The SuperBowl is a money maker, and not just for breweries or gamblers. The football championship is a big time for human trafficking, and each year, pimps will bring in their human merchandise as forced prostitutes for the big game. This year, in what has been called the “National Day of Johns Arrests,” the Cook County, IL Sherriff’s Department worked with other local and federal law agencies to conduct stings during the 10-day period leading up to the Super Bowl and ending Monday night, as part of a multi-state effort to put a stop to the crime of sex trafficking.
“Large sporting events, such as the Super Bowl, bring out competitiveness in all of us, including, unfortunately, pimps and sex traffickers,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said in the release. “In the days leading up to and including Super Bowl Sunday, my office coordinated with 19 other law enforcement agencies from around the country to send a strong message that our communities refuse to tolerate the sale of human beings for sex.”
During the sting on streets, hotels, and brothels across eight states, law enforcement arrested a total of 314 of accused “johns” – the men seeking to pay for sex and charged them with almost $475,000 in fines. The johns are the primary culprits in the rise of sex trafficking. These men do not go out and kidnap young girls and boys themselves, but they willingly pay to have sex with them. Without the johns and their cash, there would be no money to be made in the sex trade, and the horrific business would end by starvation. Soliciting sex is therefore not a harmless bit of evening fun, but perpetuates one of the most evil existing crimes against humanity.
The picture of prostitutes as poor women trying to pay the bills by turning to the street is not always accurate. Victims of sexual exploitation are often minors, naive kids who run away from home and get forced into a form of slavery as real as any in history. The average female victims are girls from 12-14-years-old, and the typical male victims are just 11-13-years-old. While a prostitute might see 10 men per day, victims of sexual trafficking may be forced to see 20-35 men per day. They aren’t paid. They may be purposely hooked on hard drugs and are often beaten if they try to escape or if they don’t create sufficient income for their exploiters. Immigrants are also easy targets for sexual exploitation because they don’t know the system and don’t know who to turn to. There is also the awareness that the sexual work they are doing is illegal, and even though they are forced into it, many sex trafficking victims fear the law. Then, if the victims do get arrested as prostitutes, the perpetrators will often come and bail them out and the continue the exploitation.
Sex trafficking doesn’t just take place in the inner city, either. Traffickers transport their victims into decent neighborhoods, to nice hotels, to houses. The victims may come from poverty or the upper class, from both stable and unstable homes. Sex trafficking is found from Florida to the Upper Valley of New Hampshire, and from New York to Seattle.
Jacksonville (FL) Sheriff’s Office detective Dave Bisplinghoff described one 15-year-old girl who had recently testified against her captor. “She’s a typical 15-year-old girl. She’s an A/B honor roll student,” said Bisplinghoff. “Within a matter of 36 hours, she was brought into that trade in a poor neighborhood in Jacksonville and quickly introduced to crack cocaine, then the world of prostitution…She actually got away. He drove around and found her and, basically, physically beat her and dragged her back to his vehicle,” said Bisplinghoff. The girl finally escaped, but not without emotional scarring and ties in the Jacksonville underworld.
The people who are held captive by sexual traffickers are manipulated by people who can psychologically and physically dominate them. They get stuck in a web they do not know how to escape. There are indications that a sex worker is trafficked, however, that law enforcement look for. If the prostitutes are not free to come and go at will or cannot speak for themselves, if they are under the age of 18 or show signs of abuse, these are signs that there is coercion taking place and that these are victims of sexual exploitation.
Relationships between victims and their exploiters can begin as legitimate job offers, or as a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship. “It’s quite amazing how sophisticated the manipulation can be,” said Abby Tassel, WISE assistant director and former Dartmouth College Sexual Abuse Awareness Program coordinator. “Once someone is in the grips of this perpetration, it’s hard to escape.”
Ahead of the Super Bowl, the Indiana state legislature passed measures to make it easier to prosecute sex traffickers, and other states are making similar efforts. Laws alone will not heal this violent social wound, however. Parents need to be aware of the dangers and pass on wisdom to their children about the potential for exploitation. Law enforcement need to keep their eyes open for signs of trafficking. Most fundamentally, people need to stop buying sex and perpetuating the opportunities for these crimes to take place. The prostitute a guy pays for may not be “just” another sex worker making money, she might be somebody’s missing child.