Is There a Link Between Major Sports Events and Sex Trafficking?

Advocates disagree, but the uptick in law enforcement is undeniable.

(Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Feb 7, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Sarah Parvini is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles.

Missing hotel lobbies. Undrinkable yellow water. Streets riddled with exposed manholes. Sochi's near-total lack of preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics has been in full view for days now, but beyond the lighthearted jabs at half-built hotels lies a far more sinister reality: the abundance of sex trafficking in the area.

As tonight's opening ceremony officially welcome viewers to the Olympics, Sochi has become a hub for tourism, travel, and spectatorship. What follows in these large sporting events is the import of sex workers to entertain the visiting hordes, says Melissa Brennan, an attorney who works with the nonprofit Sanctuary for Families, which helps survivors of human trafficking.

"In any sort of event like this, when you are seeing large groups of men, it's not surprising that you would see an uptick in people purchasing sex," she says.

Major sporting events like the Olympics call for mass improvement projects that create a demand for cheap labor—often this means exploiting immigrants who will work for less, a U.S. State Department report on human trafficking found.

There were also multiple instances of women and children being exploited for sex trafficking in Russia.

About 27 million people were victims of trafficking in 2012, with hundreds of thousands forced to cross borders for labor or sex, the report found. Only 47,000 of those victims were found, because of a lack of global initiatives to combat trafficking.

Whether or not we can record a spike in trafficking—an illicit activity—law enforcement increases patrols and surveillance dedicated to stopping sex trafficking around major events like the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and the World Cup. This year’s Super Bowl, for example, saw a fairly successful crackdown on the sex trade in New Jersey and New York.

The week before the Super Bowl, New York law enforcement charged 18 people with running a prostitution and drug trafficking ring. The investigators noted that the group specifically targeted rich tourists, particularly during large events in the area. The ring posted ads on the Internet and sent text messages to potential customers, according to the Office of the New York Attorney General.

The message reads, “new sexy & beautiful girls R in town waiting for u.”

The FBI also rescued 16 people and arrested more than 45 others connected with child sex trafficking during a Super Bowl sting focusing on underage prostitution, according to agency officials.
Support groups are encouraged by the awareness raised by these policing efforts but argue that there are no figures to support claims of higher trafficking during such events.
"We haven't seen a great deal of data that points to a major spike in human trafficking at the Super Bowl," says Bradley Myles, executive director of the Polaris Project. "If communities use it as a catalyst for monitoring this activity, that could be a positive thing. But the Super Bowl is getting a disproportionate share of the attention."

While trafficking occurs during the Super Bowl, Myles argues, this form of "modern slavery" can be found throughout the country—from California to Washington, D.C.—365 days a year.

That line of argument is out of touch with the reality of sex trafficking, Brennan says. Gathering data on the trafficking is difficult because it happens behind closed doors, she adds.

“Events like the Super Bowl and possibly the Olympics do attract and lead to an increase in trafficking,” Brennan says. “To say this hasn’t been proven with numbers disregards the claims of victims who have had this experience.”

The victims she works with laugh at claims that large sporting events don’t draw more trafficking, she says. Many times, sex slaves are given a quota of men they need to sleep with each night. Those numbers are thrown out the window during gatherings like the Super Bowl, Brennan says.

“It’s double or triple the quota on no sleep,” she says, explaining the conditions one client described. “They’re expected to bring home $5,000 a night.”

In the months leading up to the Olympics, Russian officials repeatedly promised that Sochi would be ready for the games, despite its unfinished buildings and human rights violations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, little is being done to raise human trafficking awareness in Russia. The government issued a brochure to educate the public last year, but no other efforts were made to create a national awareness campaign, according to the State Department report.

The State Department has listed Russia as a Tier 3 country—the worst classification of human trafficking possible, reserved for governments that haven’t done much at all to deal with such crimes. The Russian government hasn’t complied with the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking for nearly a decade, the report shows.

While the government has investigated both sex and labor trafficking cases, it has not sought criminal charges on two major cases that involved large groups of victims, the State Department report shows. Russia has reported minimal efforts to help the migrant workers vulnerable to labor exploitation, including those preparing for the Olympics.

Without any official statistics on the number of trafficking victims in the country and little information on programs for trafficking victims, those exploited for labor or sex during the sporting event have few places to turn and face deportation or other forms of punishment.

“Victims have been arrested, and that’s the last thing that should happen,” Brennan says. “Those people need help. They need to break free."