OPINION: As the Super Bowl nears, anti-trafficking organizations do more harm than good
This year, Las Vegas is leaning into major sporting events. Not long after hosting the first Formula One race, our city is preparing for Super Bowl LVIII. And with these major sporting events, draconian rhetoric around sex trafficking is taking over Sin City. Shrouded in language around protecting women and children, the actual victims will be sex workers just trying to make a living.
In the shadow of major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, a surge in anti-sex trafficking rhetoric is obscuring a critical truth: the ineffectiveness of these initiatives. Despite the millions of dollars pouring into anti-trafficking organizations annually, a troubling disconnect emerges — it is not clear that funding is directly reaching survivors and victims, and instead these campaigns push racist, classist stereotypes about sex trafficking survivors.
This misdirection of resources highlights a fundamental flaw in these organizations' operations. They are less about providing tangible aid to survivors and more about leveraging survivors' pain for financial gain and political influence.
Many of these organizations purport to work with law enforcement and hotels to train them to “spot” victims of trafficking, but there is little to no evidence that these campaigns have any significant impact. Some of these organizations have even been caught wildly misrepresenting the number of victims they’ve assisted. Meanwhile, every year they mobilize around events such as the Super Bowl, despite there being no evidence of increased trafficking during the Super Bowl. Organizations that rely on long-debunked myths to spread their message and doctor their impact cannot be trusted.
What we are truly at risk of is the mass arrest and incarceration of men and women who are engaged in work our government has deemed unacceptable, many of whom will be caught up in taxpayer-funded sting operations. Their clients will also face arrest, most of whom are just tourists looking to indulge in the Sin City reputation we have built since this city’s birth.
This approach does not foster a safer environment. Rather, it entangles individuals, overwhelmingly people of color, in the criminal justice system without addressing the root issues of trafficking. Often, arrests made during sporting events will be touted by media as sex trafficking arrests. Often, if one digs into the actual circumstances of these arrests, it is often women arrested on prostitution charges that make up the numbers.
That’s in part because the reality of human trafficking does not exist the way organizations such as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation would have you believe. The panic around human trafficking, particularly the sexual trafficking of girls and women, has existed since the late 1800s. During the throes of a growing panic around the sexual slavery of white, middle-class women, the Mann Act of 1910 was passed, leading to decades of anti-prostitution regulations, policies and ideologies.
Today, this multimillion dollar industry has a stranglehold on much of U.S. politics, pushing draconian legislation in every state. Most often, these laws are shrouded in the lie of “protecting the children,” when it is adult sexual expression that is on the line.
The truth about trafficking, particularly in the context of minors, is that it is often not perpetrated by strangers but by those within their own circles — friends, acquaintances and, tragically, family members. This pattern of exploitation, deeply rooted in a complex web of socioeconomic factors, reflects a systemic issue that goes beyond the simplistic narratives often peddled by sensationalist media and misinformed anti-trafficking campaigns.
As a result, all too often, trafficking victims will appear as “imperfect victims” to law enforcement. Their stories do not line up exactly as we are told they should. Often, sex trafficking victims are arrested on prostitution charges, with no consideration for their actual circumstances. These stings, rather than addressing the nuanced and pervasive nature of trafficking, only perpetuate a cycle of criminalization and marginalization of already vulnerable groups.
Instead, we should focus our time, energy and resources into ensuring that the people engaged in sex work can do so safely. Anti-trafficking organizations should call for the decriminalization of sex work not just for sex workers, but to protect trafficking survivors as well. One organization on the front lines of helping survivors of sex trafficking as well as advocating for the decriminalization of sex work is The Cupcake Girls. Other anti-trafficking organizations should take notes from its work and advocacy.
We cannot help trafficking victims by hurting another group of people, especially when the two groups are so heavily conflated that there is almost no difference in how they are treated by authorities.
If we truly want to see an end to human trafficking, we must bolster our social safety nets. We should provide affordable housing, medical care and educational opportunities. We need to see comprehensive reform for immigration, as lack of ability to move from one country to another is an enormous factor in the trafficking of humans. Our city’s money should not be spent on incarcerating sex workers and human trafficking survivors. It should ensure all Las Vegans can live and thrive.
Victoria McMahan Parra is the president of the nonprofit the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture, and Education.
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