Torpy at Large: Sexual slavery and myth-making at the Super Bowl

They’re ready in suburban East Cobb to tackle the wave of sex trafficking expected to, once again, hit a Super Bowl city.

Last week brought a bustling discussion of the issue on an Indian Hills neighborhood chat site after a resident said she planned to drive by two nearby homes being rented out on Airbnb. And if she sees anything funny — such as cars coming and going at night — then she’s going to call 911. Who knows, she reasoned, it might be sex trafficking?

Dozens of others chimed in with: “Super Bowl has the highest activity population rate in trafficking in the whole entire year” and “Atlanta is a Sex Trafficking Hub.”

So, if renowned “sex trafficking hub” Atlanta gets coupled with a perv magnet like the Super Bowl, the City Too Busy to Hate will assuredly be transformed into a hellish modern version of Sodom and Gomorrah.

It has become an annual tradition in the run-up to The Game to be peppered with media horror stories about legions of pimps and their young victims arriving to feed the insatiable proclivities of big hitters coming to town.

Atlanta is gearing up accordingly, as thousands of Super Bowl volunteers and workers are being trained to be on the lookout for suspicious activity. Volunteers will distribute bars of soap in hotels with messages to potential victims. There was a “summit” scheduled on the subject this week in downtown’s Super Bowl campus. And law enforcement has special teams at the ready.

It’s a terrible thing to be known as a Hub for Sex Trafficking, and even worse to be connected to child trafficking — titles Atlanta has been given, and which have often been repeated unchallenged as fact.

Back in 2012, my AJC colleague, investigative reporter Willoughby Mariano, dug into the issue and discovered that "it and other oft-repeated claims about the crime were unsubstantiated or incorrect." She also found "that anti-trafficking programs in Atlanta and across the nation struggle to find and help victims."

There was a pushback from authorities. The FBI and local law enforcement, as well as activists, were hard at work trying to save victims and punish the dirt-bags profiting from their misery.

Somehow, taking a clear-eyed look at the reality was seen as siding with the traffickers.

But Mariano found that the numbers just weren’t there; she couldn’t find the level of arrests and prosecutions in metro Atlanta that one would have thought you’d find if there were thousands and thousands of victims and law enforcement was looking for them.

Getting a hold of local statistics was difficult, what with law enforcement being up to their ears in Super Bowl security planning. Authorities said Wednesday they made 33 "sex-trafficking" arrests and "rescued" four victims. The arrests came during the past four days, according to Nick Annan, Homeland Security Investigations special agent in charge. But Annan declined to discuss specifics of the cases, citing ongoing efforts that will continue throughout the week.

Meanwhile, I checked the feds' sites. According to FBI stats, there were 17,663 arrests for prostitution nationwide in all of 2015, although it is unknown how many of those people were being trafficked. But, according to those same stats, only 263 of those arrests were for someone under age 18. That seems low, but that is the number.

Also, those figures are down by half from a decade earlier, which makes it seem like the authorities’ efforts are working.

Justice Department numbers show that 2,515 trafficking cases were investigated in a 30-month period starting January 2008. Seemingly, the feds have stepped up their game since. In 2012, there were 1,923 cases of human trafficking nationwide.

Granted, victims are often hard to find and often won’t cooperate. But the numbers seem underwhelming compared to the purported crisis. And it would seem if you want to solve a problem, you should be accurate in enumerating it.

Super Bowls of recent years show the same trends: A huge media campaign talking about the problem, law enforcement dragnets and then, following the game, small to middling numbers.

"It's become a circle of stories that get rehashed; it really is a myth," said Ron Weitzer, a George Washington University criminologist who studies prostitution and sex trafficking. He said there's "really no evidence" of the Super Bowl bringing in a flood of traffickers and their victims.

In fact, Weitzer said, it’s not economically profitable for traffickers to travel to unfamiliar cities with jacked-up rates at hotels and with police hyper-focused on the activity.

But for years, the Super Bowl myth has circulated, rarely raising an objection. So I checked the media’s “after-action” Super Bowl reports to get a sense of what really happened in the host cities.

In 2010, stories about the Super Bowl in Miami repeatedly used the figure of 10,000 exploited women and girls coming to the area. The source supposedly was the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But after years of media circulation, The Christian Science Monitor found that the center never made such a prediction.

In 2011, when in the Dallas area, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said, “The Super Bowl is one of the biggest human-trafficking events in the United States.”

Earlier, a police sergeant there predicted that 50,000 to 100,000 prostitutes might arrive, enough to fill a stadium.

After the game, The Dallas Morning News reported there were 59 prostitution arrests, and none were of minors.

In 2012 in Indianapolis, there were a reported 68 prostitution arrests, two that involved human trafficking.

In 2013, New Orleans had 85 prostitution-related arrests and two cases of trafficking, according to the Advocate.

In 2014 in New Jersey, where the game took place in East Rutherford, there were "45 people arrested and 16 juveniles rescued in a two-week crackdown," according to Reuters.

In 2015 in Phoenix, there were 71 prostitution arrests, and nine of the suspects were underaged.

In 2016 in Santa Clara, Calif., there were 42 prostitution arrests, with two girls under 18.

In 2017, Houston had 217 vice arrests over 10 days — 56 for prostitution (four were ID'd as trafficking victims), 11 pimps and 100-plus johns.

Last year in Minneapolis, police arrested 94 men and "made contact with 28 potential victims ages 17-49," presumably women in prostitution. Six told police they were trafficked.

Next week, we’ll see how Atlanta actually measures up.

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