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New campaign against sex-trafficking looks to dispel a super-sized misconception

Advocates hope the campaign teaches people that sex trafficking is happening every day in Minnesota, with or without the Super Bowl. 

While sex ads increase during the Super Bowl, the spike is short-lived and was no larger than any other big event.
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Even as advocates prepare to combat sex trafficking leading up to next year’s Super Bowl, researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) have authored a study that confirms what many who work in the field have long known: that claims that the Super Bowl is major driver of sex trafficking in the United States are overblown.

The study, commissioned by the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, looked through nearly ten years of past literature pertaining to the effects of Super Bowls on the commercial sex trade, particularly how the event affected online sex ads in the city where it was held. What it found was that while sex ads did increase during the Super Bowl, the spike was short-lived and was no larger than any other big event.

“There will likely be a short-lived increase in online ads in the Twin Cities [for sex trafficking],” said UROC’s Lauren Martin, who lead the study. “But this is the kind of thing that would happen with any big event happening in the Twin Cities. It could be a convention, a tradeshow or other sporting events.”

Martin, who’s led research initiatives on sex trafficking since 2005, said the narrative that the Super Bowl has been a major driver for sex trafficking has become the source of frustration for researchers and advocates of trafficking victims. “I think this idea that the Super Bowl is the single greatest trafficking incident … that can actually backfire,” she said. “People can say, ‘Oh, then it’s all just an exaggeration’ or ‘it’s all not true.’”

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Beth Holger-Ambrose, executive director of The Link, which provides services and housing for sexually-exploited youth, said the common narrative surrounding sex trafficking and the Super Bowl tends to frame the issue as an isolated, out-of-state problem while overlooking the sex trafficking that’s already occurring in Minnesota. “People think, ‘Oh, these huge events like the Super Bowl bring in all these people from out of town and sex trafficking in,’” she said. “But every day our own Minnesota children are being sex trafficked.”

Instead, Holger-Ambrose said, she hopes such research shows Minnesotans that sex trafficking is happening every day, with or without the Super Bowl, and that people need to support efforts to stop it. “Awareness of this issue has been getting so much better lately, so we just want to make sure it keeps getting better,” she said.

Those efforts are about to get a boost, thanks to — yes — the Super Bowl. For nearly a decade, a group of 40 organizations — include Hennepin and Ramsey counties and the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota — has worked to reduce sex-trafficking across the state. Earlier this month, they announced a $1 million campaign to end sex-trafficking leading up to and during next year’s Super Bowl, using the Feb. 4 event to amplify their messages across the country. The campaigns will involve educational billboards, increased law-enforcement stings, and a bump in emergency shelter beds and outreach services.

The efforts have been backed by the NFL and other major organizations, and will include trainings for bus drivers, hotel workers, and volunteers to better identify when sex trafficking is occurring. “We’re really thrilled about it,” said Terry Williams, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. “This is an issue 365 days a year, and the Super Bowl is just kind of one big media event that’s going to allow us to reach the million people that they’re anticipating will come to the city for it.”

The “Don’t Buy It” campaign will launch this August, with the aim to educate men and boys about sex trafficking and dissuade them from purchasing commercial sex. Then in September, the group will also launch their “I’m Priceless” campaign, which will use messaging created by former victims of sex trafficking to reach out to youth who may be vulnerable to traffickers.

Hennepin County will also be ramping up their efforts over the next year, said Amanda Koonjbeharry, an administrative manager for the county who helps run the county’s “No Wrong Door” program.  In July, Hennepin County will be adding a new analyst to the Sheriff’s Office and a prosecutor to the County Attorney’s Office to work specifically on sex trafficking cases, she said.

“This is a problem that happens 365 days a year,” Koonjbeharry said. “We really want to ensure that what we’re doing is going to last way beyond the Super Bowl.”