By John Flynn
Sex trafficking has become a major focus of Bay Area law enforcement agencies in recent months. They’ve been especially fretful leading up to the Super Bowl at Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium this weekend.
The marquee event and human trafficking are connected by widespread predictions that hordes of cash-flush chauvinists will swarm into town for the costumed war play, then ravish tens of thousands of women and children—brought here against their will—to quell their surging testosterone.
The problem is it just isn’t true.
Maggie McNeill, an “unretired call girl” and nationally published writer, has been debunking this myth ever since its first rumblings at the 2004 Athens Olympics. At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, human rights organizations estimated that 40,000 prostitutes would flock to the event. By the time of the 2010 Super Bowl in Miami, the number had stayed the same, except that it was no longer voluntary prostitutes, but captive women and children.
“It morphed,” McNeill says. “It became a more and more interesting lie—because force, fraud and coercion are more interesting than voluntary prostitution. Voluntary prostitution, that’s old hat. It’s known. Nobody cares about that.”
The hysteria has led to short-term prevention efforts. During the 2012 Super Bowl, host city Indianapolis passed harsher sex laws, trained 3,400 people to recognize the signs of human trafficking and distributed 40,000 bars of soap branded with the trafficking hotline number to all area hotels. Authorities made 68 commercial sex arrests; two qualified as human-trafficking cases. During the 2015 Super Bowl, Phoenix law enforcement identified 71 adult prostitutes, arrested 27 sex solicitors and found nine underage sex workers who may or may not have been trafficked.
A soon-to-be-released Stanford case study of the last five Super Bowl cities confirms that there is no significant statistical basis for the claim that sex trafficking, or the demand for paid sex, increases around marquee sporting events.
The Super Bowl sex-trafficking sirens fly in the face of conventional prostitution economics. Most sex workers build a cache of reliable clients that provide most of their income through steady year-round visits. For the myth to be true, traffickers would have to travel from event to event, board their captives in hotels at inflated rates, advertise to attract dozens of new-in-town customers, then charge less than the local prostitutes to undercut the competition. All while law enforcement is on its most alert status.
“It’s just not a viable business model,” McNeill says. “From an economic standpoint, the whole trafficking myth is bogus. It doesn’t make sense.”
Plus the market is thin, McNeill says. Road-tripping bros blow their life savings to pack themselves 10 to a room. Many can’t afford paid sex, much less a private space for the deed. And other potential customers are often family men with the whole brood in tow.
“What are they going to say? ‘Oh, um, pardon me, Mabel, could you take the kids while I go to see a whore?’ It’s ridiculous,” McNeill says. “Trade shows, that’s where we make our money. There are expense accounts, so the company is taking care of their food and their lodging. They can take their own money and pay for girls.”
The Super Bowl sex rumor helped spawn a moral panic surrounding human trafficking that has become a cottage industry for local law enforcement agencies. In 2014, the California Legislature appropriated $5 million to begin developing “multi-disciplinary protocols” to combat human trafficking; following that, annual funding of $14 million will keep the programs going.
These anti-trafficking efforts respond to some truly shocking—though highly questionable—estimates of a worldwide epidemic: 14.2 million people in global labor trafficking, up to 300,000 U.S. children “vulnerable” to sexual exploitation.
Citing the disparity between spending and results, sex workers believe that they have become targets under the moral banner of trafficking-prevention to fund politically fashionable law enforcement activities at the expense of marginalized communities.
“Cha-ching—it’s money. It’s all about more money, more manpower,” McNeill says.
Still, champions of the crackdown cite the Bay Area as among America’s highest risk areas for human trafficking, especially labor trafficking, which is three times more prevalent than sex trafficking worldwide. Our region’s ethnic diversity and proximity to ports means that victims can be moved around without attracting suspicion, especially since most victims are smuggled in from other countries.
“What we’ve seen in the majority of those cases is that the victims know their traffickers—family members, a friend, neighbors—from their home country, and are brought here under the pretense that they’re going to have a job, make good money, and so on,” says Perla Flores of Community Solutions, a service provider to human-trafficking survivors in Santa Clara and San Benito counties. “But once they arrive, it’s a completely different situation. The smugglers keep their passport and put them into a situation where they’re being exploited for their labor and they don’t have the freedom to leave.”
Authorities are working to develop awareness strategies ahead of Super Bowl 50. Santa Clara County funded and published a 12-minute movie detailing red flags that might signal human trafficking, but the finished product reeks of amateurish iMovie editing and plods along far too slowly for the modern attention span. It has been viewed fewer than 900 times.
But measures like this are considered necessary because trafficking victims cannot identify themselves. In an effort to do something about this concealed crime, California shifted its focus to the sex trafficking of minors and passed Proposition 35 in November 2012. The law beefed up the penalties for sex trafficking, registered the convicted as sex offenders and funneled any funds received from raised fines into law enforcement and victim services. Prosecutors no longer had to prove force, fraud or coercion for survivors under 18, because they’re too young to consent to any form of sex.
Following this, anti-trafficking efforts jumped, but as anti-trafficking agencies patrol websites linked to prostitution, they sweep up voluntary prostitutes in their nets. In 2013 and 2014, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office arrested five prostitutes total. In 2015, they arrested 31, a more than six-fold increase in half the time.
Sex worker Maxine Doogan fumes over the increased arrests brought on by anti-trafficking efforts. “A prostitution arrest is a pink slip,” she says. “It forces people to migrate to another area to find work. Any time you’re a worker in the underground economy and you come into a new area, you are at high risk for a violent act—rape, theft, sexual assault. That’s where you start to see the force; fraud and coercion start to happen. Because of the criminalization, you can easily have a volunteer situation and turn it into something that’s involuntary, and you don’t have any recourse, any access to equal protection under the law.”
Under California code, anyone who receives any money resulting from the labor of a sex worker can be considered a pimp, a felony charge punishable for up to six years in state prison.
“My son, who I was helping through school, would be qualified as a pimp,” says the pimp-free Doogan, who arranges meetings with clients online. “People that we are living with, and who are benefiting from our earnings, in that we contribute our fair share of rent, are pimps. Our landlord is a pimp. Our dry cleaner is a pimp. Everybody is a pimp.”
Decriminalizing sex work in the Bay Area is a ways off, considering that San Francisco, a mecca of open-mindedness, failed to pass a measure in 2008. “What decriminalization does is bring sex work out into the open,” says Jerald Mosley, a retired deputy attorney general for California who spoke at a recent hearing.
Sex workers could be brought into the anti-trafficking crusade. Instead, this ideological wall has alienated a potentially valuable ally.
“They don’t care about me. None of those people ever come to me,” Doogan says. “The prostitute nation is alive and well in the Bay Area. We’re very visible. And they don’t have the respect to call me up and say, ‘I want to save trafficking victims.’ Great. Go save trafficking victims. But you don’t need to do it on my back, and on the back of everyone in my community.”