The connection between an American event and an international crime, and who should speak out about it
Imagine the owner of a food truck—let’s say he sells specialized gourmet barbecue sandwiches and has a license to sell craft beer—who is looking for every opportunity to increase sales and grow his business. Because his business is portable, he strategically plans where he is going to park the truck each week according to where the community’s highest foot traffic occurs during lunch and dinner hours. When Christmas shopping season is on the horizon, the food truck owner makes plans to park the truck in lively shopping areas on Saturday afternoons. During the summer he sells his delicious sandwiches near the beach or community water park. He’s seizing opportunities according to time, placement, and concentration of hungry people looking for something good to eat. This is the practice of common business sense, a much-celebrated American value. Unfortunately, good business sense doesn’t only apply to legal, straightforward business industries. Many successful business people apply this good sense to increase their profits in horrific industries like human sex trafficking. This weekend, as we approach Super Bowl Sunday, the trafficking industry is probably experiencing a spike in profits that has become an annual occurrence.
The Super Bowl—one of the most American of sporting events—draws millions of football fans to watch the game each year. In 2014, 111.5 million viewers tuned in to watch the game. University of Phoenix Stadium, the 2015 venue for the Super Bowl, has a capacity of 63,400. All of this excitement is expected to have a $500 million economic impact on the city of Phoenix, and most of the people who will be opening their wallets for lodging, food, entertainment and tickets are men—men who have been raised in an increasing culture of self-indulgence that has changed the views and values of all of who live in it. While I choose to believe that there are more good people in the world than bad, and that there are many shades of gray between the black of wrong and the good of white, some of these men will be willing to pay to add anonymous sex to their weekend of fun.
People like you and me—men and women with careers, cars and homes—have all met at least one of those guys in our lives. We went to the same high school with them, work in the same department, or they live down the block. Sometimes they’re actually friends of ours. But there comes a point when you’re having a beer with them and something tips you off that if the two of you ever ended up close to a shady situation, this guy might not react in a way that would make you comfortable. He might not turn around and walk away from it (and believe me, I know there are plenty of women who don’t stand on firm ground on that point, either). My point is that most people who will pay for sex are middle to upper middle class men whom we encounter regularly. This isn’t nearly the worst group on the human trafficking spectrum. I’ll bet most are largely ignorant of the depths of abuse and exploitation to which they’re contributing. They aren’t the pimps who see an opportunity to inflate the price for what would normally make them up to $1400 an hour for an RV full of seven girls between the ages of 14 and 18 at a truck stop. But these everyday guys are the customers. They are the ones providing the cash to keep these operations going. In the world of food trucks, they’re the equivalent of the hungry person looking for a quick and convenient spot to buy their lunch. The concentration of men in Phoenix this weekend means a lot of opportunities to sell a lot of things.
Human trafficking can also include forced labor for nannying, agriculture work, restaurant duties and more. But this is Super Bowl weekend. It’s all about the party. Most of those headed to Phoenix or planning viewing parties as I type this are looking to have a good time, and in past years we’ve seen the way big business plays to that sentiment. GoDaddy has a history as the company that used the most blatant “guy’s guy” tactics with advertisements featuring race car driver Danica Patrick that danced around the edge of tipping into the R- or X-rated. That’s just the television commercials. What about those at the Super Bowl? For about a decade it’s been about creating a bachelor party experience that exists in bawdy movies. In a story written for CNN.com, Motez Bishara says, “Each year, the likes of Rolling Stone, Maxim, and Playboy try and outdo each other to attract the most famous bands, models, and personalities to their parties, granting access at eye-watering prices.” For $850, a guy can party with Bunnies and drink in excess at an event billed as an “experience.” The promotion of this particular kind of testosterone-testing, alcohol-fueled party atmosphere is bound to have several people get out of hand.
Yes, there are plenty of women who work the Playboy and Maxim events who are employees of event companies and are paid over the table, with a paycheck that has taxes withheld and everything. There are a myriad of reasons why they’re working there. Some may need the money. Some may actually enjoy it. But these aren’t (usually) the unpaid, underage girls forced to work for pimps. The girls working a humiliating forced labor aren’t given a choice. They want a way out and don’t know how to look for one. The overwhelming majority of girls who are sex workers and prostitutes are human capital. There are some reports that claim that up to 10,000 prostitutes were brought to Miami for the 2010 Super Bowl. Some people are predicting that the numbers will be even higher this weekend. As you see, slavery is still big business in 2015.
Despite this, it’s the forced laborers who’ve been stigmatized in modern society. The victims are the ones who are arrested, rarely the pimps. We’ve been taught to believe that prostitutes are women of loose moral character, who do drugs and chose their lifestyle because they’re bad people in some way. In the movie Pretty Woman we saw prostitutes making wads of cash that could be used to pay rent on their apartments or to party. Despite the topic of human trafficking becoming more prevalent in the media lately, we’re still not careful enough with our language. Earlier this week a report by ABC NEWS opened with:
While the report is aimed at exposing trafficking in America as a crime that claims a very high number of American victims, the language in the above paragraph still paints a picture of the women as salacious individuals—or at least as stupid individuals. Is this how we should address the victims of one of the largest crimes against humanity to affect the modern world?
Thankfully, as the subject of trafficking has come further out into the light in recent years, many state and local governments have developed programs that specifically address human trafficking. The Cook County Sherriff’s Office in Chicago pioneered a program called “National Day of Johns Arrests”, which targets the men who pay for sex and has partnered with 51 city law enforcement partners across the nation. Richland County, South Carolina recently announced the formation of a coalition of a strategic plan to address trafficking in a similar manner. Nineteen states currently have active programs treating traffickers as perpetrators and the trafficked as victims—but 19 out of 50 states… that’s a pathetic statistic.
What will finally catch the attention of those who can do something about human sex trafficking in America? Who can force your average guy and state governments to treat trafficking as the horrid industry that it is? Well, money talks. The organizations with the money and the clout are those that control professional sports. The National Football League knows that it has an image problem at the moment. If the NFL has a public relations team that’s as brilliant as we all know they are, the organization should use it to start a campaign against human trafficking. Require the players to wear armbands signifying an anti-trafficking stance. Splash it on the scoreboards. Send Tom Brady, Richard Sherman, Drew Brees, and LeSean McCoy to the press for television interviews denouncing sex trafficking.
Think about it. We’re supposed to be a nation of opportunity, where business and entrepreneurship are celebrated. That image has crossed into one of “profit-at any-cost.” Are we really going to continue to let excess, abuse of power, and moral blinders continue to define American culture? I hope not.