Does the Super Bowl result in an increase in human trafficking?

A person in a hoodie standing by a large shipping crate.

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2023 year in review.

January was Human Trafficking Awareness month. The Super Bowl, which historically has been linked to an increase in sex trafficking, will be played at State Farm Stadium on Feb. 12.

What better time, then, to check in with Samantha Calvin, an instructor in Arizona State University’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

Calvin has studied human trafficking for more than a decade and teaches a Fundamentals of Human Trafficking class that is embedded within the college.

ASU News talked to Calvin about human trafficking, the misconceptions surrounding Super Bowl activity, the role of social media and what people should or shouldn’t do if they believe they’ve encountered trafficking.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Let’s start with this. How would you describe human trafficking?

Answer: So, I always start my first day of class asking my students a question: What do you think of when you think of a prostitute, and what images come to mind? I think that exposes the fact that we all hold stereotypes about what people think trafficking should look like and what a trafficker looks like. I tell my students that it often doesn’t meet our misconceptions.

I think, to the average person, they can drive past someone in some of the major areas of Phoenix where we know trafficking is occurring, like on 27th Avenue, and they can just think, “This person is using substances, this person is a "prostitute.” I think what they’re missing behind the scenes is that there’s likely a trafficker or pimp nearby who is controlling that situation.

Anyone who’s under the age of 18 who trades sex for anything of value, whether that’s a phone or a cheeseburger or a place to stay, that is trafficking. End of story. And if you’re over 18, there has to be some form of, at least federally, the definition of forced coercion or fraud present.

Q: The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report in October of 2022 stating there was a 62% increase in the number of persons referred to U.S. attorneys for human trafficking offenses in 2020 compared to 2011. Is that because human trafficking is on the rise, or is there a more concerted effort to prosecute offenders?

A: I think it's because we're more aware of it now. When I started working in this field around 2010 it wasn’t a buzzword. There was no Human Trafficking Awareness Month like there is now. We finally have human trafficking-specific units and dedicated people in law enforcement who are trained to work in this area. Also, I think there’s just a better community awareness and sense of what it looks like. We’re realizing that not everyone who is on the street is choosing to be there. I think working through that kind of victim lens, that trauma-informed approach, is why cases are moving forward. I also think there might be some increase in (trafficking) just in the last 10 years with social media. The access of the internet has made it a lot easier for traffickers to reach out to potential victims.

Q: Expand on that. What is the role social media now plays in human trafficking?

A: I was just listening to a podcast about kids getting fentanyl off Snapchat, and should social media companies be held liable and responsible. I think it’s going to be a huge conversation with trafficking shortly, too. Right now, I’m looking at a study that says certain hashtags are associated with this world of trafficking and people who are being exploited. I tell my students and show them that you can find a trafficker’s profile on Instagram in like 15 seconds. It does not take any time at all. So I think social media plays a huge role.

Q: There’s a belief that events like the Super Bowl create an increase in sex trafficking. Is that actually the case?

A: It’s not the Super Bowl that creates a spike in trafficking or that trafficking is directly linked to these events. Men who are women buyers and come to a new city for an event or a conference, the chances of them buying sex in that city are pretty high. So, it’s not the Super Bowl or the Barrett-Jackson Auction or the Phoenix Open that creates trafficking. It’s the people who already are buying sex and they come here and they buy sex here.

There are such things as circuit girls, who are transported from city to city sometimes in order to meet expected demand. But we’re not saying the Super Bowl in and of itself is driving trafficking, but more people, more money and more power moving into a city. You’re going to have increases in sex buying.

Q: What are you teaching students in your Fundamentals of Human Trafficking class?

A: What I want them to take away from it is, I think that human trafficking is a problem in our community that they can do something about as both future health care providers and just community members living in society — things to look for, what to do if they suspect something. I bring in a ton of different guest speakers so that they can hear about trafficking through the lens of different people who interact in this area, like law enforcement and journalism and health care, people on kind of the front lines. They also get partnered with a community nonprofit so they can work in helping them solve one of their problems or create educational materials for different populations.

Q: You also have an online course for health care providers. Reportedly, 70% of trafficking victims have some sort of interaction with a health care provider. How can those providers help the victims?

A: When I started working with girls who had been trafficked, that was a common theme, that they had been seen by a health care provider — oftentimes brought in by their trafficker — whether it’s the emergency room or urgent care, and then they leave unrecognized. That’s not to blame the health care provider, because they’re often short on time. They’re doing what they can. But there are things I teach in the course of what to look for, some of the red flags, how to ask better questions if that is suspected. I think that’s just a big area where we can make a difference, because there’s not a lot of opportunity to interact with people who might be at risk or who are actively being trafficked.

Q: Aside from health care providers, what should someone do if they suspect human trafficking?

A: If something looks off, doesn’t feel right or you get a gut feeling about something that looks like trafficking, calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline number is probably the easiest go-to because the folks who are answering those calls have had 60 to 80 hours of training. They know how to refer back to local law enforcement or local resources. Also, if there’s ever an interaction with (a victim), provide that number and say, “If you ever need this, this is the number to call.”

Q: And what shouldn’t people do?

A: If it’s a dangerous situation, don’t try to approach someone, especially if they have a trafficker who is nearby and might be suspecting law enforcement or an authority figure. That can put the victim in more danger. So it’s not always the appropriate response to intervene, unless it’s a safe situation.

Top photo courtesy iStock

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