Study debunks myth that sex trafficking surges during the Super Bowl

Researchers blame media for inaccurate annual reports claiming sex trafficking a major problem for cities hosting the Super Bowl.

AUSTIN, Texas — Media outlets have reported for quite some time that major sporting events, more specifically the Super Bowl, result in a surge of sex trafficking activity. With this urban legend of sorts in mind, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, examined empirical evidence on the subject ahead of the 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis. They discovered that this belief is very much false, and has largely become so widely believed due to inaccurate reporting from news sources.

Researchers then brought their findings to local news outlets in the Minneapolis area. This resulted in nearly 70% of subsequent local news stories on the topic of sex trafficking ahead of the 2018 Super Bowl conveying a more accurate, skeptical viewpoint on the legitimacy of the narrative.

“Informed media coverage is crucial. The public learns about trafficking primarily through the media,” says study co-author Annie Hill, an assistant professor of rhetoric and writing at UT Austin, in a release. “One of our goals was to reduce media coverage that misleads the public, so we worked with a wide range of stakeholders to create an evidence-based anti-trafficking message.”

Super Bowl not the so-called ‘single biggest day’ for sex trafficking

The research team worked directly with an Anti-Sex Trafficking Committee that had been formed in anticipation of potential sex trafficking activity at the 2018 Super Bowl. Together, they set out to answer two main questions: What does the available empirical evidence really indicate regarding major sporting events and sex trafficking? How should that evidence be used by both anti-trafficking efforts and media messages?

In all, 55 scholarly articles on the subject of sex trafficking and sporting events were analyzed. Despite numerous media reports over the years that the Super Bowl is the single “biggest day for sex slavery,” the researchers findings did not support that theory. While it is true that online ads for sex tend to increase around the same time as a variety of major events (car races, concerts, trade shows), the Super Bowl doesn’t result in a more noticeable uptick than any other big event.

In fact, the available data actually indicated that certain sporting events, like the Olympics, shrink commercial sex markets due to a drop in locally available clients.

“Our main finding was that available empirical evidence did not support a causal or correlative link between Super Bowls and sex trafficking,” comments co-author Lauren Martin, associate professor in UMN’s School of Nursing. “Based on the research, we know that online ads for sex may temporarily increase when large public events take place. However, online ads are a substitute measure for trafficking and should not be understood as the same thing.”

False stories tend to use inaccurate information, poor sources

Over the course of the project, researchers studied 111 print media stories on the Super Bowl and sex trafficking. Regarding recent years (2009-2016), they noted three running themes throughout the inaccurate stories.

The first was an assumed link in 92 of the 111 articles between Super Bowls and an increase in sex trafficking and commercial sex. The second theme was that many of the studied articles included a quote from a supposedly “official source” supporting the existing narrative and talking about increased efforts to fight trafficking over Super Bowl weekend. The third common theme was a tendency to quote nonsensical statistics, such as “10,000 teen hookers,” without citing where or how those numbers came to be.

“The linking of sporting events and trafficking reflects broader narratives about sexuality and sexual exploitation that depict men as aggressive and autonomous, and women as victims in need of rescue or as criminals who should be arrested,” Martin adds.

The study is published in Anti-Trafficking Review.

This article was first published on Jan. 28, 2020.