Most people associate the Kentucky Derby with mint juleps, giant hats and Instagram posts of bros wearing pastel shorts. But an ominous warning from Kentucky state Attorney General Andy Beshear suggests that the Derby is a prime target for sex traffickers as well. In advance of this year’s event on May 4th, the Attorney General of Kentucky has issued a solemn warning to those in attendance: watch out for signs that someone is being sex trafficked.
According to an AP report last week, Beshear, who is currently running for governor, teamed up with law enforcement officials and victims’ advocates urging people to watch out for signs of human trafficking victims during the event, on the grounds that sex traffickers are likely to bring victims to large sporting events to meet increased demand. Beshear’s office also released a poster urging Kentucky residents and visitors to the Derby to watch out for signs that someone may be a human trafficking victim, including whether they are “traveling in groups,” “have identical tattoos or branding,” or are “unable to identify what town or state they are in or where they are staying.”
This isn’t the first time that law enforcement officials have promoted the idea that a rise in sex trafficking rates is correlated with large sporting events. This narrative circulates almost every year around the Super Bowl, with numerous media reports quoting concerned law enforcement officials urging city residents to watch out for the signs of trafficking. In fact, earlier this year, right before the Super Bowl in Atlanta, federal law enforcement officials hosted a press conference announcing that they had arrested 33 people in the city in connection with sex trafficking; former and current NFL players also released an anti-trafficking PSA in advance of the event.
The idea that sex trafficking rates increase around events like the Super Bowl stems from cultural preconceptions of “masculinity and white culture,” says Dr. Jill McCracken, a professor at University of South Florida Saint Petersburg and cofounder and co-director of sex workers’ rights group SWOP Tampa Bay. (The city is set to host the Super Bowl in 2021, and law enforcement officials have already ramped up anti-trafficking initiatives in anticipation of the event). “There’s this idea a lot of men will come in and therefore it will drive demand.”
Yet despite the persistence of this narrative, many sex worker advocacy groups and anti-trafficking organizations alike say that there isn’t much evidence to support the idea that events like the Super Bowl or the Kentucky Derby are correlated with a rise in sex trafficking rates. “I don’t think the data convincingly makes a point there’s a major spike in trafficking” surrounding these events, says Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris, an anti-trafficking organization that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline based in Washington, D.C. “There’s data to suggest changes in the market, but not necessarily data to suggest major spikes.” The research that does exist, such as a 2018 study from the University of Minnesota (which was published in advance of the 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis), suggests that while the Super Bowl “correlates with an increase in the number of online ads for commercial sex in the host city,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of these ads are placed by sex traffickers or victims of sex trafficking; further, the impact is “short-lived,” and the media tends to “recycle unfounded and exaggerated numbers” when covering the event every year.
Part of the issue in assessing the problem is that it’s difficult to measure sex trafficking to begin with — estimates for how many people are being trafficked against their will in the United States tend to range widely (as does the definition of what constitutes sex trafficking itself). To assess whether large sporting events are correlated with an increase in trafficking, Myles says researchers could potentially see if there’s an increase in calls to helplines. But while he says Polaris may receive a “modest increase” of calls and tips on its hotline surrounding large events like the Super Bowl, it’s “not anything noticeable.”
More to the point, it’s extremely difficult to differentiate sex trafficking victims — i.e., those who are doing such work against their will — from sex workers who are there of their own volition. Indeed, were there a demonstrable uptick in online ads from sex workers, differentiating between those who did sex work consensually and those who were trafficked would be “really tough to study,” admits Myles. But because many anti-trafficking organizations and law enforcement officials tend to conflate the two, law enforcement agencies tend to focus on sex trafficking at the expense of other forms of (arguably far more common) trafficking, such as labor trafficking. “If you’ve got more people coming into a place, you’ll have to increase services in all kinds of ways,” says McCracken. Yet when it comes to large sporting events, “people almost always talk about sex trafficking because it’s salacious, it grabs attention, and because sexual acts are more of a privacy and morality issue.”
Such inaccurate perceptions of sex work put sex workers at increased risk of arrest during anti-sex trafficking stings, which tend to ramp up around large sporting events, says Kristen DiAngelo, the executive director of SWOP Sacramento. “‘Trafficking victims’ [arrested during such stings] are often doing consensual sex work,” says DiAngelo. While she says that “it might be a possibility” that there is a slight uptick of consensual sex workers in host cities during large sporting events, she says it’s more likely that these are “people who might want to go to the event as someone’s date for the evening,” not trafficking victims forced to attend against their will. In fact, DiAngelo, who self-identifies as both a trafficking survivor and someone who has done consensual sex work at various points in her life, says it doesn’t even make financial sense for traffickers to flock to events like the Super Bowl or Kentucky Derby: sex traffickers “can make as much money as they want in whatever city they’re in…they don’t need to travel.”
None of this is to say that sex trafficking is not an issue, nor is it to say that absolutely no sex trafficking takes place during events like the Kentucky Derby or the Super Bowl. And to a degree, Myles credits lawmakers and anti-trafficking advocates for boosting awareness of sex trafficking around these events. “There are clearly some positives when a city wants to get collaborative efforts to work together on trafficking on any day of the year,” he says. “But I also think there are concerns about [these awareness-boosting campaigns] being overhyped and over-sensationalized.”
Aside from the Kentucky Derby and Beshear’s statement, it is worth noting that the sex industry in general, whether consensual or not, is being driven further underground: the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, bills that were intended to curb sex trafficking, has ironically put those who offer sexual services at increased risk, in more ways than one. Many sex workers have argued that the shuttering of websites like Backpage, which served as a network and a way to vet potential clients, has put sex workers at increased risk of violence; it has also made it more difficult to track and identify trafficking victims, i.e. those who are not doing sex work consensually, says Myles. “If Backpage was a lake, imagine a huge meteor slammed into the lake and it was eliminated and turned into 60 little puddles. That’s kind of what happened,” he says. McCracken agrees. “When we had Backpage, we probably could have studied [rising trafficking rates around large events],” she says. “But what’s ended up happening is there are these different sites creeping up and information gets distorted because everyone is afraid of being arrested.”
Sensationalized reports of increased trafficking at events like the Kentucky Derby and the Super Bowl arguably do little to help actual trafficking survivors, while simultaneously placing targets on sex workers’ backs. “If you look at what’s going on with the federal laws right now everything is going toward increased criminalization,” says DiAngelo. “These reports create hysteria and they get people to jump on the bandwagon. Our government has this idea of ‘we have to find this common enemy to fight’…right now, sex workers happen to be that villain.”