Every year, media outlets warn of the impending sex trafficking tidal wave that's supposed to hit whichever city is hosting the Super Bowl.
And every year, we wash our hands of the news after the event, comforted by the fact that hundreds of johns are behind bars, their victims free to live normal lives.
All of those storylines fail to capture the bigger picture and do more harm than good, says Bridgette Carr, a law professor at the University of Michigan who has dedicated her life to the subject of human trafficking.
Sweeping enforcement campaigns imply that trafficking is only a problem in one specific area during a particular time of year, she told The Huffington Post. They give the false impression that the problem is solved once the campaign is over -- and then the money and attention subside.
It's a myth that human trafficking spikes during Super Bowl week, Carr said, and that myth allows people to compartmentalize the problem. "It's never a problem in my area, and people I know don't do that," she said -- even though local, state and federal governments don't actually have reliable data about our nationwide human trafficking dilemma.
"It's not that you can't find anecdotal evidence of a human trafficking problem in a given place -- it's that there is no reliable data for any given day in the U.S.," Carr added. "There's this idea that we can say there's an increase around any event, when we aren't able to say what's happening on any given day."
Each year, the FBI and local agencies pour resources into enforcing sex trafficking laws and rescuing victims of the sex trade, but more resources need to be allocated to compiling statistics that show how big a problem it really is, according to Carr.
"What's really frustrating is the agencies getting the best press about these arrests are the same agencies complaining about lack of nationwide data," she said.
Last year, the Phoenix division of the FBI arrested 360 sex solicitors and 68 traffickers and recovered 30 juvenile victims, part of a six-month operation in anticipation of the 2015 Super Bowl. Those are impressive numbers for one area, but more arrests don't necessarily mean there's a bigger problem during the Super Bowl than any other time.
It will be no different in San Francisco for Super Bowl 50 this year, and local and federal law enforcement officials have been arresting traffickers for months.
Yet while the city admits that sex trafficking is always a problem -- in a 2015 report, the FBI calls the Bay Area a "hub" for trafficking -- the post-Super Bowl arrest statistics will only prove one thing: more resources mean more arrests. When those resources are withdrawn (like after the Super Bowl), the problem won't leave with them.
Kurt Remus, special agent media coordinator for the Phoenix division of the FBI, agrees that resource allocation is a nationwide problem. He says Phoenix is blessed with a task force of local, state and federal law enforcement assigned to human trafficking year-round. But says most local jurisdictions can have "one guy, maybe one agent" dedicated to it, he said.
"Look, we see the Super Bowl as a target-rich environment -- there are a lot of pimps who are out there preying on victims, and see the Super Bowl as a business opportunity," Remus said. "But is it ramped-up enforcement or the Super Bowl [that leads to high arrest numbers]? I'd say a little of both."
Carr says human trafficking is a bigger problem than just the Super Bowl and sex trafficking. She wonders why people don't worry about other crises like labor trafficking, and instead focus on a sex trafficking "myth" for just one weekend.
"Is the service industry upping the use of labor trafficking victims during the Super Bowl? Who are the people cleaning our hotel rooms? Why are we narrowing this discussion to sex trafficking?" she asked.
"I don't understand how we can perpetuate a myth each year, when we really have no clue what goes on around the Super Bowl or other big events."
Indeed, UNICEF estimated that there are 1.5 million victims of human trafficking in 2014 in the United States alone. Today, there are 27 million worldwide, according to the organization. Pair that with dismal conviction numbers -- there were 4,746 trafficking convictions worldwide in 2012 -- and you've got a problem that is far bigger than a few hundred arrests over the course of a six-month sex trafficking campaign.
"This myth trivializes trafficking ... and wastes needed resources that could be used to actually address trafficking," Carr says, adding that federal and local governments should band together to enforce trafficking year-round.
"Nobody is working in concert. Agencies will throw out numbers every year -- and the numbers of arrests are terrifying -- but what will it look like when we try to find out what's really happening?"
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