After a grueling three-day trip from San Diego to Detroit, Laurin Crosson was struck by the lights, glitter and banners, which festooned the city for Super Bowl XL in 2006. But those fleeting images from the window of her pimp’s Escalade was the only glimpse she’d get of the mega sporting event.
"The whole town was lit up," Crosson, now 48, told The Huffington Post. "But I never left that hotel room from the day we got there."
At that point, Crosson had already been trafficked for more than two decades, so she was used to pleasing a revolving door of clients every day. But this week wasn’t like anything she had experienced before.
Her first buyer would show up at 8 a.m. and the last would leave somewhere between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. Crosson estimates she went through about 20 to 30 men a day who paid $300 for oral sex and $800 for intercourse.
By the end of the week, Crosson had earned enough dough for her trafficker to drive home in a new Mercedes 450SL.
Crosson was allowed to sit by his side in the two-door convertible, bearing the only parting gift she’d keep from the lucrative event -- black and blue marks all over her neck, thighs and breasts. She wouldn't see a penny of the money she earned.
"I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, 'I look like I was run over by a truck,'" she said.
Keith Hamilton, Crosson's attorney in Utah, confirmed to HuffPost that she was convicted of prostitution-related charges in Provo, but he was able to reduce it to a disorderly conduct charge.
Debating whether or not cases like Crosson's actually surge during the Super Bowl has become something of an annual game-day tradition among advocates and politicians.
Some come forward in droves to warn of the inevitable increase in sex trafficking in the Super Bowl host city. Others vehemently refute those claims, saying they are unfounded and actually put sex trafficking victims at risk because police arrest them and discredit their need for help.
The fact remains that the figures pointing to an increase of sex trafficking during the Super Bowl are tenuous at best. In 2011, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women published a study "What's the Cost of a Rumor?" stating that reports about trafficking and the sporting event are a myth.
The stats surrounding trafficking are murky due to a lack of funding and also because victims are afraid to report the crimes.
Rebecca Bender, a sex trafficking survivor who was victimized for nearly six years, was arrested a number of times for prostitution.
Consensual sex workers find fault in the sensationalism of it all because they say the sudden flurry to arrest anyone involved in the sex trade also inhibits their efforts to de-criminalize prostitution.
"There’s a tidal wave of moral panic ... People are conflating the legitimate problem of sexual exploitation with those in the consensual adult sex industry," Savannah Sly, a retired sex worker in Seattle, told Humanosphere.
But when it comes down to it, though, many sex trafficking survivors aren’t all that interested in whether or not the data adds up on one day out of the year.
What they want law enforcement officials, advocates and everyday people to understand is that an estimated 293,000 children alone are at risk of being sexually exploited in the U.S.
And, whenever hordes of men convene in a city during a major event, the demands and violence against trafficking victims increase, experts say.
"Anytime you have a partying atmosphere with the 'boys will be boys' mentality, combined with plenty of money, that scenario will be an opportunity for sex traffickers," Nita Belles, an anti-sex trafficking activist who worked at the last six Super Bowls, told HuffPost.
Rebecca Bender, 33, a trafficking survivor who was victimized for nearly six years in Las Vegas, said she would have to prepare for an onslaught of business anytime a major event was taking place somewhere in the country.
“In Vegas, I can remember there were three big events: the Consumer Electronics Show, March Madness and the Super Bowl,” Bender, told HuffPost. “Every hotel room is booked. A lot of men are there on business without wives or girlfriends.”
The FBI confirmed to The Huffington Post that Bender’s pimp had been imprisoned for tax-related charges, but couldn’t be put away for trafficking crimes because his victims were too fearful to testify against him.
Bender, who now runs an eponymous nonprofit that supports survivors, said her safety was in greater jeopardy when events like the Super Bowl came around because of the “macho” nature of the environment and the surplus of cash that was involved.
“They’re winning $5,000 to $10,000, can easily part with $2,000 and their wives will still be happy,” Bender, said.
The pimps expected higher wages than usual on those busy nights. But some of the buyers weren’t always too quick to part with that much money and didn’t want to “look stupid” in front of their friends if the girls they hired insisted on getting more cash.
Both the clients and the traffickers would quickly get violent if their demands weren’t met, Bender, who had her face broken five times, told HuffPost.
Such was the case about 10 years ago when Bender entered a decent-size suite at Caesar’s Palace for Super Bowl viewing party. When she saw three women huddled in the bathroom on the phone, she got that familiar pit in her stomach she dreaded on high-volume nights.
“Why are you here hiding?” asked Bender, who was in her early 20s at the time.
“They think they’re getting sex and they’re already acting hostile,” one of the women told the escort service operator who had sent them out that evening.
The company had cut the five men a deal: five girls for $500, a $250 discount.
The service Bender’s trafficker worked with technically operated as a legal entity because it dispensed girls just to dance. What they did afterwards was their “own” choice.
What the operator neglected to mention to the men though, was that the price only covered up to an hour and that entire “drop fee” belonged to the service.
The girls had to haggle for tips to pay their traffickers who expected big bucks.
“Right away, I knew this wasn’t going to end well,” Bender said. “How do I convince them to tip beyond $500? I end up having sex for a cup of coffee or I have to fight to get out of here.”
She darted from the hotel room and ducked behind a partition while the buyers scoured the hallway to find her. Bender eventually walked down 37 flights of stairs to escape and doesn’t know what happened to the other girls she was with that night.
It's been about eight years since she escaped the life and Bender appreciates, to some degree, the added attention given to the issue of sex trafficking during the Super Bowl.
The FBI in Phoenix boosted its resources to crack down on pimps in the area and nonprofits ramped up their advocacy efforts to protect victims. One such organization, for example, dispensed nearly 30,000 bars of soap in hotels with information on how victims can get help.
Anti-sex trade advocate Jackie Edmonds holds anti-trafficking awareness coasters that her group will ask restaurants to use near the Super Bowl site in Arlington, Texas on Jan. 27, 2011. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
After a two-week sting operation, which concluded on Sunday night, a national coalition of local law enforcement agencies arrested 23 men on charges of pimping, trafficking or promoting prostitution, according to Cook County Sheriff’s Department. The operation rescued 54 women and 14 juveniles who were sexually exploited.
But Bender and Crosson see gaping holes in authorities’ and advocates’ work that leave victims trapped in the underworld of forced sex trade.
While zeroing in on the Super Bowl host city is commendable, Bender wants to see more law enforcement officials and nonprofit leaders in cities like Reno, Las Vegas and Atlantic City where there are large gatherings of people partying and traffickers are just as eager to manipulate their victims.
“More people fly to Vegas than to Phoenix during the Super Bowl, but no one ever looks there,” Bender said. “No one ever thinks to do preparation.”
They want law enforcement officials to do a better job of identifying the trafficking red flags and communicating with trafficking victims. Both Bender and Crosson say they were arrested numerous times on prostitution charges and never could seek help from cops because they were made to believe that they were criminals who deserved to be punished.
They want the public to understand that victims aren't just the duct-taped images of girls they see in the movies. While most victims come from abusive and at-risk backgrounds, that isn't always the case. Crosson grew up in California with physician parents and Bender was raised in a stable home in middle America. She was accepted to the University of Oregon before she was trafficked at 18 by a man whom she believed loved her.
Rebecca Bender poses with her husband and four children.
To help victims, like them, get a chance to escape, Bender and Crosson have taken matters into their own hands.
Bender now trains FBI directors in the Violent Crimes Against Children unit on issues related to sex trafficking. Her nonprofit, Rebecca Bender Ministries, helps organizations more effectively address the needs of trafficking survivors. She lives in Oregon now with her husband and four kids.
Crosson can't get a job because of her record and lives in a friend's basement in Utah, she said. But through her group, RockStarr Ministries, she runs a 24/7 trafficking hotline and was able to rescue 15 victims in the last year.
"My goal was to get one person out," Crosson said. "If I die today, my job is done."