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Sex Trafficking and the Super Bowl

   /   Feb 6th, 2012National, News

The Super Bowl visits a different city every year, creating a highly sought-after boost in tourism for the city and excitement for football fans. But, many say, it also brings something that stays a lot more hidden: a spike in human trafficking.

The Good Men Project has called the Super Bowl a haven for sex trafficking — others call it the most prolific sex trafficking event in the United States.

Exact numbers are impossible to pin down: like with all human trafficking, the problem is intentionally hidden. Estimates are thrown about — with some saying that thousands, most of them underage girls, are trafficked during Super Bowl weekend and that the event increases demand for sex trafficking up to 80 percent — but the advocates who come across as the most reliable experts on this issue usually decline to provide numbers at all because they know any figures they’ve heard have not been and cannot be verified.

It’s an obstacle in talking about human trafficking generally, but claims about the link between sex trafficking and the Super Bowl in particular come with an extra dose of controversy. Some say the claims are overblown, some say there is no spike at all. The head of the FBI office in Dallas, site of last year’s Super Bowl, said after the fact that he had seen no evidence that the increase would or did occur — but the agency did engage in a large coordinated effort to address the issue in the run-up to the game. And there are some who argue it is entirely a myth.

But if there’s an increase, whether it’s one or a thousand cases, law enforcement and child and human rights advocates say that is too many.

“I don’t think it’s about specific numbers as much as developing a culture and systemic responses on the part of various stakeholders,” said David Schilling from the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR).

So advocates are collaborating with law enforcement once again, this year in Indianapolis, to fight this problem. They operate on the premise that any demand within the commercial sex industry increases the risk of exploitation and human trafficking of unwilling women and girls — and there seems to be no denial of increased prostitution. The debate centers largely on whether unwilling women or children are involved and how large the increase really is. Advocates say without proper attention, the problem can continue unchallenged; they highlight, as one indicator of the increase in prostitution, a study by Traffick911 in conjunction with law enforcement during the 2011 Super Bowl that monitored online escort ads. Such ads increased steadily from 135 on a Saturday in mid-January to 367 on the Saturday before the big game.

The main focus of the initiative in Indianapolis falls to educating people in a potential role to stop any incidents that do occur: hotel staff, taxi drivers, hospital workers.

Abigail Kuzma, Deputy Attorney General in Indiana, said a task force focused on this effort has more than 60 organizations involved and by this weekend will have trained more than 2,000 people since July to be on the lookout for this issue. Members of the Coalition for Corporate Responsibility for Indiana and Michigan (CCRIM) have been coordinating volunteers to educate local hotels on how to spot and report suspected incidents of trafficking to local law enforcement. A press release for the initiative said, “Because trafficking is reported to peak at large sporting events and hotels are the prime venue for prostitution, shareholders have initiated a multi-pronged campaign to keep hotels trafficking-free during Super Bowl weekend and beyond.”

“CCRIM is a coalition based in Indiana and Michigan, we decided that we would address human trafficking in our own backyard because the Super Bowl was in Indianapolis,” said Sr. Ann Oestreich in a call about the initiative. She said they have been reaching out to hotels to offer things like informational materials or help with training hotel staff on what to look for, and by Monday had spoken with about 200 of the 220 hotels they had originally contacted.

Organizations with a focus on socially responsible investments have also gotten involved: ICCR and Everence Financial have been using their leverage as shareholders to get companies to take more responsibility on this issue (as well as other social and environmental issues). Mark Regier from Everence said they’ve been active with hotels and pointed to Windham, which he said recently signed the ECPAT code against child sex tourism.

But as Schilling from ICCR made clear, policy-level decisions only have so much impact, which is part of the reason for the mixed approach they’ve adopted. “I think it’s important for us as a coalition of faith-based and socially responsible investors to see this not just as a top-down but as a bottom-up as well,” he said. “If you have really good policies in place but they’re not really instituted at the ground level, the kinds of activities that we’ve been describing take place in communities. So you want a connection.”

And it’s not just the Super Bowl, these advocates say. All major sporting events create this boom for prostitution and increased risk for trafficking. So even as they focus their energy on the Super Bowl, they are also looking ahead to the Olympics.

“We are already coordinating with investor groups in the U.K. to guard against labor and sex trafficking during the games,” said Schilling. “We will continue to press all companies to uncover and eliminate human trafficking abuses within their spheres of influence.”

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