Opinion: Human trafficking’s a problem before, after Super Bowl

The Gwinnett County Human Relations Commission is sponsoring a Human Trafficking Education Forum Sept. 26 at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville. Courtesy Gwinnett County

The Gwinnett County Human Relations Commission is sponsoring a Human Trafficking Education Forum Sept. 26 at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville. Courtesy Gwinnett County

If you’ve read anything about human trafficking in Atlanta in the last year, you’ve read about the Super Bowl. When the Super Bowl was held in Texas, it was described as “the single largest human trafficking incident” of the year, and Atlanta city officials fear hosting the event here will “super-size” the risk of child sex trafficking (AJC, Jan. 14).

But does the Super Bowl really threaten Atlanta’s children? Many anti-human trafficking activists, academics, nonprofit workers, and public officials believe the fear around the Super Bowl to be unfounded and even harmful. Sporting events have not been proven to increase human trafficking per capita, and focusing on the “Super Bowl prostitution hoax” may weaken the existing anti-trafficking movement.

Sensationalized headlines about mass sex trafficking rings flooding Atlanta during the Super Bowl encourage a one-time, city-wide panic that is not founded on any statistical analysis. Right now, there is no evidence that the Super Bowl increases human trafficking per capita in any way. The threat of trafficking is not that villainous, sinister-looking traffickers will prowl our streets en masse for a weekend; the threat is that they live here year-round and know how to keep themselves and their victims hidden in plain sight.

The media’s representation of human trafficking only reinforces false stereotypes that make it easier for trafficking victims to move in public unnoticed. Stories focus on young girls, even though half of sex trafficked children are boys. Even in Atlanta, which has cultivated a reputation as a leader in the anti-sex trafficking movement, little is known about male sex trafficking victims. Stigma around sexual violence against men discourages men and boys from reporting sex trafficking crimes or even identifying themselves as victims. Anti-sex trafficking programs need to expand to raise awareness of male victims and to include them in their victim service programs. If we continue to focus solely on the sex trafficking of young girls, we won’t recognize the rest of the trafficking victims living and working among us.

Sex trafficking is a serious problem, but labor trafficking is equally serious and much less understood or investigated. Anti-trafficking education campaigns focus more heavily on sex trafficking awareness and as a result, labor trafficking cases are less often identified and reported by citizens. Just like with sex trafficking, urban areas are vulnerable to labor trafficking, with the most common industries including hotels, nail and hair-braiding salons, restaurants, domestic work, and construction. Public service ads need to move away from the single story of a young girl chained to a bed and portray dishwashers and magazine salespersons, hotel custodial personnel and construction workers. When we believe the only people who buy from trafficking victims are johns, we risk overlooking the vulnerabilities of the manicurists, maids, and waitstaff whose services we use.

Even well-intentioned awareness advertisements (like MARTA’s latest anti-trafficking installment) can give the wrong impression by depicting victims in chains or bound in rope, because victims may be able to move publicly while under a dangerous person’s control. If a trafficker has threatened to hurt your family or have you arrested (through true or false information) unless you secretly work for them, you may still attend classes or come to work without those around you ever realizing you are being trafficked. The Super-Bowl-sex-trafficking narrative contributes to myths that misinform the population on what human trafficking actually looks like. When we look for trafficking victims in chains, we are more likely to miss those standing right in front of us.

As more people flood into the area for Super Bowl weekend, they will bring their exploitative tactics with them. But don’t let the horror story of a “super-sized” sex trafficking problem blind you to the reality of sex and labor trafficking that exists unnoticed around us every day. We don’t need more sensationalized stories that vilify sports events; we need better awareness. We need our anti-trafficking efforts to be innovative, persistent, and based on research and solid statistics.

Since the Atlanta mayor’s office oversees the implementation of the three-year Pathways to Freedom grant to work on a citywide anti-human trafficking plan, call Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ office to ask what services will be offered for male sex trafficking victims, what efforts will made to raise awareness of labor trafficking victims, and what human trafficking experts will be designing and approving their awareness campaigns.

Human trafficking will not leave with the football fans, it has been living here with us all along.

Tatiana Nigh has been active in the anti-human trafficking movement for more than a decade, and is currently continuing her socio-political research at Agnes Scott College.