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The Super Bowl came and went almost a week ago, but not without the fanfare of governor speeches, police crackdowns, prevention and education campaigns related to what has become a staple concern in relation to America’s biggest game: sex trafficking. The New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking produced a fact sheet summarizing anti-trafficking efforts in their state. (It is succinct, highly informative, and worth a read.)

You can read last year’s post on Trafficking and Sports for a brief overview of the issue, but what is known about the hype is basically twofold: 1) Sex trafficking in the United States is all too real. 2) Claims about inordinate spikes in sex trafficking in the latest Superbowl host city are unfounded.

Kate Mogulescu’s recent New York Times Op-Ed offers some perspective. Mogulescu is the supervising attorney for a Legal Aid Society project that represents nearly all of the individuals arrested on prostitution charges in New York City. Mogulescu details the trouble caused by drastic upticks in prostitution-related stings. The local legal system and organizations like the Legal Aid Society, she writes, become inundated with cases, even though a successful designation of victim-hood for a single trafficking survivor–and the subsequent matching of that survivor with the rehabilitative services to which she is entitled–can be extremely difficult:

I know firsthand the devastating consequences that aggressive arrest practices can have for both trafficked and nontrafficked people engaging in prostitution. Many, but not all, of our clients are, in fact, trafficked, and many more have survived an extensive amount of brutality, violence and trauma. Turning them into defendants and pushing them through the criminal justice system contradicts any claim of assistance.

As a colleague said recently, perhaps the awareness raised by the annual tradition of Super Bowl sex-trafficking hype (#1 on a list of six major “Super Bowl myths” that TIME Sports investigated at the end of January) will be ultimately positive for victims and their advocates. By now, the average American may say that they have heard of trafficking. Though their current understanding of this incredibly complex issue may be limited at best, there is room for growth. Future Super Bowls may bring more sophisticated media campaigns. Police forces might be trained in more effective anti-trafficking tactics. Public expectations of what trafficking prevention looks like may change.

In the fact sheet referred to above, the New Jersey Coalition addresses “those who downplay concern about Super Bowl” directly, noting that the event is

…an opportunity to educate the community.  People will stop and listen if you mention Super Bowl but not necessarily if you just talk about Human Trafficking…

They continue:

Raising human trafficking awareness is not a one time, one event, cause. Rather, promoting Human Trafficking awareness, especially during a national event such as the Super Bowl, allows for wide-spread community attentiveness to the issue. The problem of Human Trafficking in New Jersey will not end with the Super Bowl.  It is the hope that the NJ Coalition’s awareness campaign will help to prevent Human Trafficking in New Jersey and when it does occur, to reach out to victims, providing them with aid and resources.

Indeed, Governor Christ Christie signed one of the nation’s newest anti-human trafficking laws into effect in New Jersey last summer and has made trafficking prevention a “priority” in the state. New York City established a Special Circuit Court to deal with trafficking cases. A couple of years back, when Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl, Indiana passed their own anti-trafficking law and the Attorney General’s anti-trafficking task force is (still) fully operational today. None of these, it might be argued, would have been accomplished without the Super Bowl as impetus. But Mogulescu’s closing paragraphs are not so forgiving:

The annual oversimplification of the issue, in which we conflate all prostitution with trafficking, and then imply that arrest equals solution, does a disservice to year-round efforts to genuinely assist survivors of trafficking — with emergency housing, medical care and other crucial services.

Remove the guise of ‘preventing’ human trafficking, and we are left with a cautionary tale of how efforts to clean up the town for a media event rely on criminalizing people, with long-lasting implications for those who are then trapped in the criminal justice system. If we continue to perpetuate fallacies like the Super Bowl sex-trafficking phenomenon, we will continue to perpetuate the harm caused by prostitution arrests in the name of helping victims.

We must judge Super Bowl anti-sex trafficking efforts not by the number of arrests accomplished by a host city, but by that city’s ability to assist trafficking survivors affected by those arrests. Future host cities should use the Super Bowl as an impetus for sustained change, and commit to longer-term and coordinated efforts to combat and prevent human trafficking, sex-related and not. First and foremost, they should ensure that their efforts are survivor-centered.

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