Like some kind of twisted spinoff from Tyler Durden’s Fight Club, hundreds of thousands of American men are living a secret underground life. Every year at the conclusion of football season they hug their kids, kiss their wives goodbye, and head off for a week of escape from their workaday lives. Their destination? The Super Bowl. They say they’re going to watch the big game, but in reality that’s just a cover story so their time away from family can be used to engage in depraved sexual debauchery. Feeding their carnal urges is a roving band of tens of thousands of slave prostitutes, brought to the host city specifically for the event by seedy human traffickers. These pimp scum profit from the dark, hidden appetites of American males, turning one of the biggest spectacles in all of sport into an annual festival of flesh…
…or so some American politicians would have us believe, anyway. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), who last week held a hearing on the topic of Super Bowl sex trafficking in the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee he chairs, was clear in his depiction. “One Super Bowl after another after another has shown itself to be one of the largest events in the world where the cruelty of human trafficking goes on for several weeks,” he told the Associated Press early this month. His fellow Republican, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) – perhaps best known for adding the tagline “And that’s just the way it is” to the end of every speech he gives on the House floor – has previously attacked the Super Bowl as “America’s traveling human trafficking magnet.” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in 2011 that the Super Bowl is “commonly known as the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.” And though Arizona Senator John McCain hasn’t weighed in on the subject, his wife Cindy said last year that the NFL’s championship game is “the largest human-trafficking venue on the planet.”
All these statements paint a dire picture, as did predictions in the media that past Super Bowls would attract anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 prostitutes to sate the attending football fans’ demand for sex. The only problem with them is the dearth of evidence to back any of these claims up. Probably no single document better illustrates this better than a 2011 report by the Global Alliance Against Traffic In Women (GAATW), a group of more than 100 non-governmental organizations from around the world that fight human trafficking. The report, “What’s The Cost Of A Rumour?”, delved deep into the differences between predictions of sex trafficking associated with the Super Bowl and other major sporting events and the actual numbers of prostitution-related arrests made during them. It uncovered some interesting data, none of which backed up the image of large sporting events as secret getaways for hundreds of thousands of sex-crazed maniacs. Several of the case studies even found that demand for prostitutes actually dropped during major sporting events because the people who came to town wanted – surprise – to watch the game. In no case did the authorities in a Super Bowl host city notice any increase in arrests for prostitution.
The numbers that are often quoted regarding the supposed epidemic of sex trafficking around major sporting events are large enough to sound threatening but small enough to sound plausible – at least as long as the audience is ignorant of some basic figures. For instance, in all of 2010 the FBI estimated there were some 62,668 people arrested in the United States for prostitution or commercialized vice, defined as the “unlawful promotion of or participation in sexual activities for profit, including attempts.” Anyone who knew that figure would automatically scoff at the notion that tens of thousands of girls were sold into sex slavery that same year during the Super Bowl in Miami. But most people had no frame of reference. They took the estimates in the media at face value, helping to perpetuate the myth. After the fact, when the actual numbers don’t live up to the estimates, the local authorities claim that’s proof that their efforts to squelch the epidemic were the reason why.
Such scare numbers are reminiscent of those conjured up to talk about other past nonexistent crime waves. The July 30, 2010 episode of On The Media took at how Dateline NBC came up with its figure – described by host Chris Hansen as an “extrapolated estimate” – that 50,000 child predators were online at any given time. The show’s FBI consultant, a veteran agent named Ken Lenning, described two other phenomena that used the same number. In the 1980s, according to Lenning, 50,000 was the estimate of both the number of American children kidnapped by strangers each year (instead of the “2 to 300 children every year abducted in this manner”) and the number of Americans killed by satanic cults engaging in human sacrifice (more than twice all the combined non-satanic-ritual annual murders in the United States at the time).
The resilience of the Super Bowl sex slave myth is testimony to just how scary big numbers can be when presented sans context. The real numbers on sex trafficking are orders of magnitude smaller than the estimates. While they might not help nonprofits chase down major donations and push politicians into sponsoring legislation and making headline-grabbing speeches, each one is powerful in a much more important way: it represents a live person with real experiences, and not an abstract construct. Human trafficking is a serious problem worth addressing in a serious way. But overhyped hysteria that distorts the scale of the problem by relying on bogus statistics, that is more about drawing attention to politicos and activist groups than to the plight of actual people, and that relies on tired, reductive stereotypes about the diverse population that makes up the NFL’s fan base, is no help at all.