What It Was Like To Be A Sex Worker During The Super Bowl

Illustration: Jim Cooke (GMG) ATLANTA — Kara* drove 248 miles from Nashville to Atlanta for Super Bowl weekend. She wasn’t there to watch the game. A 25-year-old sex worker based in Oakland, Kara anticipated she’d get at least five to 10 clients. She stayed with a family member and placed ads online, and waited for the texts and calls to come in. Atlanta was supposed to be rife with johns swarming the city for football and sex. So Kara waited. And waited. And waited. But her phone remained silent. Finally, someone contacted her. It was the only client she saw the entire time. The weekend, like the game itself, had shockingly little action. Kara’s   experience was a far cry from all the hype. Atlanta was supposed to be a bastion of sex during Super Bowl week, with both prostitution (voluntary sex work by legal adults) and sex trafficking (forced sex work by children and adults) on the rise. Yet sex workers say that neither seemed to be occurring at higher levels than usual in Atlanta. The lack of sex trafficking wasn’t surprising: The claim that sex trafficking increases during the Super Bowl is a many-times-busted myth. But I wondered why sex workers weren’t raking in the cash. According to them, the sex trafficking stings, particularly an FBI anti-trafficking operation in beginning on Jan. 23, were partly to blame. Sex workers know that wherever a trafficking sting pops up, they will be some of the first to be arrested. (In Houston before the Super Bowl two years ago, police arrested more than 100 people in a similar sting.) And some local sex workers found about the sting early, when they were tipped off by firefighter clients who work for Atlanta’s Fulton County, according to Lisa*, a 33-year-old Atlanta-based sex worker.Atlanta’s sex workers and johns weren’t being overcautious, it turned out. On Tuesday, the FBI announced it had arrested 169 people during its Super Bowl sting, including nine trafficked minors, nine trafficked adults, 26 traffickers, and 34 men seeking underage sex who had responded to a fake ad posted by the FBI. Eighteen people saved from sex trafficking isn’t insignificant, but it’s a much smaller number than some anti-trafficking advocates would have you believe. (Some news outlets uncritically reported a congressman’s claim that 10,000 girls and women were trafficked at the 2010 Miami Super Bowl. That congressmen cited an organization that has since said it never actually offered up that figure.) According to Norma Jean Almodovar, a former LAPD officer and retired sex worker who founded the Los Angeles branch of the sex-worker rights organization COYOTE, even the arrest figures not may not accurately reflect reality—it is not uncommon for law enforcement to claim voluntary sex workers have been trafficked.“If the woman says they’re being trafficked, the likelihood of being charged with a crime is less and they can avoid being charging with prostitution,” Almodovar said.In its news release, the FBI didn’t specify who the other 93 arrestees were. I guessed they were consensual sex workers. So I decided to ask Eric Pauley, the supervisory special agent for the FBI’s Violent Crimes Against Children and Human Trafficking Squad in Atlanta and supervisor of the Metro Atlanta Child Exploitation Task Force. Pauley confirmed my suspicion: The remaining 93, he said, were “a combination of prostitution arrests, pandering (solicitation) arrests, and additional charges with possession of drugs and weapons.” “A large majority” were “prostitution-type arrests.”Poring through the arrest records and jail rosters in metro Atlanta counties, I found 54 men and women arrested for prostitution in the metro Atlanta area from Jan. 23 to Feb. 3, the dates of the raid. The sex trafficking sting netted three times as many consensual sex workers as it had people who who the FBI says were forced into the business. More than half of the sex workers arrested were African-American.“We did arrest sex workers who weren’t being trafficked,” Pauley told me. “Prostitution is an illegal activity. Sex trafficking is embedded within prostitution. In order for us to identify sex trafficking victims, you must address prostitution.”Sex workers and advocates disagree with Pauley’s view. “When you look at other human relationships—domestic violence and marriage are related, so are we to arrest people for getting married?” Almodovar says. “Consensual sex and rape are related. Let’s abolish all consensual sex because it could to lead to rape.”Seductive Storm, an Atlanta sex worker in her late 40s, feels the same way. “People have got to stop confusing trafficking and sex work,” she said. “There’s a big difference in human trafficking and consensual sex work and they keep trying to make it seem like the same thing. They say, ‘you’re all trafficked.’ You can’t tell me how to feel, tell me that I feel that I’m being used.” Conflating the two is dangerous for sex workers. Criminals target prostitutes knowing that many sex workers won’t report crimes to the police because they fear being arrested. “When the lines are blurred [between sex trafficking and sex work] it makes me unsafe, and I can’t go the police when I’m assaulted,” Carmen, a 28-year-old Atlanta sex worker, told me.The stings themselves may do the opposite of what they’re intended. “The irony of it is that they actually may increase the sex trafficking side of it because [trafficked] women and underage girls may be the only company that people have access to” if voluntary sex workers aren’t available, said Lisa.“Those of us who take every precaution for the safety and security of the clients are the ones that aren’t here.” To avoid being arrested, sex workers went into overdrive with their client screening processes around the Super Bowl. Carmen said she was extra careful, requiring prospective customers to send their IDs for verification, as well as provide references from other sex workers that she was friends with. She screens everyone, even if they’re famous. “I’ve had celebrities who send me their Social Security number,” she told me. She turned down clients who refused to send credentials, which meant that she, like many others, sacrificed business.Because many clients don’t want to submit to the screening process, Seductive Storm used Twitter to warn potential clients before they contacted her. A day before ...Read more

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