Marble Falls The World Cup soccer game between England and the USA was playing soundlessly in the background while we were shuffling around doing our chores and this and that. For a minute, we all found ourselves sitting or standing around the TV watching the game. It quickly became apparent that, for the most part, none of us really had much of a clue. Seventy-five minutes of the match was already finished, and the score was nil to nil, or in American English, zero to zero. There was a confusing conversation in which the older watchers tried to understand which teams had really been eliminated, and the younger family members tried to sort it all out for us, until they also gave up. Later study established that teams like Argentina still have a chance at a comeback, but that was next day, after the fact information, long after we had all moseyed off in exasperation at really understanding what we were watching.
The World Cup was on my mind, having talked earlier in the day to an academic and researcher who had been in Rio de Janeiro for that Cup and subsequently had also visited sporting events and major matches in South Africa, England, and Russia among other countries. I probably could have asked Williams College Professor Gregory Mitchell some questions about the nuances of the so-called “beautiful game”, but his research had not been about sports at all, but instead about whether or not such events were magnets for sex trafficking. He had written a book about all of this called, Panics without Borders How Global Sporting Events Drive Myths about Sex Trafficking, that was the timely subject of our conversation on Wade’s World.
The whole concept of sex trafficking is horrific. Anywhere and everywhere, it happens is tragic and despicable for the victims and repulsive to consider. That said, the question Mitchell was investigating was important. Are major tourism and sports events magnets for massive sex trafficking. Living in New Orleans, we are usually inundated with media reports before Mardi Gras, NCAA tournaments, and when we host Super Bowls to be on the lookout for sex trafficking. Mitchell had been researching sex tourism in general in Brazil and elsewhere, and found himself in Rio as the World Cup arrived there in 2016. He assembled a team of other researchers into something that in English would be called the Prostitution Policy Watch or words to that effect. Prostitution is legal in Brazil, but the researchers were in place to observe whether the trafficking developed as advertised by various anti-prostitution groups, advocates, and media reports. They knew where to look and looked everywhere, but they couldn’t find it in Rio, nor was Mitchell able to find it in other venues.
What he did find was something researchers have termed the “rescue industry.” Nonprofits and networks beat the drums for significant resources to find something that politically would be similar to voter fraud. The US government via US AID forces other countries to sign an agreement to root out sex trafficking in order to received funds. Police departments everywhere tout the menace in order to justify paying for overtime and in many countries harassing legal bordellos, strip clubs, and about anything they can. The combination leads to the “panic without borders” that Mitchell describes.
The volatile, controversial, and kind of weird alliance between prostitution abolitionists and some feminists like the late Andrea Dworkin and the pathbreaking lawyer Catherine MacKinnon and highly conservative and evangelical groups that have come together to publicize and politicize sex trafficking plays the major role in this campaign, and sex trafficking is a worthy target for their work. It just turns out that sporting events and other tourist spectaculars are major because of what’s on the field and on offer, not as sex attractions, and research just isn’t finding trafficking. There’s a lesson here if anyone wants to learn it.