Super Bowl Week Puts Spotlight on Human Trafficking

Public policy fellows with San Francisco's Department on the Status of Women hold mock-ups of anti-trafficking billboards.

Public policy fellows with San Francisco's Department on the Status of Women hold mockups of anti-trafficking billboards. (Tara Siler/KQED)

Up to 1 million revelers are expected to flood the Bay Area this week leading up to Sunday’s Super Bowl in Santa Clara. Officials have repeatedly alerted the public to looming traffic nightmares — but law enforcement officials have been issuing another alert.

They say apart from the crowds and frenzied fun, something darker will be going on: Sex traffickers will be trying to cash in on the annual bash.

Local law enforcement is asking the public for help rescuing those being exploited.

“We have to team up: Law enforcement, airport workers and all of you out there to be extra vigilant,” says Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen.

The annual game that brings together a lot of men, money and parties is often linked to a big spike in sex trafficking. The Super Bowl has even been called the largest human trafficking event in the country. There’s no evidence to back that up. But for several years the big event has nonetheless been used to shine a bright light on an often hidden industry.

“We know we have an opportunity to get attention to this issue today,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón says. “And we’re taking advantage of that.”

Nonprofits and local government agencies are joining with the FBI to launch the No Traffick Ahead Campaign. It includes training Super Bowl volunteers, bus drivers, airline and hotel workers to watch for signs someone is being coerced, such as apparent subservience or difficulty making eye contact — even women or girls seemingly “branded” with a signature tattoo.

Organizers have also dotted four Bay Area counties with billboards aimed at catching the public’s eye and spurring conversation about sex and labor trafficking.

A billboard from the No Traffick Ahead Campaign.
A billboard from the No Traffick Ahead Campaign. (No Traffick Ahead Campaign)

A bright pink one with a simple image of a cellphone asks, “Is There an App for Sexual Exploitation? Ask Your Teen.” Organizers say the question tries to drive home the message that young people are vulnerable to grooming by traffickers using social media, especially since so much sex is now bought and paid for online.

Meanwhile, behind closed doors in a special operations center in Oakland, the FBI is working with local police departments scouring websites known for selling sex.

“Our game plan is to target traffickers … and johns,” says Bertram Fairries, a special agent with the FBI. Fairries says law enforcement is also shifting its approach toward the sex workers themselves by offering them housing, food, counseling and other services.

He says even if a sex worker declines the assistance and doesn’t cooperate with authorities, that “doesn’t mean we’re going to turn around and prosecute them.”

But attorney Kate Mogulescu is wary. She’s with the Legal Aid Society in New York and runs a program for trafficking victims. She says during the 2014 Super Bowl in New Jersey there was a similar public campaign against human trafficking.

A simultaneous crackdown by law enforcement just led to a lot of women being swept up on prostitution charges. “Our experience here was incredibly frustrating,” Mogulescu says. “It was incredibly frustrating to live the experience on the ground in criminal court versus what we were seeing and hearing on the news. They were very, very disparate experiences, and I hope that doesn’t repeat itself.”

Quintisha Young calls herself a survivor. She says she was trafficked as a teenager until she was 27.
Quintisha Young calls herself a survivor. She says she was trafficked as a teenager until she was 27. (Tara Siler/KQED)

Some of the advocates working with the Bay Area campaign say it’s a valid concern that sex workers will be targeted for arrest, especially during the Super Bowl.

“There’s an enormous amount of pressure for law enforcement to produce numbers,” says Sharan Dhanoa, coordinator of the No Traffick Ahead campaign. But, she says, it will be worth it if some of them accept the services and ultimately break free of the exploitation.

“So for us it’s really looking at the bigger picture,” Dhanoa says.

The bigger picture, she says, includes fighting human trafficking long after the last play of Super Bowl 50.

Super Bowl Week Puts Spotlight on Human Trafficking 1 February,2016Tara Siler

  • Skip Conrad

    Does the fact that San Francisco is a sanctuary city, make it an attractive destination for traffickers?

  • This article actually goes against what the Mayor’s Task Force explained in another article. The Task Force not focusing on what is labeled ‘sex trafficking’ in this KQED article. They were also clear that there is not necessarily any proven increase. This ( more accurate article explains:

    “While there have been many claims about the effect of a Super Bowl on the amount of prostitution in the host city, a 2011 study by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women showed that large sporting events do not cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution.”

    “It would be a misnomer to just say that by having a Super Bowl, it means there’s an automatic increase to trafficking,” said Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition founder Betty Ann Boeving. “It actually is an increase in awareness of the issue.”

    Rights-based European anti-trafficking activist, Bobby Gerasimov, responds:“The campaign is not that bad for an anti-trafficking campaign. It’s relatively general and not focusing only on ‘sex trafficking’. Still, one problem is that it creates a sense of urgency, even panic – it’s everywhere around us, it takes many forms…I also don’t like the clear division between ‘sex trafficking’ and ‘labour trafficking.’ Of course sex work should be included as labour (not to mention that it seems now like there are three types of trafficking – human, sex and labour, which is pretty absurd!) …. I also don’t see any hint of WHY trafficking occurs – which is because of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, lack of social protection, gender inequality, the deregulation of labour… And that these are all situations for which the state is responsible…”

    From a sex worker rights point of view, the campaign itself greatly fails because it inspires the continuation of the lies of the the Trafficking/Super Bowl link. The Mayor’s Task Force must emphasize the history of problematic impact of anti-trafficking campaigns on sex workers and migrants in order to shift the discourse. Apparently that was too radical for them to acknowledge, so their spiffy campaign of non-sequiturs did damage once again. See more about the impact of anti-trafficking here:


    • It is incredibly frustrating that the lies told by the non-profits and the government (police prosecutors and other politicians) are accepted by most people and they continue to get away with driving the conversation with fear.

      The people they claim to want to help are the people they are hurting. What they can say: it will be worth it if we can get people to quit working in the sex trade. For who? It will be worth it if the feminists can prevent women from working – what do they care if they can not take care of themselves and their families? They want to see a world where no woman works in the sex trade. Period.

      This doesn’t help the women who just lost their jobs. Housing, food and counseling services don’t qualify you for a job at Mc Donald’s. They need job training, education and a car too.

      • Robert

        I’d like a free car too please.

        • jared

          Sorry, the last one went to a Mr. Rodriguez of Brownsville, TX.

      • jared

        Prostitution is illegal. The police arrest people doing illegal things and the courts punish them.
        Why is this difficult?

        • Marijuana is also illegal at the federal level; however there are plenty of people who think the abolitionists are wrong. The incarceration of America over moral concerns must stop.

          X Homosexuality
          X Same Sex Marriage
          X Adultery
          X Interracial Marriage
          X Sex Before Marriage
          X Porn Stars in movies
          _ Prostitution

          Decriminalize ALL consensual sex between adults.
          Prostitution is not human trafficking.

          • jared

            Prostitution is a business transaction and the government regulates and forbids many types of business for several possible reasons.

          • The law can be changed or overturned for being unconstitutional.

          • jared

            Courts have ruled that the “Commerce Clause” in the Constitution essentially means whatever the government says it does. Except for laws governing monopolies and huge banks, etc., the courts don’t involve themselves, unless there is also another issue like free speech or freedom of religion, etc.

            The phase “the pursuit of Happiness” is in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, unfortunately. ; – )

          • Freedom of religion. Religion has been too free to go where ever it wished to go. Christianity should be all about forgiveness – but when applied to the criminal justice system: Christianity is judgement and punishment.

  • Robert

    There’s no doubt that trafficking is a problem that needs addressing but this is a tempest in a teapot and the problem is no where near as big as is being portrayed nor does it increase significantly if at all during times like Super Bowl. Looks great politically though!


Tara Siler

Tara reports and sometimes anchors for KQED news. She covers a range of issues from community-police relations to local politics. Tara started out in community radio in the Bay Area, where she was raised. She eventually moved to Washington DC where she covered Congress for eight years for Pacifica and Monitor Radio. Her stories have also been heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition and The World.

Tara lives with her husband in Oakland– where they raised their two sons. She enjoys spending time with her large family, gardening and hiking in the Oakland hills with her dog.

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