Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Activists Use Super Bowl 50 to Galvanize Prevention Efforts

Photo: Lily Dayton
Photo: Lily Dayton

Writer, performing artist and human rights activist Brooke Axtel stands on a stage constructed on the 50-yard line of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, speaking to 1,500 rapt audience members—some whose eyes tear up as she recounts her experience as a survivor of sex trafficking at age 7.

“I am often asked, ‘How does this happen here?’ When I hear this, what comes to my mind is how could it not happen here? the native Texan says, her words reverberating across the silent stadium. “We live in a culture where human beings are treated like objects.”

In less than nine months, these same stands will be filled with football fans cheering for their favorite team at Super Bowl 50. But today, the stands are packed with people addressing what has become known as the dark underbelly of the Super Bowl: human trafficking.

The Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition organized this pre-Super Bowl event, Freedom Summit 2015, around the theme “Not in Our Town.” The goal is to raise awareness—and to send a clear message that the greater Bay Area is initiating a collaborative effort to stop all types of human trafficking leading up to the Super Bowl and beyond.

Like in host cities across the nation in recent years, the FBI has already started working with local law enforcement. The idea behind the effort is that the thousands of people traveling into a host city with money to spend create an attractive situation for traffickers looking to make a profit off other people through forced labor or sexual services.

Indeed, law enforcement stings culminating in past Super Bowl Sundays have resulted in higher than average arrests of sex traffickers/pimps and johns, as well as the rescue of sex-trafficked victims, including minors. In the two weeks before the 2015 Super Bowl, law enforcement agencies in 17 states arrested nearly 500 people and rescued 68 human trafficking victims.

Highly publicized operations such as this have heightened the perception that human trafficking—particularly sex trafficking—increases during the Super Bowl. In 2014, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) stated in a news release, “The Super Bowl has become one of the largest venues for sex trafficking in the country.”

But though human trafficking is a real and serious problem, there is no evidence that it increases during the Super Bowl, say many anti-trafficking activists. Because trafficking is so hidden—with victims rarely coming forward— few studies have been able to quantify the problem. There is very little data about human trafficking prevalence in general, and even less in relation to the Super Bowl or any other big public events.

The last few years there has been a lot of publicity around the number of arrests during Super Bowl, but does this mean anything?” says Brian Wo, co-founder of The Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition. “Without baseline data, we can’t say.” High numbers of arrests during recent Super Bowls could be an indicator of increased sex trafficking, or they could be an indicator of increased surveillance.

Then why all this anti-trafficking momentum gearing up for the Super Bowl? Because what we do know, says Wo, is that “attention to the issue will spike during the Super Bowl, so we’re taking advantage of that awareness to educate and train people.” He adds that these efforts are vital because human trafficking is a problem 365 days a year—and not just sex trafficking. Labor trafficking, though less visible, is also a prevalent issue in California.

From the mid-field stage at Levi’s Stadium, Wo told the audience, “It’s not a question of whether the Super Bowl will bring human trafficking to the Bay Area—it’s already here.”

In 2014, the highest number of cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center were from California, with 3,500 calls into the national hotline, approximately 1,000 of which had high indicators of human trafficking. The Bay Area in particular is a hotspot for trafficking, with seaports and airports allowing easy access to the Pacific Rim, as well as the southern state border with Mexico providing a gateway to Latin America.

“All the different ethnic groups represented in the Bay Area just presents an opportunity,” says Wo. In addition, a high homeless and runaway population creates easy targets for traffickers looking to take advantage of vulnerable youth.

Instances of human trafficking in the Bay Area have been found in a variety of settings, including illicit massage parlors, residential brothels, online sex ads, domestic servitude, restaurants, hotel housekeeping, traveling sales crews, begging rings, and fruit and ice cream vending.

With more than 150,000 visitors expected to arrive in the Bay Area during Super Bowl week in 2016, the demand for food, hospitality and vending services will only increase—and where there is a temporary increase in staff, it’s more difficult to keep the supply chain clean, says Sharan Dhanoa, coordinator of South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking.

Like Wo, Dhanoa is quick to caution that there is no hard data. But, she adds, “there is an overwhelming sense that when you have a large number of people coming in, you have a unique demand. It’s a potential opportunity for people to exploit others, especially when there will be a lot of money coming into the Bay Area. People looking to exploit others will do so when the opportunity exists.”

The only academic study to date examining the relationship between human trafficking and the Super Bowl was conducted by Arizona State University’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research. The two-year study looked at online sex ad volume, trends and movement associated with the Super Bowl. Researchers analyzed sex ads on backpage.com and placed decoy ads on the site for 10 days leading up to the Superbowl in both the 2014 host city (New Jersey) and the 2015 host city (Phoenix).

Lead author Dominique Roe-Sepowitz says that during the study period, her computer “dinged” almost constantly, signifying that a john was responding to one of the decoy ads. Not all women featured in online sex advertisements are victims of trafficking—though many are, says Roe-Sepowitz. Her research team scanned advertisement text and photos to identify indicators of sex trafficking, categorizing 65 percent of the ads in 2015 as high-risk for trafficking.

The line between prostitution and sex trafficking is often debated, though law enforcement officials investigating cases of human trafficking look for three elements: force, fraud or coercion. Any time a minor is involved in prostitution, he or she is considered a victim of human trafficking.

Although the study didn’t establish a causal link between sex trafficking and the Super Bowl, it did reveal a pattern based on phone number analysis that traced potential victims’ movement. Roe-Sepowitz says, “We know from our data that people are trafficked into town for the Super Bowl.”

Some of the sex ads analyzed included Super Bowl-specific language, such as “Super Bowl special” and “Come score a touchdown.” Roe-Sepowitz recalls one survivor who came into the Sex Trafficking Intervention Office and said that she’d made $10,000 in four days during the Super Bowl.

Researchers found that both ad volume and demand went up (30 percent and 22 percent respectively) in Phoenix in 2015, but they couldn’t correlate it with hosting the Super Bowl because ad volume and demand in New Jersey also increased significantly (58 percent and 40 percent) during the same time period. Instead, they demonstrated that the online market for illegal commercial sex had grown substantially.

The study concluded that “the Super Bowl itself does not create the condition in which sex trafficking flourishes, but rather traffickers will bring their victims wherever there is demand and money to be made.”

Roe-Sepowitz also collected baseline data from the Bay Area during the same time period in 2015, which showed an average of 297 ads per day in San Jose and 227 per day in San Francisco. Ads placed in San Jose revealed the majority of sex buyers (85 percent) were local. Researchers flagged 23 Bay-Area ads as high-risk for advertising a sex-trafficked minor.

“This is a large metropolitan area and we know there is a lot of movement of commercial sexual exploitation of children,” says Dhanoa. “We know labor trafficking happens every day of the year. Do we think there will be trafficking at the time of the Super Bowl? We expect there will be trafficking because there is every day.”

The South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking is already a collaboration of 35 agencies, including law enforcement, legal service providers, direct service providers and outreach groups—all of which focus on the South Bay Area. But in anticipation of the Super Bowl, the coalition and The Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition have formed a “No Traffick Ahead” working group that spans the greater Bay Area to include San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda and Santa Cruz Counties.

Though the Super Bowl was the catalyst for the working group, explains Dhanoa, their primary goal is to create long-term solutions. One of their objectives is to build an online interactive map that pools together resources from the various counties, as way to share resources as well as see where they need to build capacity to fight trafficking and provide services to survivors.

“We’re really trying to engage groups that haven’t been engaged before,” says Dhanoa. For example, the group recently developed a video for Valley Transit Authority to train bus drivers in Santa Clara County how to identify signs of trafficking.

One of their key partners is the Superbowl 50 Host Committee, which has committed to training 7,000 community volunteers to recognize and report patterns of human trafficking. During Super Bowl week, volunteers will be present at airports, hotels and public activities. “They will be our ambassadors,” says Jason Trimiew, vice president of community relations for the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee.

The Host Committee is also working in partnership with Stanford University, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and the Hotel Council to establish anti-trafficking training for Bay Area hospitality businesses.

“It’s incredibly encouraging to see that no one is shying away from using the power and opportunity of the Super Bowl to raise awareness about the issue of human trafficking,” says Trimiew. “We want to get better at fighting this issue and driving it out of our community for the long term.”

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