“While most Americans are going to be getting prepared for the Seahawks and the Patriots to tee off in the Super Bowl, the dirty little secret is that the Super Bowl actually is one of the highest levels of human sex trafficking activity of any event in the country. And in, for example, Dallas in 2011, we saw a 300 percent increase in ads for sex, sexual acts related to human trafficking.”
–Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), news conference, Jan. 27, 2015
“The Super Bowl has become one of the largest venues for sex trafficking in the country. A study of online escort ads at the 2011 Super Bowl in Dallas found that ads increased almost 300 percent from a Saturday in mid-January to the Saturday before the Super Bowl.”
–Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), news release, Jan. 17, 2014
There is a lot of frenzy every year over the Super Bowl — the team, fans, halftime show and commercials. And every year, there is an alarming message that the Super Bowl draws record levels of sex trafficking activity to the host city, as droves of sex slaves are supposedly sold to meet the increased demand.
Klobuchar was in the forefront of this message in 2014, citing a 300-percent increase. Cornyn this year cited the same, exact figure again, and is reviving the focus on heightened sex trafficking activity at large events like the Super Bowl. There are efforts in both chambers to pass anti-trafficking bills.
Is there record-high sex trafficking activity at the Super Bowl, and did escort ads spike by 300 percent leading up to 2011 Dallas Super Bowl?
Local and federal law enforcement target large events — sporting and otherwise — to crack down on sex trafficking and prostitution. The reasoning is that when there is a crowd of thousands of people descending on a city with money to spend, there is a greater market for traffickers to market their services, and hundreds of women and girls potentially are exploited.
Sex trafficking and prostitution is an underground industry, and it is difficult to confirm how much activity is happening at a given time or place. Many have debunked the claim that a causal relationship exists between sex trafficking in the host city and the Super Bowl. Cornyn and Klobuchar do not claim a causal relationship, but still describe the Super Bowl as having “one of the highest levels of human sex trafficking activity of any event in the country,” and having “become one of the largest venues for sex trafficking in the country.”
Their staffs attributed the 300-percent figure to a study by Traffick911, an anti-trafficking religious nonprofit based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The group led anti-trafficking efforts ahead of the 2011 game in Dallas, and monitored Web sites used to advertise escorts (i.e., prostitutes) with suggestive titles that specifically addressed the Super Bowl.
On Jan. 15, 2011, there were 135 escort ads on backpage.com, a Web site that posts listings for everything from furniture to cleaning services and includes an adult section with escort ads. On certain days in the weeks after that, the number of ads increased, the group said. On the day before the Super Bowl, Feb. 5, 2011, there were 367 ads.
That is a 172 percent increase, so the 300-percent figure is simply incorrect.
But, beyond the lawmakers’s basic failure to use a calculator properly, there was no basis for comparison in the study. How did the particular days in those three weeks compare to similar days in the three weeks leading up to the 2010 Super Bowl in Miami? How many ads were there during the same three weeks in a non-Super Bowl year in Dallas? How do the three weeks compare to other three-week periods during the rest of the year? How many ads were actually placed by law enforcement in an effort to arrest potential clients of prostitutes?
A 2011 study by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women studied claims of increased activity in global sporting events and the 2008, 2009 and 2011 Super Bowls. Despite predictions leading up to the Super Bowls, there was little evidence to confirm police found extraordinary levels of activity, the report found.
The Arizona State University School of Social Work began researching the matter in 2014. The project, funded by McCain Institute for International Leadership at ASU, is considered the only academic research on this specific issue.
Researchers reviewed thousands of commercial sex ads during the week before the 2014 Super Bowl in areas near the stadium and in the Phoenix metropolitan area in Arizona to establish a basis for the 2015 Super Bowl. Out of 987 ads reviewed in the New York/New Jersey area, 97 percent indicated prostitution and 84 percent indicated possible sex trafficking. Five percent of the ads were flagged as potential minors. Of the 1,345 ads screened in Phoenix, 95 percent identified as prostitution and 80 percent were flagged as potential trafficking. Three percent of the Phoenix ads were possible minors.
They found “distinct victim movement and marketing trends that tend to correspond with the build up towards the Super Bowl,” but no evidence showing activity during the week before the Super Bowl was different from other times.
This year, researchers are reviewing ads in metro Phoenix and in Santa Clara and San Jose, in California, for 2016. Preliminary results show no flocks of sex slaves being brought to Phoenix in relation to the Super Bowl, said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of ASU’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research.
“We are seeing some shift in the market. We’re seeing some pretty aggressive buyers. What we aren’t seeing is people, necessarily in hundreds, brought in to be sold,” Roe-Sepowitz said.
The number of sex trafficking arrests in host cities leading up to and during the game are not in those high figures. In Dallas in 2011, 59 people were arrested on prostitution-related charges; 13 of them were visitors for the game and none involved juveniles. (This report cites there were 105 arrests metrowide, two involving human trafficking.) In Indianapolis in 2012, there were 68 commercial sex arrests and at least two trafficking victims identified. In New Orleans in 2013, at least two men were booked on charges of sex trafficking and five women were rescued (one was 17 years old). In New York in 2014, 45 were arrested in a prostitution bust and 16 minors were rescued.
Joseph Campbell, assistant director of FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, said sex trafficking activity is still a concern around large events. Local and federal agencies start working in host communities for months leading up to the event, he said. In December 2014 in Phoenix, juvenile sex trafficking victims were recovered, more than 50 pimps arrested, more than 200 people arrested for soliciting commercial sex and at least 15 people arrested for soliciting commercial sex with a minor, Campbell said.
Cornyn’s spokesman Drew Brandewie wrote to The Fact Checker:
“I would point out that his statement specifically cited the Super Bowl as ‘one of the highest,’ not the highest. Second, he did not say it was unique to the Super Bowl; nothing in his statement precludes other major sporting events from also being at or near the top – in fact it indicates an acknowledgement that other major sporting events also see elevated activity. Third, he did not say there was a direct, causal relationship – only that the level of activity around the event was one of the highest – again indicating that other major sporting events may also be at or near the top.”
When asked why Cornyn used the 300 percent figure instead of the 178 percent figure, Brandewie wrote: “It is still an increase and even a slight increase in ads soliciting human trafficking is too much.”
“The Super Bowl is one example of any major convention or sporting event where you see an increase in ads and other criminal activities related to sex trafficking,” said Brigit Helgen, a spokeswoman for Klobuchar. “That’s why Senator Klobuchar has worked with Senator Cornyn and Cindy McCain to strengthen state anti-trafficking laws and make sure that law enforcement have the tools they need to fight sex trafficking at these big events and every day of the year.”
The Pinocchio Test
Sex trafficking takes place during the Super Bowl, as it does all year and around other events that traffickers seek to exploit. But new research shows there is little evidence to support claims that record levels of activity exist during Super Bowl week. Arrest or rescue numbers in recent years do not confirm that there are hundreds or thousands of women and girls being exploited.
The claim that ads in Dallas increased by 300 percent is easy and alarming sound bite, but it does not paint a full picture and is inaccurate. Even if lawmakers cited the correct percent increase, the figure has virtually no meaning because there is no comparison or control to give it context.
There is a dearth of reliable data on this topic, making it difficult to cite a hard figure. But it is the speaker’s responsibility to check out the methodology of a study — in this case, Traffick911’s count of ads on a Web site for a few days in a three-week period — before citing it. And when there is new research that negates the earlier figure, the onus is on the speaker to correct a news release or a news conference script.
Lawmakers do an injustice to a serious issue when they cite lazy, inaccurate numbers. They earn Four Pinocchios.
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