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VERIFY: Is the Super Bowl the biggest event for sex trafficking?

Sex trafficking is a major issue that happens year-round, not just leading up to, during and after the biggest game in sports.
Credit: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Riders step off a Metromover train and walk past large posters aimed at curbing sex trafficking, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, at the Metromover Knight Center Station in Miami.

TAMPA, Fla. — Busting human trafficking operations for Super Bowl LIV in Miami last year was hailed as "a success." And, there were 94 men arrested in undercover stings during 2018's big game in Minneapolis.

Leading up to Super Bowl LV in Tampa, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office launched "Operation Interception" and announced prostitution charges against 71 people.

"Like any major sporting event, the Super Bowl should not be a venue where these types of crimes occur on the sidelines, whether it's before, during or after the game," Sheriff Chad Chronister said. 

The Super Bowl undoubtedly is a major event; and journalists, including those at this station, are tasked with sharing stories in the lead-up to and after the big game. One of the questions that comes up frequently: Is the Super Bowl the biggest event for sex trafficking?

The background

A project by TEGNA stations KHOU-TV in Houston and WXIA-TV in Atlanta, "Selling Girls," found the business of sex trafficking reached almost a billion dollars, according to an Urban Institute 2014 study.

There is a thriving underground economy based on selling children for sex, with traffickers using online ads to connect with victims. It's an issue in the United States and abroad, an happening year-round.

As previously mentioned, law enforcement agencies across the country have announced major arrests and operations leading up to and just after the Super Bowl. TV, print and online publications cover these stories on an annual basis.

But, back to the question: is the Super Bowl the biggest event for sex trafficking?

Our sources

The Anti-Trafficking Review, the organization United Against Human Trafficking and prominent media outlets.

What we found

Sex trafficking has become a more common topic in recent years, according to United Against Human Trafficking, or UAHT, a Texas-based organization that works to end trafficking operations through education and empowering survivors. A trafficked person is someone who is forced into being a commodity against their will.

On the other end, prostitution involves a person who is a knowing and willing participant through direct exploitation, poverty, abuse or as a means for income. 

Both human trafficking and prostitution are considered sexual exploitation, UAHT said.

Surrounding previous Super Bowls, hundreds of people have been rounded up on accusations of trying to pay for sex. Twenty-two women trapped in human trafficking operations were rescued last year, the Miami Herald reported, citing Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle during a news conference. 

Credit: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Pedestrians on an escalator pass large posters aimed at curbing sex trafficking, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, at the Metromover Knight Center Station in Miami.

Sexual exploitation remains a serious and ongoing issue, but the Super Bowl isn't a primary driver. A 2019 study published in the Anti-Trafficking Review by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, concluded that it's a myth that the Super Bowl is the biggest event for sex trafficking.

Annie Hill, an assistant professor of rhetoric and writing at UT Austin, and co-author Lauren Martin found news outlets that have tied major sporting events to an increase in sex trafficking helped to "foster distorted views and misguided interventions that do not reduce harm or protect victims."

In the recent operation by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, the agency said its undercover detectives posted online ads of meet up opportunities for paid sex, while undercover female detectives posed as prostitutes.

"Our main finding was that available empirical evidence did not support a causal or correlative link between Super Bowls and sex trafficking," Martin said. "Based on the research, we know that online ads for sex may temporarily increase when large public events take place. However, online ads are a substitute measure for trafficking and should not be understood as the same thing."

An analysis of other large events showed the Super Bowl wasn't unique, the authors wrote.

The Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking group, told CNN that it has heard more "prostitution" arrests occur over Super Bowl weekend, though "largely has to do with the fact that law enforcement are specifically looking for it then," spokesman Brandon Bouchard said. He added the trend has been to focus on traffickers and those seeking to buy sex, not sex workers or those being trafficked. 

The National Human Trafficking Hotline, which Polaris operates, also sees "slight upticks" in calls and reports during Super Bowl weekend, though that's largely due to heavier promotion of the hotline, Bouchard said.

There's already an anti-human trafficking campaign launched ahead of Super Bowl LV in Tampa, with "It's a Penalty" kicking off its ninth global campaign to educate people on how to spot and report human trafficking.

Bouchard, speaking with CNN, said added attention to the Super Bowl does help to bring more people into the conversation to figure out how to combat the issue, though it's one that's not confined just to one weekend.

The Answer

Sex trafficking and sex exploitation remain serious issues, and law enforcement agencies and other organizations are working hard to combat the problem. But, research does not suggest the Super Bowl is a primary driver for sex trafficking. 

10 Tampa Bay Cares: If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, there is help. The National Human Trafficking Hotline operates a 24-hour hotline and can be reached by phone at 1-888-373-7888, by texting HELP to BeFree (233733), or by chat to talk about your needs, your options, and the resources they have available to help you. 

RELATED: Selling Girls | Sex traffickers are targeting American children

RELATED: Saving Girls | Teens are being bought and sold for sex, but you can help

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