Illustration by Angelica Alzona/GMG

On Sunday, when the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots meet for the Super Bowl, the spotlight in Minneapolis will be on more than the gridiron clash at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Minnesota is the 13th top child trafficking and sex trafficking state in the country, and this poses a problem with the presence of the Super Bowl in the Twin Cities. And while the claim that the Super Bowl is “the biggest sex trafficking event in the United States” is largely unfounded, the presence of the big game in Minneapolis raises unique concerns.

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Minnesota’s ranking as it relates to sex trafficking may come as a surprise to some, who often see the state as progressive, but others see the Land of 10,000 Lakes as a damn near purple state with serious barriers that need to be addressed: the cold nature of “Minnesota nice,” the wide achievement gap between blacks and whites, and the dilemma of boasting one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation while also displaying increasing difficulty retaining professionals of color.

Efforts to address sex trafficking in the state have long been in progress, even before the possibility of the big game’s arrival. In 2016 the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota asked Lauren Martin at the University of Minnesota Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center to assemble a team to conduct research on whether sex trafficking incidents actually do rise during the Super Bowl. The research resulted in “Sex Trafficking and the 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis: A Research Brief (pdf),” along with a longer document, “Mapping the Demand: Sex Buyers in the State of Minnesota (pdf).” According to the study, Super Bowls do generate an increase in sex trafficking, but not to the degree that is often publicized in the media and in other reports.

Terry Williams, a co-chair of Minnesota’s 2018 Super Bowl Anti-Sex Trafficking Committee, believes that research efforts around sex trafficking are critical.

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“We need to make sure that we are working from a place of fact rather than myth,” Williams says. “We’ve heard from advocates around the country that they, in fact, weren’t seeing the huge spikes as compared to other major events.”

Martin, who’s been working on the issue of sex trafficking and trading for over 15 years in North Minneapolis, which is predominantly populated by black and brown people, says that what we see happening in sex trafficking is a reflection of what’s already happening in society, and it’s important to see those connections.

“Part of what we’re finding within the commercial sex market is the intersectional oppressions that we see in society are present in commercial sex but are in an amplified form,” she says. “It’s really obvious in pricing hierarchies and who is more likely to be exploited in sex markets, so we really have to see commercial sex ... not as this separate thing that happens in the ether. Commercial sex markets in the U.S. exist within and are structured by intersectional oppression.”

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Minnesota might have things in common with other states, but its unique culture does provide insight into why it provides a fertile environment for trafficking.

“We are a wealthy state, predominantly white state; we’re a northern state; we have a lot of corporate headquarters here; we have an international airport; and we have a lot of conventions and things that draw people in,” Martin says. “So these are contextual factors that shape how the marketplace unfolds in Minnesota.”

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The Super Bowl is a huge attraction—a celebration of “manly” combat where celebrants spend excessive amounts of cash. That makes it the perfect time to talk about the fact that trafficking earns profits of roughly $150 billion a year for traffickers, with $99 billion coming from commercial sex exploitation. However, the big game also provides an opportunity to discuss how trafficking is linked to male aggression, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, and the ways in which people value some human beings and not others.

In Duluth, Men As Peacemakers has been doing proactive work since the 1990s to change attitudes about trafficking and violence against women and children. The organization, according to co-executive director Ed Heisler, focuses almost exclusively on primary prevention efforts and addressing root causes to stop harm before it starts in the community, which means working to address toxic masculinity and male aggression.

“Male aggression, toxic masculinity, male dominance, white supremacy are all just directly connected and linked to why we have the conditions that we have around sex trafficking,” Heisler says. “We know that middle-aged white men are the primary purchasers, so the industry and the flow of people is directed towards the idea that men are going to be interested in consuming women, children and people of all gender identities for profit and pleasure. When we’re participating in commercial sexual exploitation, it takes the people who are being sold—of course, that is disproportionately women, trans folks, folks who experience racism and other forms of oppression—and it reduces them to their body parts. So they become objectified.”

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White supremacy, racism, transphobia and homophobia influence public perception of who is being trafficked. Many people might envision an innocent young white woman who gets exploited as she gets off the bus in the big city, but fail to think about LGBTQ youths and youths of color; women of color, particularly indigenous women; and folks who are living in poverty.

Given this landscape, it is important to keep the issue of trafficking in the public eye once the Super Bowl leaves Minnesota.

“Sex trafficking is something that happens every day,” Heisler says. “So what [Men As Peacemakers asks] is for everyday men, and community members period, to take a step back and really be critical of the environment and the messages. Don’t buy into the traditions and the messages and the things that we’re learning about ourselves, which allow us to participate in commercial sex exploitation.”

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Sarah Curtiss, co-executive director of Men As Peacemakers, agrees that communities need to create a new narrative about manhood. “The narrative of the men in my life is that they support, love the women in their lives, but that narrative is not usually accessible,” she says. “It’s not the predominant story that we tell about men. Our Don’t Buy It Project invites men to be participatory in the change of the narrative.”

Ultimately, what can someone do to end trafficking and commercial sex exploitation? Experts, scholars and grassroots advocates agree that education is the first step, and encourage people to volunteer in youth-serving organizations. There is also a call to action for men to talk with other men about the importance of seeing women and people with other marginalized and underrepresented identities as human beings, not commodities.

Curtiss encourages folks to do the work by “taking the online training [offered through the Don’t Buy It Campaign] and starting the education, and then having conversations with each other. It is not the responsibility of folks that have been exploited to educate you. Once you know, you can’t not know anymore. You can’t just go with knowledge; you have to put that into action. It means changing the dialogue, changing the framing, changing the actions and challenging each other.”

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If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline. For more information, reach out to the following organizations: Amplified Voices Now, Asian Women United of Minnesota, Brittany’s Place, The Link and the Sexual Violence Center.