If you’re wandering around San Francisco this week, it might seem as if an occupying army has taken over. It’s not just the NFL, and the mega-entertainment complex known as Super Bowl City or 10 giant, one-ton statues of the number 50 that organizers have strewn throughout the Bay Area.
There’s the massive surveillance campaign which covers seemingly every square inch of pricey real estate, a plan to squirrel away the city’s homeless population floated by the mayor, and a massive bump in police activity that will cost San Francisco somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 million out of a total $4.8 million in expenses, all of which will fall upon the taxpayers.
A chunk of that police bill has gone toward busting sex workers, including a sting operation that snagged one of the Denver Broncos.
On Tuesday, police questioned Ryan Murphy, a safety on the Broncos’ practice squad during an arrest of an alleged prostitute that had a relationship with his brother.
“The sting was part of Santa Clara County’s multi-agency human trafficking task force,” sources told KPIX. “Authorities were targeting an area of north San Jose known for prostitution.”
The Bay Area police has ratcheted up their activity in order to combat the massive influx of sex workers and human traffickers ready to service the thousands of horny, lonely dudes from all over the world that are bursting with disposable income and nothing better to do in the days (and nights) leading up to the game.
Unfortunately, there’s zero proof that this actually exists.
A 2011 report by the Global Alliance Against Traffic In Women found that when it comes to large-scale sporting events like the Super Bowl and the World Cup: “Despite massive media attention, law enforcement measures and efforts by prostitution abolitionist groups, there is no empirical evidence that trafficking for prostitution increases around large sporting events.”
The myth has been repeated so many times and is so pervasive that Snopes was forced to weigh in, writing that the “hype around large sporting events and increases in trafficking for prostitution is often based on misinformation, poor data, and a tendency to sensationalize.”
Speaking of sensationalizing, after Sen. John Cornyn said that “the dirty little secret is that the Super Bowl actually (has) one of the highest levels of human sex trafficking activity of any event in the country,” PolitiFact was dragged into the debate as well, stating that no, “there’s very little evidence to support this persistent claim.”
You can see the allure here. Boldly promising to unleash every law enforcement tool imaginable to stop this near-biblical plague of debauchery makes for a fine photo op and/or pull quote for a politician with national ambition. Take Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who announced in 2011 that “the Super Bowl is the greatest show on Earth, but it also has an ugly underbelly. It’s commonly known as the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.”
This sentiment was echoed by Chris Christie, when he, in advance of the 2014 Super Bowl in New Jersey, pumped up the state’s anti-trafficking legislation, and blustered to any potential criminals. “Don’t even try it,” he said.
The result: About “45 people were arrested and 16 juveniles rescued” in the New York-New Jersey area, according to the FBI. Also in attendance at Christie’s presser was Cindy McCain, who declared that the Super Bowl is “the largest human-trafficking event on the planet.”
Oddly enough, the The McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University did a study of the 2014 Super Bowl and found “no evidence indicating the 2014 Super Bowl was a causal factor for sex trafficking in the Northern New Jersey area in the days preceding the game.”
What they did discover is that “in anticipation of the suspected impact of the Super Bowl on sex trafficking, the coalition of law enforcement responsible for public safety took the necessary steps to be prepared for an increase in activity that exceeded their norm.”
That is to say, if you bring in the Feds and up the man-hours of the vice squad, yes, you’re going see a serious bump in the number of arrests. But that increase shouldn’t be taken as proof that the Super Bowl itself is a causal factor in increased sex work.
None of this should in any way be taken as a suggestion that human trafficking is anything but deplorable, but the panicked assertions that tens of thousands of hookers will descend upon a normally good and decent burgh can result in an “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,” as Kate Mogulesco, the founder of the Legal Aid Society’s Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project, wrote in The New York Times.
Regardless of studies or data, the San Francisco Police Department is going all in. Albie Esparza, the public information officer, told The Daily Beast that this is “something that’s well known, actually, about there being an increase in activity,” and as such, it was necessary to marshal whatever forces were necessary in order “to send a clear message that this is something that will not be tolerated.” Since Jan. 23, they’ve arrested a total of 29 johns “for prostitution-related offenses,” Esparza said.
The Daily Beast also spoke with Sergeant Eric Quan of the San Jose Police Department Human Trafficking Task Force. He said that, in his experience, despite the arrival of the NFL he’s seen”the same amount of sex workers. We see the same amount of prostitution that’s going on.”
“In an informal poll of girls coming here, we’ve asked, when we’ve done our hotel operations and street operations, ‘Are you here for the Super Bowl?’ And we haven’t gotten a response: ‘Yeah, that’s why I’m here.’”
The increase in police activity these past weeks has also been “a huge amount of drain on manpower. Bottom line is, yeah. We’re working a lot of overtime to try to do our normal jobs and then come back and combat this,” according to Quan.
When asked if he’s read the reports debunking the myth of a spike in trafficking and sex workers during the Super Bowl, he replied that he had, and while he couldn’t state definitively whether or not they were accurate, the reason for the increased man-hours was “to bring light to the human trafficking,” Quan said. “And this is a perfect time to highlight that, to try to recover minors or people who are being forced to do sex trafficking or labor trafficking.”
Officer Esparza also stressed that their goal was not just to bust traffickers, but also to rescue minors and adults that have been forced into the sex trade, a tactic that the FBI has taken in the Bay Area as well. But as Melissa Gira Grant, the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, wrote at the Guardian, an increased police presence may lead to unintended, deleterious consequences.
“For sex workers who need help, who are trying to get into a shelter or a health clinic, the support they seek is compromised by police raids, and by the environment of distrust and fear thus amplified,” she wrote.
In London, during the 2012 Olympics, “outreach workers reported that the police made it harder for them to provide sex workers with safer sex supplies, health information, and service referrals.”
Instead, that increased spotlight simply made providing services to sex workers basically impossible.
“Sex workers turned down aid for fear of service providers cooperating with police. It’s easy to understand why these women left the shelter. No matter how well-intentioned service providers are, accepting help from anyone who works with the police can be very difficult in a climate of heavy enforcement.”
You know, like this weekend in San Francisco.