SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — For the first time in its efforts to crack down on sex trafficking during the Super Bowl, the FBI will try to reach out to women and girls selling sex in the run-up to the game to give them a way out and get them to turn against their traffickers.
The softer, victim-centric approach will rely on local nonprofit groups to make initial contact with the women and girls before the agency steps in to provide them access to its victims’ advocates and other services, FBI officials told The Associated Press.
“The goal is to reach anyone who is being trafficked,” FBI Supervisory Special Agent Doug Hunt, who manages the San Francisco office’s anti-trafficking efforts, which will also include sting operations the agency has used before previous Super Bowls.
This year’s event in the San Francisco Bay Area, like past bowls and other large sporting events, is expected to be a magnet for trafficking in part because many thousands of men will pour into the region, according to experts.
Victims’ advocates and local law enforcement officials say the FBI’s efforts are laudable, and may help ensure the women and girls don’t return to their pimps. But they warn that victims are often too fearful to help prosecute their traffickers.
And they say efforts such as those by the FBI need to be handled with great care and patience, and need to be sustained.
“A lot of times they don’t see themselves as victims,” said Jennifer Madden, a local prosecutor who has worked with trafficked girls. “They don’t fully grasp how they’ve come into this, how they are being exploited, and they may not be amenable to services.”
Their attachment to their pimps should not be underestimated, Madden and other experts say.
“You can’t be tone deaf to that trauma and say, ‘Why aren’t you talking, why won’t you tell me your life story?’ within five minutes of meeting,” said Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris, a nonprofit that runs a national hotline for trafficking victims.
FBI victims’ specialists say they are aware of those challenges and sometimes spend years making sure individual victims follow through with services.
“If there’s anything we can do to help out all of our trafficking victims, then we want to ensure we’re employing those resources for them,” said Tiffany Short, the bureau’s child victim program coordinator.
The agency plans on using dogs as part of its outreach efforts to help victims feel more secure and comfortable.
The connection between sex trafficking and the Super Bowl is the subject of much discussion, but few definitive statistics.
Anti-trafficking advocates say there is no evidence that additional women or girls are forced into prostitution to serve the Super Bowl market. But those already trafficked may be moved to such events as their traffickers see opportunities to make money.
“This is hidden,” said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research at Arizona State University. “The victims, buyers and sellers are all doing this behind a curtain, so it’s difficult to capture what’s happening.”
Roe-Sepowitz was among researchers who studied sex trafficking leading up to the 2015 Super Bowl in the Phoenix-area.
They found an uptick in online sex ads, with those flagged as offering trafficking victims more likely to have non-local phone numbers than other prostitution ads. Pimps also mention the Super Bowl in their online ads as a marketing tool.
What helps cement the link between the Super Bowl and trafficking in many people’s minds are the highly publicized efforts to combat it each year, said Katherine Jolluck, a Stanford University history professor who has studied trafficking.
The FBI and local law enforcement agencies announced the arrests in February of 360 sex buyers and 68 traffickers and the recovery of 30 juvenile victims in a six-month operation in anticipation of the 2015 Super Bowl.
The year before that, the FBI said authorities recovered 16 children between the ages of 13 and 17 and arrested more than 45 pimps and their associates in Super Bowl-related operations.
Those types of operations will continue this year, said Hunt of the FBI.
Additionally, a coalition of law enforcement agencies and victims’ groups under the umbrella “No Traffic Ahead” has been meeting about the Super Bowl since 2014 and, among other efforts, training hospitality workers about how to spot trafficking victims.
While some women willingly engaged in prostitution, the Arizona State study found more than 60 percent of the 1,300 prostitution ads researchers flagged showed significant signs the sex provider was a trafficking victim.
Hunt acknowledged that finding and gaining the cooperation of exploited women and girls would be difficult, and he declined to describe exactly how the Bay Area operation would work. But he said there was value in the agency’s outreach efforts.
“We want to do everything we can to put that victim at ease and put them in a situation where they feel more safe,” he said.