(WOMENSENEWS) — It was only a couple of weeks ago that the playoffs decided which two football teams — the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos — would face each other on Feb. 7.
But it was more than two years ago — when Santa Clara, Calif., won the bid to host Super Bowl 50 in May 2013 — that over 50 agencies across the Bay Area came together to form No Traffick Ahead. Since then they have been working to deal with a potential heightened risk of human trafficking during the major sports event.
Those risks are a subject of increasing debate, since there is no definitive data proving that Super Bowls worsen human trafficking. But with the jury still out, the No Traffick Ahead coalition has been moving forward.
Helping law enforcers and key members of the public understand who exactly the victims of human trafficking are is one focus of the group. Many prostitutes, for instance, are not considered sex trafficking victims. Trafficking for prostitution involves coercion by a third party who profits from the exchange.
No Traffick Ahead is also working on ways to help victims once law enforcers identify them. For example, on Feb. 1, the FBI opened a temporary center for its human trafficking investigations in the Bay Area. Specialists from local nonprofits will be on hand to immediately assist victims with services, a strategy the FBI in San Francisco will continue after the Super Bowl ends.
Another example: training flight attendants to spot trafficking.
"Traffickers often use air travel to transport their victims because you don’t need an ID to travel with someone under the age of 18," said Betty Ann Boeving, executive director and founder of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, a member of No Traffick Ahead.
"It’s a very fast way to get someone out of their support network to another part of the country to start manipulating them and having them work for you."
In a recent article, Heather Poole, a flight attendant and author, shared the red flags of trafficking on a flight. "Can the passenger move independently, or are they accompanied by someone seemingly controlling their every movement?" Poole wrote in Mashable.
Airline Ambassadors, a nonprofit network of airline employees, has trained airport personnel at each of the Bay Area’s airports about the signs of human trafficking, which included talks from survivors.
These trainings would be beneficial even if Santa Clara were not hosting the Super Bowl this year, said Doug Yakel, a public information officer for San Francisco International Airport.
"We don’t want to create the impression that trafficking isn’t happening until the Super Bowl comes into town," Yakel said in a phone interview. "The reality is that human trafficking is a 365-day type of challenge."
The Bay Area includes nine counties — stretching across nearly 7,000 miles — and is connected by harbors, roadways and three international airports. These features make it a hotbed for every form of human trafficking, including sexual exploitation, forced labor, domestic servitude and child labor, the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition’s Boeving said in a recent phone interview.
Other groups involved in this effort with No Traffick Ahead include the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking and H.E.A.T Watch. In addition to working externally, they are also working to sharpen communication among themselves.
By now, the coalition has trained thousands of people in the Bay Area to spot human trafficking. In addition to airline employees, these include firefighters and medical responders; anyone whose occupation makes it more likely that they will interact with victims.
The trainings have focused heavily on people working in hotels where occupancy has heightened and labor exploitation may be especially hidden, said Boeving.
Some advocates criticize overdoing the connection between Super Bowls and sex trafficking, saying it has spurred law enforcers to criminalize those engaged in prostitution.
Before the 2014 Super Bowl, law enforcement in metro New York made nearly 300 prostitution-related arrests.
FBI special agent Bertram Fairries, who is helping coordinate the FBI’s anti-trafficking efforts in the Bay Area, said the agency’s ongoing dialogue with local nonprofits helped it develop a "victim-centric philosophy" ahead of the Super Bowl.
"Our goal is to go into the situation with not the specific intent of arresting the female or the person that the act is centered toward, but more so to focus on those that are responsible for putting them in that situation, particularly the traffickers and/or johns," he said in a phone interview.
However, Fairries cautioned that law enforcement cannot guarantee a person selling sex will not be arrested. Police are required to arrest a prostitute or trafficking victim if they discover that same person coerced others into trafficking or engaged in other illegal activity.
"Law enforcement officers and agents use discretion," Fairries said. "That’s why you have to look at each case — the severity and the circumstance."
In 2015, anti-trafficking nonprofits in the Bay Area reported working with a total of 291 survivors of human trafficking. The majority of these cases involved the sex trade.
Many believe that the partying culture of the Super Bowl and other large conventions or sporting events spurs demand for prostitution in host cities, an opportunity seized by traffickers.
Yet, measuring how the Super Bowl spikes sex trafficking is difficult. In 2011, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, an international advocacy with head offices in Bangkok, analyzed sex trafficking during the World Cup, Olympics and the Super Bowl and concluded that there is "no empirical evidence that trafficking for prostitution increases around large sporting events."
While the data is limited, a recent study may complicate this finding. Researchers at Arizona State University examined the sex market in the 2014 and 2015 Super Bowl host cities and found an uptick in sex-selling ads in papers and online with language that raised flags as indicators of possible trafficking.
Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, who led the study and directs the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research at Arizona State University, said the research relied on indicators used by law enforcement to locate trafficking victims. This includes phrases suggesting that the person offering the services could be under someone else’s control, such as being "available all the time."