By: Megan Jessup
As Super Bowl 50 approaches, inevitably the issue of human trafficking falls on everyone’s radar. Headlines such as “The biggest sex trafficking day of the year!” begin to fill the news feeds. And I am brought back to 2012, when Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl. That year, I had the honor of working alongside national organizations such as The Center for Missing and Exploited Children, FREE International, KlaasKids, the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking and the FBI. We monitored the escort ads by day; watching the number of ads double, triple and quadruple as game day neared. By night, we paced the prostitution tracks and the back-allies of downtown. That week my eyes were opened to a whole new level to the heartbreaking realities of sexual exploitation in my city.
On January 12, 2012 there were 17 new escort ads posted on backpage.com. On January 26, there were 28 ads. On game day, there were 129 ads. A 700% increase. But it didn’t stop there. Last Saturday, 148 ads were posted. In 2012, Backpage.com was just beginning to build traction in our city. And it hasn’t stopped.
There is no doubt that the demand for the sex trade rises during the Super Bowl… and every other big event that draws a money-paying, party-having, predominantly male crowd. The problem occurs when these events rob the focus from the realities of the other 364 days a year.
Suggesting that human trafficking occurs primarily when children are transported around the country, following large events, overly simplifies the problem. It conjures up images of young girls and women being held captive in chains, traveling from city to city, while being confined to sketchy hotels against their will. And certainly that happens. But it isn’t the “norm”. The sex trade is driven by demand. And demand is an epidemic in every corner in our society, every day of the year, and every hour of the day. Once the girls that we work with are advertised on escort sites such as backpage.com, whether its 11pm on a Saturday or 8am on a Tuesday, the phones light up within minutes and they don’t stop. 5, 10, 15, 20+ patrons a day…
In 2012, Indianapolis recovered four teenage victims during the Super Bowl. And every member of the team will tell you that each one of those girls was worth every effort and resource that was poured into her. But year after year, the reality is that the numbers of victims identified during the Super Bowl are not nearly as staggering as what is portrayed in the media. The problem is demand. And that isn’t a Super Bowl problem.
The IMPACT Program, a collaborative effort of Ascent 121 and Lutheran Child & Family Services, identified more victims of commercial exploitation in the first two months after it launched than the entire Super Bowl investigation did when it was here in Indianapolis. When IMPACT began, it was an evaluation program for high-risk adolescent girls [read more here: http://ascent121.org/?page_id=68]. The only acceptance criterion was that they have a chronic history of running away. From there, we conducted comprehensive evaluations that include an array of screening and assessment tools, while providing a safe space for disclosure. Since that time, however, the overwhelming prevalence of trafficking in our city, combined with the severe lack of available services, has warranted that the goals of the IMPACT Program shift to become Indiana’s first fully specialized state-recognized residential treatment program for teen survivors of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.
Recently, an article came out highlighting the argument about whether or not human trafficking increases during the super bowl while shedding some great insights from the survivor’s perspective and experience. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/03/super-bowl-sex-trafficking_n_6587456.html)
Is the issue of human trafficking during the super bowl sensationalized? Is it not? Does it even matter? The problem is demand. And that isn’t a Super Bowl problem. It’s a you & me problem.
Megan Jessup, Ascent 121 Chief Operating Officer & Co-Founder: The Lord began speaking into my heart about this issue back in 2009, when I first began working with survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking. I had already been working in the area of sexual trauma for several years and while I didn’t know it at the time, the foundation had been laid. The next few years took me across the globe to various trainings, networks, and mission fields; including the red-light districts of Mumbai, India. This Journey with Ascent 121 has been the most rewarding and humbling experience, to date. The Lord is faithful and He has reminded us time and again that we are very small pieces of a much larger picture. We are so glad that you have come alongside us in this fight for justice.