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The Super Bowl’s human trafficking problem and the myths that come with it

It doesn’t only happen one week of the year.


Samantha Grasso


In the week before Super Bowl 51, about 100 Houston-area flight attendants gathered for training on how to recognize human trafficking, a darker aspect of the annual event, NBC News reported.

During the two-day training led by Airline Ambassadors, a nonprofit humanitarian organization focused on child trafficking, in-flight crews learned how to look for passengers who appear to be in danger and how to appropriately approach and report alleged instances of trafficking. Trafficking survivors also shared their experiences with the trainees. 

Attendants were told to look for passengers who appear frightened, ashamed, or nervous; traveling partners who don’t appear to be the alleged victim’s parent or relative; and passengers who look bruised or battered. If a flight attendant believes a passenger is being trafficked, they’re supposed to call the pilot, who then calls ahead to their destination, where authorities will meet the plane after landing.

Attendants also learned to understand when their work is done.

“One part of our training, and it’s the difficult part, but once we report it, we’re supposed to let it go,” trainer and Alaska Airlines flight attendant Andrea Hobart told NBC News. “Even though it’s hard to let it go, you transfer it into the hands of the authorities and they’ll pursue the case.”

Houston officials and law-enforcement agencies have responded to the Super Bowl similarly. Officials are reserving beds for direct outreach organizations to use for trafficking victims. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said police will rescue trafficking victims and also embarrass people accused of paying for prostitution by releasing their photos to the media.

Though these entities have taken steps to specifically address the Super Bowl, there is no empirical evidence to prove that the event garners a higher rate of human trafficking. A 2016 Carnegie Mellon University study that analyzed sex worker advertisements around large events found there are multiple other events and locations that garner more sex worker ads than the Super Bowl. 

Arizona State University also conducted a study on the 2015 Super Bowl in Phoenix and its impact on sex trafficking. The study found that sex worker ads of potentially identified trafficking victims were more likely to be from out of the area. But it also found that a majority of potential sex buyers in Phoenix (and at the 2014 Super Bowl in New Jersey) were locals, dispelling the idea that bowl attendees are contributing to the problem.

Year after year, however, the Super Bowl human trafficking myth is perpetuated by increased security and higher reports of arrests at the Super Bowl, which some academics argue detract from the issue of human trafficking itself.

“It’s not that you can’t find anecdotal evidence of a human trafficking problem in a given place—it’s that there is no reliable data for any given day in the U.S.,” University of Michigan law professor Bridgette Carr told the Huffington Post last year. “There’s this idea that we can say there’s an increase around any event, when we aren’t able to say what’s happening on any given day.”

According to Carr, the Super Bowl myth allows people to compartmentalize the issue of human trafficking around the specific event and prevents resources from being directed toward compiling statistics on the issue as a whole. 

In a Houston Chronicle opinion piece directed toward this year’s Super Bowl, University of Houston criminal justice assistant professor Rebecca Pfeffer argued that the Super Bowl myth perpetuates the idea that human trafficking is a temporary problem. However, Texas ranked second for the most tips called into the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2015, and the Houston area received the most calls in the state.

“…Law enforcement agencies ultimately answer to community will. If the broader Houston community mistakenly believes that human trafficking is only a temporary issue, or is only a prostitution issue, this can have the ultimate effect of undermining longstanding anti-trafficking efforts in our city,” Pfeffer wrote. “We should use the Super Bowl as a reason to raise awareness about the realities of human trafficking based on sound empirical evidence.”

Despite this, reports of local human trafficking busts appear to play into the myth and focus on security crackdowns, from sex trafficking to sex work. 

According to news station KHOU, Houston officers booked one to two people daily on prostitution charges in January. Last Wednesday, however, Houston police arrested 22 people and, so far, have rescued three human trafficking victims, one of them 19 years old. And station KTRK reported that two women said they were forced to come to Houston from out of state to exchange sex for cash.

Meanwhile, the office of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner reported last year that, of the 2,035 confirmed cases of human trafficking in Texas between December 2007-June 2015, 717 of these cases happened in Houston—roughly one case every 3.8 days (and because human trafficking is an underreported crime, the actual rate may be much higher). 

Turner’s office rolled out two anti-human traffic initiatives in 2016, the first of which initially addressed human trafficking within the context of the Super Bowl. In a January press conference, Houston officials said they intend to continue targeting human trafficking even after the Super Bowl, stressing that the crime happens every day.

“This serves as an opportunity to highlight the importance of us utilizing all of our strategies to combat human trafficking,” Turner said at the conference. “We don’t want to be known as the hub in this region for [human trafficking].”

The Daily Dot