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'Sluts' At The Super Bowl: How We're Part Of The Problem

Judy Lee |
February 2, 2014 | 6:20 p.m. PST


Over the past week or two, I’ve seen many-a-Facebook friend share articles about Superbowl sex trafficking and sex workers (of course, not the same thing) gathering in New Jersey as well as surrounding areas for today’s kick-off. The expression of outrage and sympathy is warranted and justified. Indeed, human trafficking of all persuasions is a dark and terrible crime against humanity.

But with recent reports regarding the “false” nature of these "myths" and "rumors," the initial wave of concern is being smoothed over and along with it, an imperative issue. Furthermore, the lack of sensitivity regarding our very vocabulary is disregarded in connection to how we, as a nation, are contributing to these horrible crimes.

Sex work and sex trafficking are not the same thing. (Luis Rasilvi, Creative Commons)
Sex work and sex trafficking are not the same thing. (Luis Rasilvi, Creative Commons)
Recent articles regarding sex trafficking at the Superbowl sparked social media concern about the welfare of victims being forced to cater to clients against their wills. The resulting buzz gave rise to many other articles, either claiming that the sex trafficking story was unfounded and blown out of proportion by media sensationalism, or condemning the sex industry as a whole.

Regardless of either explanation, I think that there is a lot to be examined in implications made by both.

First, these articles seem to muddle the line between sex trafficking and sex work. There is a fundamental difference between those who are sex trafficked and those who are sex workers. This difference can be summed up in one word: consent. Those who are victims of sex trafficking are participating in acts without personal consent whereas those who are sex workers are generally participating in these acts by means of personal choice for various reasons (financial security, sexual fulfillment, etc.).

Sex trafficking has preventative provisions in all states but Colorado and sex work is illegal in all states but Nevada. Because the two are often confused, prostitutes who willingly take on the trade are criminalized and arrested in the name of saving those who are doing the same thing against their wills. Sometimes, prostitutes who have been trafficked are criminalized as well.

It doesn’t matter whether or not the Superbowl sex trafficking scandal was a warning shot for sex workers or not—it doesn’t change the fact that sex trafficking is, regardless of media sensationalism, a cruel act that doesn’t end with just the Superbowl. Just because it may or may not be happening at this event does not excuse the fact that it happens pretty much everywhere else. Not happening at the stadium? Great. But that does not give us an excuse to turn away from this issue, let alone deem it irrelevant.

Another widespread issue in this country lies in the derogatory use of negative words associated with sex workers in everyday interactions. For example, it isn’t uncommon to hear words like "slut," "whore" and "ho: thrown around in casual conversations and in the media. According to Urban Dictionary, a slut/whore is “a woman with the morals of a man” and “a woman that sleeps with everyone but you.”

Essentially, words that describe a woman who doesn’t express her sexuality the way we want her to.

This kind of toxic conduct counteracts and nulls any "sympathy" expressed for actual victims of sex trafficking and assault because those words blame and shame not just those victims, but antagonize an entire gender's expression of sexuality.

Sharing an article about sex trafficking at the Superbowl and expressing outrage and concern is meaningless if in the same hour, we decide to use words that hurt those same victims. There is no use having “sympathy” for someone who’s been shot if you’re going to fire bullets into the air the next minute. Sex trafficking is more than just interpersonal, it’s huge—it’s global. However, as intimidating as that scale is, change needs to start with the individual before it becomes a movement.

There is nothing wrong with expressing genuine concern for victims of sex trafficking and sexual assault. In fact, that kind of concern and awareness isn’t expressed enough. The key is to be critical of the little things we do that may contribute to what we’d all like to see eradicated, and to provide a healthy and accepting environment for those seeking help or already in recovery.

At this point, there are several things that we can do to aid these victims. We can educate ourselves about the prevalence of this crime. We can assess whether our personal behavior is harmful. We can have thought-provoking conversations with our friends and family who may exhibit harmful behavior. We can comfort and encourage victims in our lives to seek help. We can support organizations that provide resources to victims. And as always, we can begin asking questions about how and why the media presents things the way it does—all while loading up on chips and dip.


Reach Contributor Judy Lee here.



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