The real criminals are the cops: Superbowl hype questioned

Since the most recent national sex worker rights conference in July 2013, New Jersey advocates for the rights of sex workers have been meeting to begin documenting the human rights abuses faced by sex workers in the Garden State. Representatives of this newly forming network developed this post with Best Practices Policy Project to deconstruct and question the current “sex trafficking panic” over the upcoming “Superbowl” (the annual championship game of the American National Football League). Critiques of Superbowl media coverage have also emerged on the other side of the Hudson River in NYC from anti-trafficking advocates who are also troubled by the presentation of the issues.

“The real criminals are the cops”: Using human rights not “super bowl sex trafficking hype” to understand the issues confronting sex workers in New Jersey*

This coming Sunday February 2, 2014 the NFL Superbowl will be held at the Metlife Stadium in Rutherfield, New Jersey.

Mainstream media outlets across the United States are in full hype mode building a furor of public outrage over “sex trafficking” which we are told is guaranteed to spike during this large sporting event. USA Today reports for example, that, “criminals, as with past Super Bowls, hope to use the large crowds to sell people forced into prostitution.” USA Today continues by spinning a so-called history of trafficking at Superbowl events, quoting Texas State Attorney General Greg Abbott who claimed (incorrectly) that the 2011 Superbowl in Texas was the “single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.”

News story after news story circulate what have been repeatedly shown by front line human rights advocates—who very much care about safety and ending violence—to be at best unsubstantiated fears and at worst urban legends. Myths about the need to—and efficacy of—“cracking down” on “sex trafficking” at sporting events have been debunked repeatedly by researchers. In depth reporting by journalists, such as Melissa Gira, has revealed that “Superbowl trafficking panics” lead to immediate harms such as the widespread abuse of immigrants and people presumed to be sex workers. And as Emi Koyama’s presentations succinctly illustrate, our acceptance of the hype draws us down into accepting (and perhaps cheering on?) harsh forms of criminalization that devastate the lives of immigrants, LGBTQ communities and youth of color. The public and some service providers have been fooled into believing that “police stings” and “police crackdowns” are the way to help.

We are sex worker rights advocates living and working in New Jersey who are committed to sharing the truth about the problems in our state from a human rights perspective. We are 100% clear that anyone who is a victim of a crime, anyone who suffers human rights abuse or who needs housing or other services should get the support needed. We advocate for harm reduction approaches to service provision that meet people where they are at, without the need for punishment, and that allow for services lead by people in the community for the community. Sadly, hype surrounding the 2014 Superbowl in New Jersey is nothing more than a sleight of hand, deflecting the public from finding out more about the human rights abuses we should be concerned about and diverting funding away from harm reduction approaches into efforts that cause more harm. The reality is that the people that most sex workers in New Jersey fear will do them harm are the police. Sex workers are unable to report violence committed against them because they fear they will be arrested. In our community networks we know of sex workers who have been forced to provide sexual favors to officers or even worse, have faced police violence and reprisals for speaking out. The failure to respect the rights of sex workers (and people the police profile as engaging in the sex trade whether they are actually sex workers or not) leads to the most tragic consequences of all. In New Jersey, sex workers are murdered or disappeared, the cases are rarely if ever solved.

In the run up to the 2014 Superbowl, police in New Jersey and New York under the guise of “preventing sex trafficking” have already begun to–or soon will–raid, arrest and perhaps violate the rights of people they believe are sex workers.  In New Jersey we already know that any person who attempts to complain about police misconduct relating to any issue is at great risk of reprisal. Imagine the untold stories of abuse faced by people in the sex trade, transgender people who are profiled as sex workers, youth of color and immigrants. We encourage you the public to question the hype about the Superbowl in New Jersey and stand for the human rights of sex workers. Demand answers about how anti-trafficking moneys are being spent by law enforcement, hold social service agencies working closely with law enforcement accountable, and find safe ways for people negatively affected by police operations during the Superbowl to report the abuse. And media outlets, check your sources and the “facts” claimed by people hyping about “sex trafficking at the Superbowl”. Looking at you WNYC

* The quote used as this blog post’s title is from a sex worker in NJ responding to plans to heavily police areas of NY and NJ before and during the Superbowl. She also noted that, “the police are our greatest fear, not our rescuers.” The authors of this post can be contacted by email at for more information about sex worker rights in NJ.