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Don’t be fooled by the idea that identifying sex trafficking victims is easy

Nowadays, major sports events and crackdowns on human trafficking tend to go hand in hand.

As last weekend’s Super Bowl approached, wild speculation about an imminent sex trafficking threat of epic proportions followed, leading various firms and agencies to announce measures to save women from unthinkable fates.

This isn’t new.

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Almost every year, regardless of the sport, the often wildly exaggerated idea that these events draw in thousands of trafficked people is routinely churned out. And the potential threat this increase in trafficking poses to unassuming “average folk” usually incites enough fear for people to take action.

Ahead of the Super Bowl, for example, Fox 5 Atlanta reported that anti-prostitution task forces like ‘Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution (also known, rather questionably, as “Soap”) and ‘It’s a Penalty’ had stepped up their efforts in a bid to “keep Atlanta safe and … protect those women who are being brought in”.

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The It’s a Penalty campaign, which maintains that “prevention is even better than cure” in terms of sex trafficking, even went as far as providing training for everyone from hospitality employees to Uber drivers ahead of the sporting event, bolstering the almost inevitable anti-trafficking frenzy in the process.

“We know any time an event comes to town – and it doesn’t have to be the Super Bowl, it can be the Final Four, it can be a Nascar race – any time an event comes to town the numbers for the demand for women quadruples”, added Soap founder and trafficking survivor Theresa Flores.

But is it ever really as significant as these people suggest?

Figures around human trafficking, as several reports have shown, are often murky at best. Yet without fail, the furore that sex work (in this case, I’m referring to the industry itself, as opposed to the circumstances that lead people to it) tends to inspire in people flares up each time new data emerges.

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As reported in The Washington Post in 2014, just under six months after it had given the Global Slavery Index (a project from anti-modern slavery organisation, the Walk Free Foundation) an indisputably positive profile, Glenn Kessler, the publication’s Fact Checker columnist, called out inaccuracies in its data.

Its current statistics suggest that as many as 40.3 million people were “in modern slavery in 2016”, up more than 5 million compared to five years ago. And in 2014, the 35.8 figure rose by 6 million people in just a year.

Yet in a 2014 paper on the “Proper methodology and methods of collecting and analyzing slavery data”, Andrew Guth, a human trafficking professor at American University, suggests that the construction of figures for each country is very often “unclear from the information given” and estimates tend to be “significantly higher than” other largely accepted figures.

The GSI’s nation-by-nation breakdown of human trafficking statistics are usually taken at face value, often because its figures are so alluringly extreme. Human trafficking expert Mike Dodridge has also noted that researchers are often under pressure from policymakers into producing overestimated figures.

This month, South Florida state senator Lauren Book relaunched her campaign to pass legislation that would require hotel and motel employees to receive mandatory training in order to report, prevent and identify human trafficking. The bill also proposes $1,000 fines to employees who fail to inform authorities if they suspect something.

While that may sound like a sensible solution, the problem with this idea is that it potentially results in suspicion being directed at anyone who fits in with their idea of what a trafficking victim looks like.

Efforts to use AI to find and identify victims of trafficking (based on their online adverts and surroundings in pictures) are similarly problematic: it remains unclear whether the technology can actually differentiate between those who have been forced into the industry and those who haven’t.

In summary, it appears that crusades of this nature are not so much concerned with accuracy, as appearing to be leading the charge against a notoriously clandestine practice.

As medieval historian Dr Eleanor Janega pointed out on Twitter in response to the news that Uber had proudly launched a similar training programme: “The thing to remember is that this isn’t responding to an actual spike in human trafficking, but it IS being used to crack down on women who are incorrectly performing societally acceptable femininity. If a woman is not ‘proper’ she is suspect.”

When you take a look at some checklists for indications of sex trafficking, the room for error becomes even more pronounced.

Police Scotland list things like “sexual debris such as condoms” and “multiple female foreign nationals living at the same address” as reasons to believe that someone may be a victim of sex trafficking, while hotel chains like Marriott have been reported as looking out for women travelling alone and sexually provocative clothing as signs of forced sexual exploitation. None of which are actually specific to trafficked persons, but do put consenting adult sex workers at risk of being targeted.

Human trafficking is, of course, a real threat to vast numbers of people. The suggestion here isn’t that it shouldn’t be curbed, nor that it isn’t worth paying attention to, but that (as so many have argued before) we should push for a higher standard of reporting on the matter. Preferably a standard that veers away from conjuring up opportunities to indiscriminately arrest and/or displace sex workers who haven’t been trafficked.

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