Last February, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot declared the Super Bowl the “single largest human trafficking incident in the U.S.”
Now, Arizona activists are looking to prevent trafficking for the sporting event this weekend.
Over 10,000 "prostitutes" — many of whom were trafficking victims — were brought into Miami for the Super Bowl in 2010, and during the Dallas Super Bowl in 2011, there were 133 arrests for sex with minors, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The enormity of the sporting event provides an ideal setting for traffickers to cash in, says Nita Belles, anti-trafficking activist and author of "In Our Backyard," an account of trafficking in the U.S.
"Any time you have a large number of people gathering in one place, especially males, and it's a party atmosphere, it's prime ground for sex trafficking," says Belles.
Researchers from Arizona State University studied online sex ads for 10 days surrounding last year's Super Bowl in New Jersey, and found that ad volume spiked leading up to the event, and dissipated afterwards. At least half appeared to involve sex trafficking victims.
Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, lead author and professor of social work at ASU, is repeating similar research in Arizona for comparison. She's only a few days into monitoring in Arizona, but already the numbers are upsetting, she says.
"The sheer number of ads would be beyond what any one law enforcement agency could respond to," said Sepowitz, who said that there are thousands of ads and responses to those ads.
The week before the Super Bowl in Indianapolis in 2012, over 1,000 postings on Backpage.com — an online postings site with space for "adult entertainment" services — listed services from women and escort services, and a quarter referenced the Super Bowl, or "Super Bowl Specials," according to a Forbes report.
What's still unclear is how much sex trafficking the Super Bowl attracts compared to other events like a Jets game or Giants game, says Sepowitz. Further data is needed to determine that.
Traffickers work the activities surrounding the game, says Belles, at parties and popular bars.
"There are Playboy parties in town, a Snoop Dogg party," says Belles, who is in Phoenix to do awareness work during the game weekend. That's where traffickers will be working the crowd to find customers. They also use the Internet.
Last year, the day before the Super Bowl, over 100 arrests were made in Manhattan based on Backpage.com ads and the crackdown received a lot of media attention. Sepowitz believes that the increased attention and law enforcement could lead to a decrease in criminal behavior surrounding the Super Bowl.
"I think if you are a trafficker and a pimp, and you bring a person here to be trafficked, you are asleep at the wheel," she said, especially in Arizona where law enforcement started doing busts months ago to discourage sex buyers.
"There are lots of men and lots of money here, and that's what any market needs for sexual exploitation," she said, but the NFL, law enforcement and community have "sent a message."
The problem is demand
The major findings of the report are that trafficking is a national problem — not just during the Super Bowl, says Sepowitz.
"Like every other city in this country, trafficking happens here every day," she said.
The problem is driven by demand, which creates an extremely lucrative business. The only way to address that, Sepowitz says, is by sending the message that purchasing people for sex is illegal and harshly punished.
"We're concerned about young men and boys getting the message that buying and selling human beings is okay," she said. "We can change that."
Part of Sepowitz's job is to place decoy ads and get the responses. She's always baffled that the men respond with details about themselves, how they look, what they do. There's a delusion that these women are working for themselves and enjoy their work, she says.
"All those women care about is that they meet their quota and get the money to their pimp or trafficker," she says. Otherwise, they often face dire consequences. Ads perpetuate this myth, often worded as though they are written by the women themselves, and that they "can't wait" to meet their buyers.
Belles notes that law enforcement and language have been changing, and need to change, to shift responsibility. "Prostitutes" are usually victims, she says, and "john" is too nice a word for someone who should be called a "sex buyer."
Sepowitz is heartened by changes in law enforcement that have started to focus on treatment for women arrested in the sex trade, rather than prosecution.
"There's a saying that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world," says Belles. "But it's the oldest abuse in the world."