bring. Research by the ACLU and Amnesty International have found that decriminalization would help reduce violence against sex workers, who face disproportionately high homicide rates.

Most anti-trafficking organizations do not support decriminalization, but many do support a shift some law enforcement agencies are making toward targeting clients rather than sex workers.

DiAngelo is working with the University of California at Davis on a research project about people who are victims of sexual exploitation for profit.

A pattern emerging in her research, she said, is that young people are forced to enter the sex trade because of poverty or an abusive home life. When they can’t afford what they need – food, rent and other basic necessities – they end up relying on someone they know for those needs, and that person ends up trafficking them.

“If we want to protect people who are being trafficked, we need to protect sex workers because they are the most vulnerable for that happening to them next,” DiAngelo said.

Diverting some of the money that goes toward Super Bowl-related law enforcement into concrete resources for sex workers could go a long way in helping, she added.

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