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What’s Missing From the Super Bowl/Sex Trafficking Debate

And how the LA Times got it wrong

Journey Out staff participating in the South Los Angeles Anti Trafficking Committee training last month
By: Mary David and Katherine M. John

            While the link between sex trafficking and the Super Bowl gets examined every year, a recent Los Angeles Times Editorial has put survivors and anti-trafficking organizations on edge.  Comparing efforts to curb exploitation around the sporting event to Q’Anon conspiracy theories of celebrities siphoning off the blood of children, the LA Times Editorial Board calls the tie between human trafficking and sporting events an urban legend “that just won’t die.”

            Fueled by the perspectives of victims and survivors who we serve and work with, we at Journey Out find the messaging of this editorial deeply troubling and irresponsible. Our staff with lived experience and our clients have reported that they were exploited at higher rates and had more “dates” any time there was a large sporting event in the area. If there was something drawing more tourists to the region, that meant traffickers expected them to capitalize on it, and traffickers took whatever measures necessary to ensure that victims did so. While we cannot point to specific quantitative data, we also cannot ignore the voices and lived experiences of those who suffered through increased exploitation.

             What the Board failed to account for is that trauma typically is not accurately captured by hotlines or sting operations for all the reasons trafficking is underreported – victims do not self-identify, fear of retaliation from traffickers, and the need to go through healing before being in a place to disclose this kind of trauma, among others. We would not expect the Board to have this understanding, but we should expect them to reach out to the direct service providers engaged in the work before releasing this kind of damaging narrative.

            Many victims and survivors have been triggered by the Times’ attempted erasure of their reality. Kate Wedell, survivor-leader and founder of the anti-trafficking organization CherishedLA, had some powerful words countering the Board’s narrative with her lived experience. She has graciously allowed us to share her testimony here:

After reading the article on fake news about Human Trafficking and the Super Bowl, I can’t say I’m surprised at this mentality. It’s what keeps the industry running.

One might be curious why they are working so hard to create the idea that Human Trafficking isn’t actually taking place here in this context.

But I know this script well. I am a survivor of the commercial sex industry and have been trafficked. (To learn more about my story go to our website: www.cherishedla.org)

How many times have I encountered narcissistic clients that dismiss the victim as nothing more than a scapegoat for their insatiable lust? The only way to feel relief from any accountability requires that they distance themselves from their own shame. Like minimizing it to a mere “Urban Legend”.

But for the rest of us, those who have experienced this, we understand this kind of ignorance is what makes it easy for traffickers to move about with their prey right under your nose. The real conspiracy, the real gaslighting, is happening to those who fall for it. Unfortunately, they are deceived into believing that nothing is happening, instead of fighting for innocent lives they actually become accomplices ( turning a blind eye allows harm to continue and grow).

NO this is not “a tale”.

The flashbacks are a constant reminder the nightmare was real. More times than I can count was I forced to “work” a few days around a sporting event. Hired to escort and attend many pro games with someone that needed me to stroke his fragile ego.

Even locked in the hotel.

I dreaded it to my core, being forced to play along in public, I hated sports…and still do to this day! I can’t stand hearing the sounds of a football game because it was usually to the sounds of the cheering crowds that I was being assaulted and I knew no one was coming to help me and there was nothing I could “do” about it except appear to “be there because I wanted to” …it was a matter of survival.

When I read this article, I felt my body convulsing as it brought up all the horrific memories. Immediately, I wanted to protect those who don’t have language for this yet but will be re-traumatized by reading such a coarse and arrogant dismissal of someone’s real pain, that’s only intent is to invite others to join in the violation.

To know what women are suffering and to see it held up against such a stark lack of compassion for humankind… This is obviously someone so immeasurably privileged and entitled to speak to things they really know nothing about and to act as if it were fact.

Recently the head of the company who is making the Rams uniforms for this year’s game called it “the greatest show on earth” but there is much more behind the smoke screen

and while the greatest show” has everyone’s attention real women and children are being brutally exploited.

To say there aren’t “enough” women being trafficked to warrant spending police resources. ?? It’s not about quantity, but it is about the ONE!

To that I can only say this: I hope you never experience a daughter or son or sister or brother being trafficked. If we ignore that there is a huge problem and we do not use every platform available to combat it, then there won’t be resources at all.  Every time there is an event there are thousands of women, daughters, sisters, sons, and brothers who know the TRUTH, who’ve witnessed it firsthand.

Because of my experience in this industry and now helping others find their way out, I have had the opportunity to go to major sporting events such as the world cup and the Olympics. Because of my background, I was able to visit brothels in Brazil where many women were trafficked to work in small rooms with only an accordion door between us and the woman being assaulted.  Women are brought in from all over the world to meet the demand of the “big games”. The growing demands of “sex tourism” require more infants and younger children to be placed on the menu for men with such vile lust.

SO, for me this IS personal. This is not about stats and data and numbers. It’s about the ONE girl who needs us to show up! To offer her a place to be safe and to heal.

If ALL of these efforts were only to save her one life, then I’m in! SHE IS WORTH IT! Each one matters! Each person is someone’s daughter or sister or mother.

I’m not sure what you gain by trying to minimize and silence those who are speaking for the voiceless?

I have only one question: If it were your child, would you want ALL of these resources spent to rescue her from the nightmares?

Or would you rather hear, sorry we can’t help, “that’s just an old urban legend” so “Don’t panic, it’s just fake news”

            In response to the editorial, our Executive Director Nayeli May said, “I doubt the editors who penned this piece have ever been to the Figueroa corridor at night.” She, along with our street outreach team who provide resources to those who are forced out onto the tracks daily have a very different perspective. May added, “I would invite the LA Times to reevaluate this story after coming out for a ridealong with us and whether they would still say that the uptick in trafficking around sporting events isn’t happening.”

We understand that the Los Angeles Times did not reach their conclusions in a vacuum.  There is certainly room for continued discussion about the extent to which sex trafficking increases around major sporting events. Indeed, the conversation would be much enriched by including the wealth of qualitative data, particularly from black and brown victims and survivors that distrust traditional sources of reporting such as hotlines and surveys. But as an LA-based direct services organization, we cannot allow the lack of originality in the Times’ narrative to soften our response.  Given that they are an LA-based news outlet, we can, and must, ask more of them. 

Media is an important partner in the fight against trafficking.  But effective coverage must include the perspectives of survivors and organizations with direct experience.  Myopic clickbait that lacks this perspective can harm efforts to fight trafficking by spreading misinformation and triggering survivors who already face significant barriers on the road to recovery.    

            We wish the authors of this story had contacted us or any one of the 13 Los Angeles based anti-trafficking organizations who, without additional funding or government involvement, created a collective to respond to the victimization tied to the Super Bowl. We cannot combat the “persistent problem of trafficking” with anything less than survivor first responses. 

            To any victims and survivors who have been triggered by the LA Times story, please know that we will not ignore or diminish your reality, and that you have a collective of support in Los Angeles from nonprofits like ours who have been here through every season of sporting events, every iteration of silencing victims, and every story that does not include your perspectives. We will continue to challenge misinformation and look to those with lived experience for input, advice, and solutions. We will continue to be a space of healing and restoration when those who seek nothing more than eyes on a headline stop paying attention. We are here for the long haul on your terms, and regardless of sporting events or what people say about sporting events, we will continue to put victims, survivors, and their lived experiences first.