By Emily Hagstrom, Contributing Writer
February 4, 2021
If there’s a point at which we can count on media to cover human trafficking in the United States, particularly sex trafficking, it’s in the days leading up to Super Bowl Sunday. I’d wager that we are confronted with more depictions of sex trafficking leading up to the game than the entirety of January, designated Human Trafficking Awareness Month. (It should go without saying that trafficking occurs 365 days a year.)
Granted, it’s important to raise awareness about the phenomenon of trafficking, and the Super Bowl provides “a platform to make noise.” But it’s worth recognizing that some of these efforts ultimately contribute to widespread misinformation and mythology surrounding sex trafficking.
If you’re a journalist poised to write about sex trafficking and the Super Bowl, don’t be one of those reporters.
Avoid perpetuating the myth that all human trafficking involves sex, for example. Sex trafficking is just one component of human trafficking. Labor trafficking occurs throughout the U.S. at higher rates compared to sex trafficking (though the two may overlap) and its harms can be just as severe. When journalists focus only on sex trafficking, they are erasing the experiences of, and could be diverting needed resources from, individuals exploited for the myriad forms of labor required to put on such grandiose events.
Media coverage this time of year also reinforces the myth that all human trafficking occurs in an underground, illegal operation. However, people who experience labor trafficking are sometimes placed in what appear to be perfectly legal establishments. As awareness of this grows, so will our ability as a society to root out trafficking.
And importantly, there is no evidence to support outsized claims that sex trafficking increases around the Super Bowl. While it’s important to encourage people to remain diligent and to train people who work in transportation and hospitality, for example, to recognize trafficking, concentrating these efforts around the Super Bowl sends a confusing message. News outlets that typically avoid reporting about trafficking and then mount huge awareness campaigns around the Super Bowl can lead us to think events like the Super Bowl cause human trafficking. That is patently untrue. Conditions such as poverty and civil unrest contribute significantly to human trafficking, as well as societal oppression and marginalization (i.e., seeing some people as less human and less deserving than others). We need to train people to recognize exploitation, yes, but we also need to raise awareness of and put resources toward understanding the conditions that allow human trafficking to flourish, so that we can prevent trafficking from happening in the first place.
Conflating the Super Bowl with human trafficking also misleads audiences into thinking that trafficking doesn’t exist in small towns and rural areas. But anyone, anywhere can experience exploitation. Human trafficking is not exclusively a city issue; it exists everywhere and, in fact, can be enabled in rural areas due to lack of awareness and visibility.
Advertisers do a disservice by plastering seasonal billboards with images of fair-skinned and fair-haired girls and young women, often shackled or gagged, meant to represent the typical sex trafficking victim. In reality, trafficking is more complex than that. White people are far from the only victims of trafficking; people across categories of age, gender, race, ethnicity are at risk of exploitation (although some groups are more vulnerable). And victims are more likely to be controlled through coercion than to be bound in chains. In short, these billboards make it more, not less, difficult to recognize trafficking.
People experiencing human trafficking will often feel anxious, depressed, and fearful--but they might not know how to define the situation or how to seek help. There’s a psychological component to trafficking that may involve a lengthy grooming process, isolation, and drug dependency, for example. In short, human trafficking can materialize as a wide range of scenarios. It’s important for media campaigns to communicate all the ways trafficking occurs so that individuals better understand how to recognize and respond to the signs, and so that victims recognize their situations and know where to turn for help.
Finally, media leading up to the Super Bowl unfailingly conflate sex trafficking with sex work, which are decidedly not the same thing. The fact is that some individuals choose to work in the sex trade. If evidence suggests that commercial sex ads increase around the Super Bowl, that does not mean that sex trafficking increases in tandem. It is unfair to exploit the occasion of the Super Bowl to target and persecute sex workers who are not trafficked; and to conflate the two evidences sloppy reporting. Don’t be that reporter.
Emily Hagstrom (@emhagstrom) is a writer, policy analyst, and political consultant in Durham, NC. She is an advocate for violence prevention and social justice and has written for the National Women’s Law Center, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and Women AdvaNCe, among other organizations.