Amid the excitement over Kansas City hosting the 2023 NFL Draft and the sizable economic bump that could accompany the three days of festivities, a few people are concerned about an uptick in an unwanted money-making enterprise — the selling of sexual services.
“Anytime you get a large sporting event, the World Series, the Super Bowl, whatever, there is a ‘boys will be boys’ mentality,” said Amanda Coble, the program manager of Veronica’s Voice, a Kansas City nonprofit that provides support to women who have undergone commercial sexual exploitation.
Coble and others anticipate that the expected large numbers of visitors here could increase demand for prostitution, which is defined in Missouri statutes as giving someone “something of value” in exchange for sexual conduct.
While not always the case, prostitution can be a result of human trafficking, which is the use of force, fraud or coercion on an adult to control another person to engage in commercial sex acts or solicit labor or services against their will. Any commercial sex with minors is defined as trafficking.
Do major sporting events actually increase sex trafficking?
Large sporting events, including the NFL Draft, are often portrayed as opportunities for sharp rises in sex trafficking, but reality is more complex.
“The misconception a lot of time is that it’s only with these big sporting events,” said Coble.
In reality, she says, trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation affect women daily, and societal protections are insufficient.
“There’s not necessarily more girls around, there’s more guys,” she said. “The number of men in the area at that particular time may increase, but it’s not like once those events are over these pimps and traffickers say, ‘OK, now you can go home, you’re off duty,’” she said.
Kris Wade, the founder and executive director of the Justice Project, a local nonprofit that supports and advocates for women in poverty, said she is in touch with networks that have reported observing a slight increase in trafficking during large sports events — and that out-of-town traffickers may bring people into a city.
“What happens is the demand goes up, and we have more potential buyers,” said Wade, who works with many clients who engage in prostitution through force or the need for survival.
“Anytime people are partying and drinking and having fun, lots of times people get the idea that they might want to buy a person,” she said.
“We do see a number of folks prostituting who have come from other places who have been either brought in or come in on their own, specifically for these events, because they know that there’s going to be a whole bunch of people in town.”
How sex trafficking happens
Precise data on sex trafficking is difficult to get as much of it goes unreported, due to a loyalty victims may feel to their traffickers (a symptom of battered woman syndrome), fear of consequences from the trafficker or fear of criminalization by police.
According to 2021 reports from the National Human Trafficking Hotline database, 1,103 hotline tips were received from Missouri, with 355 of the tips coming directly from victims or survivors of trafficking. In 2020, the database found that Missouri had the nation’s eighth highest rate of human trafficking incidents.
In Kansas, 274 hotline tips were received, with 68 tips coming directly from victims.
Both labor and sex trafficking occur in Missouri and Kansas, but the available data shows a higher demand for commercial sexual exploitation.
The 2021 trafficking hotline study found that 240 Missouri cases were identified as human trafficking, with 327 victims involved in these crimes. Of those cases, 210 involved sex trafficking and 15 were trafficking for labor. The others involved both sex and labor trafficking.
The majority of sex trafficking victims are young women whose traffickers are someone they know, like a boyfriend or other close individual, according to Human Trafficking Courts.
“How easy it is for someone to be trafficked is directly related to their vulnerabilities,” Wade said.
“Generally, a lot of it comes down to economic hardship. That’s pretty much what drives the train, people trying to survive the best they can.”
People who are in poverty, unhoused or struggling with mental illness or drug addiction are vulnerable to trafficking, advocates said. So are LGBTQ+ individuals who have been isolated from family; youths who have run away; and youths in the foster care system.
How can trafficking be spotted?
Regardless of what events are taking place in the community, advocates encourage citizens to be on the lookout for signs of trafficking.
One telltale dynamic could be a fearful, timid, submissive young woman accompanied by a man significantly older than her.
Girls and women in these situations may avoid eye contact, ask permission before speaking or appear coached in what they speak, as well as lack personal possessions or documentation.
“They might not know what town they’re in, they might not know where they are. Especially if they’re involved with a pimp and they travel around on a little circuit,” Wade said.
Another sign to look for is suspicious activity around a house, such as people coming and going at all hours or vans that pick up and drop off groups of people.
Traffickers oftentimes identify their victims with tattoos or brandings as a way to mark them as property. Popular tattoos include dollar signs, the trafficker’s name or initials, or gang symbols.
Most of the time, though, the general public isn’t exposed to indications of trafficking, Wade said. Workers in hospitals, courtrooms or government human resources departments are more likely to directly observe the signs.
To report a suspected human trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline hotline at 1-888-373-7888, text 233733 or submit a tip online.
This story was originally published by The Kansas City Beacon, an online news outlet focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.
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