The Myth about Increased Sex Trafficking during Sporting Events Should Just Die

Year Published: 2024
It’s that time of the year again! Football fans are getting ready for the Super Bowl on 11 February in Las Vegas, Nevada, while the media and some anti-trafficking non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are stoking panic about an increase in sex trafficking in the host city. As one NGO ominously told local news, “predators are out there.” Another is concerned that Vegas’ notoriety as a “loophole to ethical choices” and the fact that sex work is legal in several Nevada counties would lead to lots of trafficking.

Concerns about large sporting events causing an increase in trafficking for sexual exploitation have been around since the first such event following the adoption of the UN Trafficking Protocol – the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. Sex work prohibitionists and some anti-trafficking NGOs sounded the alarm that thousands of women would be forcibly brought to the city to satisfy the unbridled sexuality of male fans. Similar claims were then repeated before many other major sporting events since then – summer and winter Olympics, Soccer World Cups, European Soccer Championships, and the annual Super Bowl in the US.

The hysteria was unfounded.

Research by NGOs, including GAATW Canada, academics, international organizations, and the media hasn’t found any significant increase in victims of trafficking or even demand for sex work, connected to large sporting events.

What has been documented, instead, is increased harassment and arrests of sex workers and their clients by police, and raids and closures of sex work establishments. The boring reality across locations is that most fans attend the events with their families and single male fans spend their time watching the games and drinking with their buddies – not trawling the streets for sex workers.

At the same time, anti-trafficking NGOs are largely silent about potential trafficking and exploitation occurring in, especially, the construction sector in cities hosting large sporting events. Human rights organizations, trade unions and journalists have documented severe exploitation of construction workers ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, the 2014 Soccer World Cup in Brazil, the 2022 Soccer World Cup in Qatar, and pretty much every other mega sporting event in the past decade.

So why are most anti-trafficking NGOs not raising the alarm about these abuses?

Because sex panics attract attention and funding while the plight of foreign workers on construction sites barely raises eyebrows. If anti-trafficking NGOs want to be better than the tabloids, they need to stop sending the police after sex workers and their clients and look at the broader picture.

It’s time for the “sex trafficking during sporting events” myth to just die! Those concerned with trafficking and exploitation during large sporting events must look beyond the salacious stories of potential “sex slaves” and towards the failures of migration and labour policies, and the corruption in national and global sports bodies, that enable and sustain exploitation.

Here is a PDF of several useful resources that discuss the potential (and mostly missing) link between trafficking for sexual exploitation and large sporting events, by date.