Sex Trafficking & Sexist Advertising at the Super Bowl

Last night as I scrolled through my Twitter feed, I noticed a curious trend: many of my Christian and even Christian feminist virtual friends were posting about sex trafficking at the Super Bowl. As a long-time advocate in the anti-trafficking and anti-violence against women fields, I became discouraged at the inflated numbers and the sensationalism around the sex trafficking articles. Despite over a decade of concerted efforts in U.S. policy, awareness raising, and even media outlets (however flawed and eroticized they may be), there is still a lot of confusion and moral panic-raising among concerned citizens, especially Christians, rather than facts and nuanced conversation. 

The basic premise for the supposed increase in sex trafficking at major sports events is that higher volumes of rowdy, drunk, and horny men will increase the demand for paid sexual services, which in turn will lead to a greater supply to meet this demand.  

I would like to note that I am an advocate for demand reduction -- efforts to focus on the demand (pimps and johns) rather than the supply (prostituted people) -- but the efforts need to address an actual, documented demand, not just hunches.

Let’s take a look at a few of the disappointing articles/media first. If you read other articles on sex trafficking or sexually objectifying commercials, please share them in the comments.


Sex Trafficking and the Super Bowl: Penalties of A Media Blitz

By Jessie Nicole at Role/Reboot

But as an activist for sex workers’ rights, this time of year is incredibly frustrating. It’s when I start getting bombarded with “facts” about the “vast” numbers of trafficking victims that major sporting events create....There is no correlation between major sporting events and increases in sex trafficking. It simply does not exist. There are years of data proving that it does not exist. But government officials, activists, and media continue to propagate the panic.What the moral panic around trafficking and the Super Bowl seems to illustrate clearly is that we simply do not have good data on human trafficking, for the sex industry, or otherwise. Accepting these largely made-up numbers makes bad assumptions about sports, gender relations, and the sex industry itself.


According to her bio in the article, the author is the director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), a nonprofit dedicated to ending violence and stigma against sex workers. Given this context, it is understandable why the author would go to great lengths to differentiate sex trafficking from sex work, even asserting that “sex work is to trafficking as sex is to rape.”

There is a complicated, heated debate within the anti-trafficking field globally on this very topic, and is one of the most frequent questions I get when I’ve trained or presented on sex trafficking. Basically, the field is broken down into two camps: those who believe that prostitution (when not forced or coerced) can be an informed, harmless choice, and those who believe that prostitution (whether or not it's forced or coerced) is inherently exploitative and degrading. Interestingly, one of the most unlikely collaborations I’ve ever seen sits in the second camp: evangelical Christians and secular feminists have formed alliances over the years in anti-sex trafficking, anti-prostitution, and anti-pornography work. 

The benefit of this article is that it debunks the myth that major sports events exponentially increases the amount of sex trafficking. As she explains, there are no credible, proven studies that show that sex trafficking does in fact increase dramatically in the city where the Super Bowl or other major event such as the World Cup is held. Certainly there are testimonies of victims who have been trafficked during major sports events, but inflating the numbers hurts rather than helps the cause and efforts to assist victims. The drawback of this article is that she ignores the reality of economic coercion in entering/staying in prostitution. As one Twitter friend explained, it’s the same argument that is used to downplay the role of economic coercion in situations of marital rape (“if she wasn’t forced, then it wasn’t rape!”). 


Super Bowl Is Single Largest Human Trafficking Incident In U.S.: Attorney General

By Eleanor Goldberg for the Huffington Post

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told USA Today in 2011 when his state was gearing up to host the event. "It's commonly known as the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States." The influx of fans fosters the optimal breeding ground for pimps looking to boost their profits. Experts say that the sheer number of men looking to pay for sex substantially increases demand and the massive crowds allow for pimps and victims to essentially go unnoticed.


Given that human trafficking is also called modern slavery or indentured servitude in U.S. law, I would highly disagree that the Super Bowl (in any year) is the “single largest human trafficking incident” since, you know, the U.S. also has history of the “ugly underbelly” of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. There is also no comprehensive data to prove this point. Once impassioned advocates learn that this isn’t necessarily true, they may become jaded and more likely to disregard real situations of sex trafficking, especially if these situations do not align with the sensationalized moral panic-raising that they previously knew (e.g., adult vs. child victims, less sympathetic victims who seemingly “chose” prostitution vs.Taken-style “innocent” victims, etc.). 

Sex Trafficking at the World Cup

By MTV Exit, trigger warning

The video in the above link is one of the worst awareness-raising techniques I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen many objectifying, over-simplified methods to raise awareness on sex trafficking. After all, one of my senior theses focused on how victims and survivors of sex trafficking from Eastern Europe were depicted in mainstream news, media, and film. Even if this video drew additional people’s attention to the issue, is it worth utilizing the same norms that degrade women to get their point across? 

In contrast, I was grateful to see more articles and conversation around the objectification and dehumanization of women in Super Bowl commercials.  

While these types of commercials are not saved exclusively for multi-million dollar air time at the event, the Super Bowl is when advertisers really strive to make their mark and to “wow” viewers. Unfortunately, that often means they go to more and more extreme lengths at the expense of women’s humanity. And in my view, women’s humanity is quite a high price to pay to sell Doritos or domain names (ahem, Go Daddy).  

Below are a few well-reasoned, thought-provoking articles that transcend the surface-level rhetoric of moral panic and sensationalism to get at the root causes of our society’s obsession with reducing women to body parts – whether in sex trafficking or sexist advertisements.


Prizes and Consumables: The Super Bowl as a Theology of Women 

By Matthew Vos

The way we consume iconic national events like the Super Bowl better depicts what we really believe about women than does anything else. For in the invisibility of normality, there we find our idolatry....Control is exerted in much more pleasant forms that render people in agreement with those things that oppress and constrain them. Rather than feeling sadness, we laugh when a woman's body sells a car. Rather than outrage, we watch it again on YouTube. And in the end, without many scruples about the ties between demeaning ads and supermarket products, we buy their wares.


#NotBuyingIt: List of Super Bowl Advertisers’ Twitter Handles

By MissRepresentation

During last year’s Super Bowl,’s online community reached nearly 1 million people with a message of gender equality, using hashtag #NotBuyingIt to call out sexist commercials in real time...So it’s not just about calling out the hypersexualization and objectification of women in these ads, but also realizing that there is also a very limiting ideal of manhood on display in most Super Bowl commercials. We’re #NotBuyingIt in regards to either depiction of gender extremes. Follow @representpledge throughout the day and tweet with #NotBuyingIt whenever you see a sexist commercial. Insert the Twitter handles of the brands behind the offensive ads to make sure they hear your opinion.

Slavery at the Super Bowl? 5 Helpful Facts for Fans

By Kelly Heinrich & Kavitha Sreeharsha, Global Freedom Center for the Huffington Post

Even if you're watching the game at home or the neighborhood bar, slavery touches you too. Slavery is found is many of the goods we purchase and consume on Super Bowl Sunday. Are you planning to wear a team jersey? Commemorative and other team apparel could include cotton harvested by forced labor or sewn in factories by forced labor. Did you buy a new flat-screen television for your Super Bowl party? It may have been assembled with forced labor. Are you watching just for the commercials? That smartphone in your favorite commercial may contain coltan mined with forced labor. Have you planned your menu? The highest number of trafficking victims identified in the United States has been within agriculture. We purchase and use these items almost every day, but the Super Bowl presents them all in one setting.

Media, Commercials, and the Super Bowl: Women are objects to be objectified, marketed, and packaged for consumption

By Eugene Cho (from 2012)

Translation: Money talks. And yet…none of these companies ever speak up about the crass and disgusting objectification and exploitation of women via these Go Daddy commercials (and others).How about the church? I have no idea but is it possible that many churches host their domains via Go Daddy? Can you imagine the impact that we could make together by saying and demonstrating: “Enough is enough?! We must fight and turn tables for the dignity and value of women – because it impacts all of us.”[from the video Cho included in the post] “I'm not at all saying that ads like this directly cause violence [against women]. It's not that simple. But turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person. The person is dehumanized and then the violence becomes inevitable.”


Below are some helpful resources for those interested in learning more about sex trafficking and/or calling out sexist advertising. As always, if you have any questions you’d prefer to ask more in private, feel free to email me. I’d love to continue this important conversation! 


Photo credit: MissRepresentation