Super Bowl Sex Trafficking: Is the Threat Real?


By Eliza Ronalds-Hannon and Mujtaba Ali

As throngs travel to New Orleans to revel in the Super Bowl spectacle, law enforcement will be on the lookout for an anticipated spike in human trafficking. But some say their predictions are fundamentally flawed. 


High-profile events like the Super Bowl, which is the championship final of the American professional football season, bring big money to host cities, and authorities are loath to see those profits disappearing into the hands of organized criminals.

Officials have turbocharged their crime-fighting efforts this year in New Orleans, with the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Louisiana Department of Justice, and New Orleans police department all involved in the effort. “Sex trafficking is a key issue being addressed by law enforcement agencies on a state, federal, and local level,” said Assistant Attorney General Katherine Green of the Human Trafficking Task Force for the middle district of Louisiana. The agencies would not comment on the specific strategies they have planned.

Non-profit organizations are getting in on the action as well. The staff at TraffickFree, an American organization run by sex trafficking survivor Theresa Flores, travels to the Super Bowl host city each year to train local businesses, mostly hotels, on how to recognize and prevent trafficking.

Flores said the signs are subtle, but consistent: girls being dropped off at hotels by cars that drive away rather than park; high-end cars at low-end hotels; girls without luggage traveling with older men; girls sporting visible bruises.

Flores started a campaign called “SOAP,” which stands for “Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution.” She delivers boxes of soap to the hotels that willaccommodate Super Bowl tourists, and the soap bars come with a message: the name and phone number of the National Human Trafficking Hotlines, with a plea to victims to call if they want help.

Hotels often get involved.  The Carlson Rezidor Group said it provides human trafficking awareness training for all of its hotels, but during Super Bowl season it reminds its hotels in the host city to ensure all staff have been trained recently, or better yet, to provide a refresher course.

“Prior to the Super Bowl in 2012, Carlson Rezidor corporate trainers were sent to Dallas to ensure all Carlson brand hotel employees were trained in what was then a newly revised program,” said Heather Faulkner, the Senior Director of Public Relations for Carlson, “and before the London Olympics last summer, all Radisson Blu Edwardian London hotel employees received human trafficking awareness training.”

It Doesn't Add Up

But some critics say these efforts are overblown.

“There is no evidence that large sporting events increase trafficking for prostitution,” concluded a 2011 report by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW). The report cites data from previous years, and also states that for short-term events such as the Super Bowl, it wouldn’t be financially worthwhile for traffickers, given the cost of transporting women to the host city and jacked-up hotel prices. “It costs a lot of money to move people around,” said Vancouver Police Inspector John de Haas in a 2009 interview with the CBC  ahead of Vancouver's 2010 Winter Olympics. “It’s a short-term event, so from a trafficker’s perspective, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense.”

The GAATW report also noted that many Super Bowl attendees wouldn’t spend big money for sex, since they have already spent  heavily  for travel and tickets to the game.

Maggie McNeil agrees. She is a retired sex worker and former librarian who blogs under that pen name because she doesn’t want her legal name public. “The fans are either going be younger guys who aren’t established, or older guys who are,” McNeil said. “The older guys could afford to pay for sex, but they bring their whole families with them. The young guys are tapped out once they get there; they have no money left for escorts.”

“There’s really not an economic basis for all of this,” McNeil said of the Super Bowl sex trafficking projections.  “When the Super Bowl comes to town you can’t get a hotel room within 40 miles of the city. Where is this mythical band of gypsy harlots supposed to be staying?”

Ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, many groups warned of an imminent “explosion” in trafficking, but according to the GAATW report, no cases were identified.

A report by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2006 called estimates of global human trafficking “questionable," stating, "the accuracy of the estimates is in doubt because of methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies.” The report  pointed to one example when a U.S. government estimate was developed by just one person, who did not document all his work. That estimate “may not be replicable, casting doubt on its reliability," the GAO said.

Trafficking Grows – By Definition

Ever-broadening definitions of trafficking further complicate the issue. While it used to refer to the transportation of victims, trafficking is now defined generally as the sexual “coercion” of unwilling participants.

In California, laws passed in 2012 defined “coercion” so vaguely that it could logically apply to friends who share alcohol and get drunk. The definition included “the provision and facilitation of any controlled substance to a person with the intent to impair said person’s judgment.” A 2011 law in Massachusetts designated anyone involved in sex work as a “trafficker.” By that definition, hotel maids or secretaries that some professional, independent prostitutes employ for safety – so that male callers realize they are accountable to a witness – are now vulnerable to felony charges.

Being listed as “trafficked “ often affords victims special resources, in addition to the benefit of avoiding criminal prostitution charges. These resources can include housing, job training, and even citizenship. The US Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Office issues special “T Visas” to trafficking victims so that they can remain in the US and help in prosecution efforts – about 674 last year, according to the Office’s public affairs officer. The visas can lead to permanent citizenship.

But these benefits come only when charges are filed, so they encourage consensual sex workers to turn on each other when busted. “It’s ‘tell us what we want or we’ll throw you in jail’,” said McNeill. “If you make snitching a requirement, people are going to snitch.” she said. If that means accusing your security guard or cab driver, it’s worth it to stay out of jail, or avoid deportation.

A Shift In Focus?

The GAATW report suggested that Super Bowl anti-trafficking efforts abandon sensationalist sex-slave rhetoric and focus instead on a more pressing issue: labor trafficking. According to the Alliance, issues like migrant workers’ rights in the construction industry, workers’ rights in sport clothing and equipment industries, and even the recruitment of young athletes all need more attention.

In the meantime, Super Bowl task forces, local authorities, and state and federal bodies remain focused on the shadowy, unconfirmed threat of widespread sex trafficking. And they’ll continue to do so: legislators in the state of New Jersey are already calling for the passage of tougher sex trafficking laws in time for the 2014 Super Bowl at the Meadowlands Sports Complex.