In The Shadows

01.31.144:17 PM ET

Sex Trafficking and the Super Bowl

To combat sex trafficking, go where the men are.

In the lead up to the Super Bowl, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said his state was going to clamp down on trafficking. In a tweet, he wrote: "We are only a few days away from the Super Bowl. A time, where sex trafficking is at a high risk," He then followed up with another tweet: "So to anyone out there that is even thinking about it. Don't even try it. We have eyes and ears on the ground and on the web."

There is debate about whether the Super Bowl is a major magnet for human trafficking.  But there is no debate that, like the drug and arms trades, trafficking is a global criminal enterprise that operates according to the fundamental economic principles of supply and demand. Strong anecdotal evidence has shown that male-dominated gatherings —such as military bases, fracking outposts and other energy extraction sites, and, truck stops - are linked to sex trafficking operations. This means any effort to address the problem should pay special attention to where the men are—and then target buyers and sellers.  Too often, law enforcement focuses on supply, re-victimizing the victims through criminal prosecutions for prostitution. These women are also understandably reluctant to identify their exploiters or to testify against them.  So the traffickers and Johns remain unscathed.

According to the United Nations, 2.4 million people at any given time are trapped in trafficking situations, 1.8 million as sexual slaves. And women are the primary victims. Fifty-five percent of forced labor victims--and 98 percent of sex trafficking victims--are women and girls.

In an historic 2012 speech in which he invoked the Emancipation Proclamation, President Obama pledged that the United States would be a global leader in "one of the great human-rights causes of our time."  His administration has taken important steps, from an executive order designed to cleanse federal supply chains of traffickers, to a thorough, unblinking Trafficking in Persons report designed to increased prosecutions of perpetrators. On Jan. 14, to coincide with National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevent Month, the White House released a five-year plan for federal agencies to help trafficking victims in the United States.
This is an issue that needs American leadership, both because of the scale of the problem and because the United States is a source and destination country in the trafficking supply chain. This is not a human-rights problem confined to "over there"; it is in our own backyard.
And even some of the trafficking that does happen "over there" implicates the United States, because U.S. military bases overseas--some of which are virtual cities of mostly men, separated from families and other social connections--are magnets for traffickers. As Ambassador John Miller, director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons under President George W. Bush, pointed out,  "human trafficking, especially for women and girls forced into prostitution, has followed demand where a multitude of U.S. and foreign aid workers, humanitarian workers, civilian contractors, and yes, U.S. uniformed personnel, operate."
The U.S. Army has a zero tolerance policy on trafficking that applies to all soldiers, civilian employees, contractors, and subcontractors. Yet in the absence of a systematic effort to identify and punish perpetrators, the problem persists.
President Obama should insist that military leaders be more aggressive in rooting out the problem. The President should also enlist male leaders--of athletic leagues, teams, players unions, and unions and companies in extraction industries--to join the anti-trafficking fight.
Such an effort would place men at the forefront of the fight against trafficking, and that's as it should be. The demand that fuels this criminal enterprise comes disproportionately from men. And while boys and men are also victims, the disproportionate impact on women gives men a particular vantage point--and responsibility--to combat it.  Men can talk to other men in a way that can be heard.

Yet by targeting the people who profit from slavery at male-dominated gatherings, or who purchase sex from slaves, the government and activists could reduce demand and help the victims. Because there are few penalties for exploiting women and girls, traffickers face low risk and earn an enormous financial payoff. Stepped up and targeted policing, combined with more rigorous prosecution and stiffer penalties for both sellers and buyers, could drain the blood from the heart of the system. But law enforcement can do only so much. No less essential are male-led efforts to educate--and shame, if need be--the men who exploit women for sex or underwrite this enslavement. 

The fight will be long one, but it can be won, and must be. This week, as the world watches the Super Bowl and the Olympic Games, we should think of the unseen captives.

Elisa Massimino is President and CEO of Human Rights First