Over the years, several news outlets have produced sensational stories about thousands of “sex slaves” being trafficked to the Super Bowl. There were various human Trafficking news reports related to the Super Bowl this weekend, but none of them included blatantly absurd suggestions that 100,000 victims would be in the vicinity, as has been reported in the past. Most media outlets have toned down the rhetoric based upon the results from past years. It’s sad to say, but that is progress in the prostitution debate.
Mint Press News University of Houston-Downtown, who openly labeled the Super Bowl trafficking connection as a “myth.”
In short, this piece by Mint Press News accurately pointed out that human trafficking takes place throughout the calendar year. It even pointed to the issue of labor trafficking, which is usually omitted from this discussion even though labor trafficking is more prevalent than sex trafficking. As a matter of fact, Sports Illustrated printed an article, “The Super Bowl Sex-Trafficking Myth: Is it the crisis it's cracked up to be?” It accurately demonstrated that there is a verifiable human trafficking problem in this country, but the extent of the problem has been vastly exaggerated.
Make no mistake, there were credible news reports about actual cases of sex trafficking in Houston for Super Bowl weekend. However, in general, the issue of human trafficking has been grossly exaggerated. Journalistic misrepresentations ruin honest debate for better policies. After all, the media has an unofficial role in determining public policy. This Super Bowl trafficking myth has been perpetuated by news organizations that haven’t vetted for facts when quoting socially conservative activists who believe that sex work can’t be consensual. They have successfully conflated prostitution with human trafficking. In other words, many of the media’s sources are anti-prostitution activists who use human trafficking as a red herring.
The media has blindly accepted the narrative from the law enforcement community that the only way to combat sex trafficking is to criminalize everyone in the sex industry. When prostitution/trafficking stings take place, most news organizations rely solely upon arrest figures. Few news outlets dive into the details to find out if there were any actual victims of trafficking. Instead, most of these articles use ambiguous language by stating that the police “helped get these women off of the streets.” These kinds of reports neglect to mention that these “saved” women are in jail while awaiting trial for prostitution charges.
Everyone wants to eliminate human trafficking, but moral panics, such as the Super Bowl trafficking myth, have eliminated any debate to find the best course of action for tackling this issue. Most modern news coverage implies that every sex worker is a victim of human trafficking. Consequently, very few news outlets offer a different perspective that decriminalization would grant Sex Workers their basic rights to be protected against force, fraud, or coercion.
Why did so many news outlets embrace this form of yellow journalism, i.e. the Super Bowl trafficking myth? Sex trafficking stories certainly generate income, but many anti-trafficking “activists” with conflicts of interest helped create this myth. Long story short, in multiple ways, the anti-trafficking movement has become a racket, i.e. a dishonest and lucrative business model. Elizabeth Anne Moore wrote a blistering investigative report in 2015 for Truthout, “The American Rescue Industry: Toward an Anti-Trafficking Paramilitary,” which revealed that the top 36 anti-trafficking/rescue organizations collected $1.2 billion over the course of 2012 (the latest public records). However, Moore’s report demonstrated that most of these groups had very little money to assist actual victims of human trafficking. Granted, not everyone is this profession has cynical goals, but a billion dollar market certainly draws many opportunists.
Again, the anti-trafficking movement has become a racket. One of the other definitions of a racket is applicable, i.e. an entity that poses itself as the solution for a problem that wouldn’t exist without their involvement. Granted, sex trafficking will occur whether prostitution is decriminalized, legalized, or criminalized. However, criminalization will inevitably lead to more exploitation for those in the sex industry. Furthermore, prostitution laws haven’t had a noticeable effect on the demand. Look at the column from last Thursday by The Miami Herald, “Despite closing of 'adult' section, Miami Backpage girls thriving online.” The government was able to pressure that website to remove their adult ads, but that merely pushed the industry underground with fewer protections for sex workers and less transparency for law enforcement.
A story from last Tuesday in Alaska should eliminate any doubt for those who don’t believe that prostitution laws inherently lead to the exploitation of sex workers. A prominent activist, Tara Burns, is leading a sex workers rights group, Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), that is lobbying for the state to close a loophole that allows undercover police officers to have sex with prostitutes during their investigations. Burns has a history of illustrating the absurdity and hypocrisy of her state’s prostitution laws, including cases in which women have been convicted of “trafficking” themselves.
It’s difficult to believe in the prohibition of sex work when so many government officials are guilty of committing this crime. Fairly often, off-duty police are swept up in undercover stings. There were no such headlines this week, but there were two stories involving prosecutors (one current assistant district attorney and one former district attorney) who were standing trial for solicitation of prostitution.
Numerous law enforcement officers are abusing their roles as “saviors” against sex trafficking. As a matter of fact, Alaska isn’t the only state that claims that it’s necessary for the police to have sex with prostitutes in order to protect them from trafficking. Last Friday, Hawaii’s state introduced a bill that would decriminalize prostitution and close the loophole that allows police officers to have sex with prostitutes during their investigations. Unlike Alaska, Hawaii’s loophole was a story of national interest dating back to 2014. Despite the negative publicity surrounding that story, no lawmaker has publicly championed this bill, nor does it appear likely to pass. The author of the proposal, House Speaker Joseph Souki, is publicly neutral on the issue and he points out that he wrote the bill as a favor to a persistent activist, Tracy Ryan, who lobbied the legislature to write a similar proposal ten years ago.
There would be much more support for this bill if the media presented a more fair and balanced approach to the prostitution debate. For example, a study was published two weeks ago in a renowned peer-reviewed medical journal, The Lancet, which concluded that countries with criminalized prostitution had significantly higher levels of HIV. There is a litany of research that comes to similar conclusions and that’s partially why the most respected health organizations, such as UNAIDS and the World Health Organization, support the decriminalization of sex work.
Likewise, the top human rights and social justice organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, support the decriminalization of sex work. In short, the stigmatization from prostitution laws minimize the fundamental human rights of sex workers. As you know, sex workers are frequently victims of violent crime because predators know that sex workers are not provided the same legal protections as the rest of society. Last Friday, a California man was sentenced to death for raping and murdering four sex workers. In this case, the police were able to track him down because he is a registered sex offender who was wearing an ankle monitor. However, the murders of sex workers often go unsolved due to their criminalized status; this is another topic that the American media does a disservice.
In conclusion, you have to recognize progress when you see it. Far fewer media organizations are willing to propagate the Super Bowl trafficking myth, which is a step towards a more honest debate about prostitution. Hawaii’s bill is an opportunity for progress that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The positives far outweigh the negatives with decriminalization; the only issue is spreading the word.