Super Bowl Sunday means a lot of things to different people. For NFL fans, it’s the culmination of the blood (hopefully very little), sweat (a whole lot) and tears (again, hopefully not too many) of their favorite teams competing for the penultimate winning title. For my mom and I, it meant dealing with a lot of yelling, hooting, and screaming at the television by my father and his friends. As a fat kid and now fat adult, it was all about the snacks in between running for my life because I was terrified of my father SCREAMING AT THE TOP OF HIS LUNGS AT THE TELEVISION (Holy shit, Dad… they can’t hear you. Calm the F down, man.) Have you seen how many crock pots are lined up at these parties? They’re always full of chili or gooey, cheesy goodness. It’s pretty much the only time of the year that I’ll let myself eat something made from Velveeta, and I’ll love every trashy minute of it. Go on, judge me. I won’t be able to hear you over all of the crunching that’s going down as I pig out on that crazy Super Bowl spread.
Contrary to what well-meaning magazines and organizations may tell you, what Super Bowl Sunday does NOT mean is an increase in violence toward women. Nor does it mean an increase in sex trafficking for the city in which the Super Bowl is held that year.
It’s really easy to get caught up in these things as a feminist. You hear a startling statistic and want to tell people so that you can raise awareness of the issue and hopefully prevent the action from happening with new folks or lend legitimacy to another person’s story since victims are often shamed or ignored. It’s absolutely natural to want to help when you hear that women are in danger, be it a higher risk of domestic abuse or the trafficking of unwilling participants in the sex trade. Now, paid blowjobs might be up a bit when men are in a celebratory mood or need a pick me up after their team has lost, but there’s no data for particular sex acts. What I do know is that there IS data to disprove these “noble lies” spread by well-meaning journalists and activists. Make no mistake, I am not saying that violence does not happen on these days – it merely does not happen MORE than other days. It may not sound like a big deal to propagate these rumors, but it really does matter and has severe consequences.
According to Snopes, this myth began in 1993. In three days, it had been spread across multiple publications without anyone fact-checking it. It started with a conference in Pasadena, California where a coalition of womens’ groups met with the press. A representative from the California Women’s Law Center quoted a study from Old Dominion University three years prior, and a media watchdog group called Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) was there to support the information provided. There was also a mass mailing by Dobisky Associates telling women who were at risk for domestic violence issues “Don’t remain at home with him during the game.” This spurred further reports and the coining of the phrase “Abuse Bowl” by a reporter from the New York Times. The next day, a Denver psychologist appeared on “Good Morning America” with claims to have compiled ten years of records which proved an increase in domestic violence during the Super Bowl. The following day, a reporter with the Boston Globe quoted reports that she did not see herself, but was merely parroting the original quote from the representative from FAIR at the press conference. It was later found that she cited the psychologist who ended up on Good Morning America who then cited another psychologist from Denver who specialized in women who were the victims of domestic violence. His response? “I haven’t been any more successful than you in tracking down any of this” and asked, “You think maybe we have one of these myth things here?”
Another related myth associated with the Super Bowl is that sex trafficking increases in the city where the Super Bowl is being held. First of all, let’s get one thing out of the way: there IS such a thing as consensual sex work no matter what you may have been taught. It’s alive and well, and I know several sex workers who are just fine and happily making a living off of it. Is it something that I recommend folks go into? Probably not. You have to have a very specific skill set, the hours are rough, the customers are often dicks (pun intended), and you have to really have a tough shell to go through it day in and day out. If you are a radical feminist/TERF who thinks that all sex work is prostitution, we probably will not get along. I will never shame a person for choosing this work. Life is hard, the economy is still shitty, and the Bay area is insanely expensive. Not everyone has a safety network. If the other choice is abject poverty and homelessness, you bet your ass I will be out there with the rest of the folks doing what they have to do to stay alive and sheltered. But, as usual, I digress…
There is no solid evidence backing up the claims that people are forcefully brought into the host cities to work as prostitutes, either. Kate Mogulescu, founder and supervising attorney of the Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project at the Legal Aid Society, had this to say before the 2014 Super Bowl:
“A now familiar feature of [Super Bowl] coverage, wherever the Super Bowl is held, is an abundance of stories, from Reuters to CNN, reporting that the event will cause a surge in sex trafficking to capitalize on the influx of fans and tourists.
The problem is that there is no substantiation of these claims. The rhetoric turns out to be just that.
No data actually support the notion that increased sex trafficking accompanies the Super Bowl. The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, a network of nongovernmental organizations, published a report in 2011 examining the record on sex trafficking related to World Cup soccer games, the Olympics and the Super Bowl. It found that, “despite massive media attention, law enforcement measures and efforts by prostitution abolitionist groups, there is no empirical evidence that trafficking for prostitution increases around large sporting events.”
Even with this lack of evidence, the myth has taken hold through sheer force of repetition, playing on desires to rescue trafficking victims and appear tough on crime. Whether the game is in Dallas, Indianapolis or New Orleans, the pattern is the same: Each Super Bowl host state forms a trafficking task force to “respond” to the issue; the task force issues a foreboding statement; the National Football League pledges to work with local law enforcement to address trafficking; and news conference after news conference is held. The actual number of traffickers investigated or prosecuted hovers around zero.” (Thanks again, Snopes.)
If that’s not enough, many police agencies have been questioned about the topic. San Diego, Phoenix, and Arlington (TX) all said that the numbers of prostitution arrests were mostly the same. Jaime Ayala, the Arlington police chief, reported after the 2011 Super Bowl that of the 59 people arrested for prostitution-related offenses, only 13 were non-local sex trade workers. Again, make no mistake – as with domestic violence, I am not saying that this absolutely does not happen with the Super Bowl. Human trafficking is one of the scariest, most reprehensible things that I can think of, and I do not wish it on anyone, especially the incredibly vulnerable populations that are most often targeted like youth and immigrants.
What I am saying is that when we cling on to false facts, it does not help anyone. It hinders progress from being made, ties up funds where they could be effectively spent, and kills reputations when people finally do the digging to figure out the real facts. It made be done for all of the right reasons, and one may think “Well, it’s raising awareness. What harm could it do?” You may be trying to advance the agenda of a truly important, altruistic organization. A noble lie is still not the truth. George Weiner wrote a Huffington Post article highlighting a really important point to all of this. We give an excuse of “Oh, it’s just once a year” to this awful, often fatal, violent behavior. The PR department of the NFL wisely chose this day to try to paint a pretty picture for everyone who is aware of the recent episodes of domestic violence between players and their spouses/partners by having their star players featured in anti-DV ads. Domestic violence and women’s’ safety is an issue 24/7/365 – don’t let myths and half-truths obscure that fact and cast doubts on the legitimacy of such an important issue.