BEHIND THE BRIGHT LIGHTS: Fans gather on Super Bowl Boulevard in Times Square.
Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci
BEHIND THE BRIGHT LIGHTS: Fans gather on Super Bowl Boulevard in Times Square.

Buying sex at the Super Bowl

Human Trafficking | America’s biggest game sees a ‘modest uptick’ in the always serious problem of human trafficking

Issue: "Getting paid not aid," Feb. 22, 2014

NEW YORK—New York and New Jersey were ready to throw the biggest party of the year. New York City shut down 13 blocks of Broadway to create “Super Bowl Boulevard” for festivities the week before the Super Bowl. Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks teammates stayed out late in Manhattan that week, eating steak and drinking Dom Perignon. The NFL set up a 180-foot toboggan run in Times Square. Cannons shot fake snow, spotlights spun, and ice sculptures slowly melted. A clothing store along Super Bowl Boulevard hired models to walk around in cheerleader outfits emblazoned with the store name. A few avenues west on the Hudson River, Bud Light’s party cruise ship docked and brought thousands of revelers into Midtown.

Behind Manhattan’s bright lights was a darkness. At a safe house in Queens, Restore NYC was preparing to receive victims of sex trafficking. The New York attorney general’s task force on sex trafficking asked several organizations including Restore, a Christian group for foreign national victims, to prepare to take in anyone who might be rescued during Super Bowl week. Before the week was out, law enforcement had contacted the groups about victims. The Tuesday after the Super Bowl, the FBI’s New York field office announced it recovered 16 children who had been trafficked and arrested 45 traffickers, some of whom admitted they traveled to New York to do business around the Super Bowl.

People often say that the Super Bowl is the biggest draw of sex trafficking in the country. Media and government officials have recycled the estimate that the Super Bowl brings in 10,000 sex trafficking victims. Experts in the field say that number is overblown. They say there isn’t reliable data on the game, but there isn’t data to dispute at least some spike in trafficking either. “We haven’t seen in the data and evidence if there’s huge spikes in trafficking around the Super Bowl. … I see the danger of using bad data,” said Jimmy Lee, the director of Restore NYC. “The truth is already bad enough.” From what people in the field like Lee see, the Super Bowl does result in an uptick in sex trafficking, like other large sports events.

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“It’s all about money,” said Barbara Amaya, who was trafficked in New York City for nine years, starting as a 13-year-old. “Wherever there’s large crowds of men and there’s money, it’s happening.”

Amaya said it was common knowledge among her fellow victims that traffickers would bring victims to large sporting events. Amaya’s trafficker took her to a fight in Ohio once, to serve men there.

“Everybody knows that, it’s a given fact in the subculture,” she said. To Amaya, the point is not whether there are more trafficked victims in a certain place on a certain day; the business goes on year-round. She’s glad if people want to talk about trafficking during the Super Bowl; it brings more attention to the subject.

POLARIS PROJECT, the numbers expert on sex trafficking in the United States, says there may be a “modest uptick” of trafficking around the Super Bowl, but the group bought billboard ads in Times Square right after the Super Bowl to emphasize that the problem is year-round.

New York strip clubs, a legal part of the sex trade, boasted that they had brought in additional women for the Super Bowl. One Manhattan strip club even issued a press release on Super Bowl week describing additional women who would be at the club and announcing it would be open from 11 a.m. Wednesday until 4 a.m. after the Super Bowl. Backpage.com, the internet’s dark alley for commercial sex ads, had listings of women marked as “Super Bowl specials,” as well as trafficking red flags like “New Asian Girls—First Time in USA.” As I was sitting in a coffee shop two days before the Super Bowl, I noticed the man on a computer next to me was clicking through ads for prostitutes in New York. He declined an interview.

Wednesday night before the Super Bowl in Midtown, police arrested a mother and charged her with bringing her 15-year-old daughter from Florida to pimp out to Super Bowl visitors. The same night police descended on a Manhattan apartment building which formed a base for a major sex ring, just half a block from the “Super Bowl Boulevard” on Broadway. (And incidentally, the same building that holds dorms for The King’s College. The college said all the students were safe.) The New York attorney general’s office along with the New York police and federal investigators had been investigating the multimillion dollar operation there for almost a year but decided to bust the ring before the Super Bowl because the leaders were bringing in trafficking victims for the game.


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