Massaging the Super Bowl's Sex Trafficking Stats

Almost two weeks ago, what was supposedly the world's biggest human trafficking event ended with a football game. As Super Bowl 50 trudged to its lackluster finale, a meticulously choreographed FBI operation was busting pimps and rescuing trafficked sex workers across six Bay Area counties. And it was an exemplary success for law enforcement.

So says Bertram Fairries, the FBI's “special agent in charge.” But much like the myth of a Super Bowl sex trafficking boom, that “success” isn't so convincing once you peek behind the numbers.

The FBI arrested 12 pimps, “made contact” with 129 prostitutes, and busted 85 johns for soliciting sex during the two weeks preceding Super Bowl Sunday. By contrast, during last year's Super Bowl in Arizona, the feds arrested 68 alleged traffickers and 360 suspected johns.

Crime statistics can be malleable — and trafficking statistics especially so. In San Francisco, for example, Mayor Ed Lee's anti-trafficking task force reported 291 known or suspected trafficking survivors in the last six months of 2014 (a figure that could contain duplicates). Meanwhile, the San Francisco Police Department reported a total of 72 trafficked survivors that year. Tracking down who was arrested where is even harder across six counties, policed by more than a dozen law enforcement agencies.

The problem with the Super Bowl “trafficking” numbers is that not all the victims were trafficked. Fairries tells SF Weekly that some of the 129 prostitutes the agency “contacted” were just independent sex workers conducting business as usual. But much like the SFPD, which counts every sex worker it encounters as trafficked, the FBI considers all prostitutes “victims.”

According to FBI spokeswoman Michele Ernst, the only sex workers arrested were those who directly helped recruit or pimp other victims. Strangely, the FBI claims it doesn't know how many that was. Or, more accurately, Ernst says the FBI doesn't record such data, although Fairries, after some hesitation, suggests the agency “may know.” (Neither Fairries nor Ernst provided arrest data by press deadline.)

“It gets hairy to classify,” Ernst says. “We don't break the numbers down into who was arrested and who wasn't because we want to be conservative. We don't want to inflate numbers.”

At least the FBI is clear about the number of pimps arrested. Whether that dirty dozen justified the multi-county law enforcement operation, the collaboration of more than 50 local organizations, 5,000 trained volunteers, and numerous press conferences, is up for debate.

But not to the FBI. “It was definitely a success,” Ernst says, noting that this year's anti-trafficking strategy will serve as a template for future Super Bowls.

Once the FBI returns to its pre-game routines, what will be the legacy of this year's efforts? According to the California Department of Justice, 441 traffickers were arrested in the state between 2007 and September 2012. Only 113 — or approximately a quarter — were convicted.

Even if pimps aren't convicted, they're probably sidetracked for a while, Fairries says, and that's “just as important as sting operations and arrests.”

After all, as the Bay Area was constantly reminded, anti-trafficking is year-round. It's not about the Super Bowl.

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