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The Sex Trade and the Crisis of Masculinity

Super Bowl Sex

by DAVID ROSEN

The Super Bowl is to be played on Sunday, February 2nd, “Groundhog Day,” at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford NJ.  The accompanying media spectacle is blunting the firestorm over NJ Gov. Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal.  Nevertheless, while the “big game” temporarily dominates the metro-New York’s media circus, stories keep appearing about Christie’s pit-bull politics, often with revelations about big windfall profits going to his closest associates.  Some estimate the Super Bowl will bring in $500 million in spending to the area.  One can only wonder how much of it will be spent on the sex trade?

Gov. Christie joined other politicians and public personalities, including Cindy McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain, to spotlight the issue of sex trafficking.  He’s denounced human trafficking as “abject slavery.”  At what news reports described as “a security compound in Bergen County,” Christie linked sex slavery to the underground immigration racket:  “You’ve got folks who believe they’re coming to this country for one reason — to purse freedom and liberty and economic opportunity — and yet they are literally enslaved.”  In none of his remarks, or that of the other spokespeople, was a link made between consensual adult sexual commerce and sports spectacles.  According to Forbes, 10,000 prostitutes descended on Miami for the 2010 Super Bowl and Dallas feared 100,000 prostitutes would show up for the 2011 Super Bowl but saw the arrest of 133 minors for prostitution.

The postmodern concept of “sex trafficking” has replaced the old-fashion notion of “prostitution.”  The horrors of sex slavery, especially involving underage girls, are invoked to deny the long history of “consensual” sexual commerce, women’s “oldest profession.”  Sex trafficking, like all forms of slavery, is truly a horrible situation; perpetrators should be dealt with accordingly.  But does the reframing of prostitution as sex trafficking or slavery help to address the commercial sex industry in the U.S.?  Perhaps more revealing, what does the commercial sex accompanying the Super Bowl and other social spectacles tell us about the crisis of masculinity?

* * *

Talk of the sex trade in the U.S. immediately raises the “T” word, trafficking.  Human trafficking is a worldwide phenomenon, postmodern slavery.  Reports about victims of trafficking, whether taking place in the U.S. or internationally, regularly appear in the media.  These depictions emphasize the human suffering of near-powerless “slaves” forced to work in agriculture, manufacturing, construction, retail and domestic service.  The most exploited are those involved in commercial sex, especially young women, underage girls and some boys.  It is a horrendous practice and fuels justified outrage among people – and politicians — the world over.  Unfortunately, the true number of people trafficked in the sex trade, especially in the U.S., is difficult to determine.

While the media regularly highlights incidents of sex trafficking, it’s difficult to establish the true scale of this illegal activity.  A 2012 Department of Justice (DOJ) report, “A National Overview of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Demand Reduction Efforts,” reminds Americans:  “The illicit markets of prostitution and sex trafficking are, like any other markets, driven by demand.”

The rise of the culture wars during the Bush-II administration saw a blurring in the distinction between sex work and sex trafficking.  Moralists of both the right and left, like Christian activities Linda Smith, founder of Shared Hope, and anti-porn feminist academic, Gail Dines, effectively turned all forms of commercial sex into trafficking.  Adult, consensual commercial sex was redefind into a form of slavery.  Their well intentioned if misconceived efforts to suppress trafficking of unwilling or underage people served only to reinforce the reactionary policies of Bush-era sexual repression.  Legal scholars Janie Jeung, in “Rescuing Trafficking from Ideological Capture,” and Ronald Weitzer, in “Sex Trafficking and the Sex Industry,” detail the consequences of this misguided moralist movement.

According to the most recent FBI data, 44,090 people were arrested in the U.S. in 2011 for “prostitution and commercialized vice.”  This is a 50 percent drop in arrests from the 2004 total of 87,872.  The FBI offers no explanation as to why this remarkable decline has taken place.  Putting aside all the media bluster about the occasional hooker and john busts, perhaps local law enforcement has more pressing problems to deal with.

* * *

Dennis Hof, owner of Nevada’s Moonlight Bunny Ranch, estimates that the U.S. commercial sex industry generates $18 billion annually, nearly all of it unregulated and untaxed.  Not surprising, major gatherings of macho men — like at the Super Bowl, the World Cup and the Olympics as well as national political-party conventions and corporate trade shows — are magnets for commercial sex.  These events also feature “trafficking busts” at which local law enforcement act-outs the well-crafted media ritual of arresting alleged prostitutes.

In the lead-up to Sunday’s Super Bowl, the New York Police Department (NYPD) reported arresting some 200 people for “sex trafficking and related crimes.”  CNN reported, ”the NYPD and the Federal Bureau of Investigation say they’re dedicating more resources to the issue and have been working cases to target traffickers who victimize young women and men in the sex trade.”  The police “conduct[ed] both street busts and high-end, undercover call girl stings …”  One incident is illustrative.  ABC News reported that undercover agents busted what was described as “a major sex ring” operating out of an apartment at 990 6th Avenue at 37th Street.  Five people were busted, four of them women, “apparent prostitutes.”  They were “allegedly ready to ply them [male customers] with women and lots of drugs from cocaine to heroin to ecstasy.”

Sounds like a familiar story of tough law enforcement putting a proverbial finger in the dike to stop the flood of immoral conduct.  It’s a tale that seems to accompany all major sports, political and business gatherings.  And its part of a predictable roadshow which, while appearing to address a real issue, turns out to be nothing more than a publicity stunt – not unlike the great line in Casablanca, “pick up the usual suspects” — until the festivities are over and the problem moves somewhere else.

Pete Kotz wrote a revealing column, “The Super Bowl Prostitute Myth,” in the Dallas Observer at the time of the 2011 game, noting that the expected “100,000 hookers won’t be showing up.”  He details how Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott, organized a task force with the FBI, ICE and DHS along with “an army of volunteers from religious and women’s groups … to rescue the thousands of underage girls who’d be sold like ground chuck throughout Big D.,” some 38,000 were suppose to be underage.   As he noted, “cops had managed just 105 arrests metrowide, mostly by rousting the local talent.  Twelve women faced penalties no greater than for speeding tickets.  Only two arrests involved human trafficking.”

Kotz also describes how the same pattern of a hyped sex trafficking threat accompanied the 2008 Phoenix game and the 2009 Tampa game.  He quotes Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis:  “We didn’t see a huge influx in prostitutes coming into Tampa. The arrests were not a lot higher.  They were almost the same.”

In terms of today’s popular nomenclature, adult sexual relations take one of three forms — consensual, commercial or involuntary.  Each is a terrain of moral and political conflict, with ongoing battles over the meaning of each term.  Consensual sex seems simple enough.  It involves “adults” (e.g., 18 years or older) who are fully “rational” (i.e., able to make a coherent decision) and agree to have sex without a financial (or other) exchange involved.  Commercial sex involves a “consensual” relation involving a financial (or other) exchange.  And involuntary involves all nonconsensual sex practices, whether rape, pedophilia, lust murder or trafficking.

Prostitution operates throughout the U.S. as variegated as the class-structured marketplace.  There are “legal” bordellos operating in parts of Nevada; easily arranged hook-up through “escort” services; independent sex workers easily arranged through the Internet; local massage parlors and health “spas”; and added services at strip clubs and other illicit sexual venues.  At the bottom of the flesh trade pyramid – and usually most easily targeted in police sweeps – is the streetwalker.  Commercial sex flourishes.

Sex is a primordial human need and, like nearly all needs under capitalism, can be turned into a commercial exchange.  In the U.S., like much of the patriarchal world, the human (mostly male) “need” for sex (with females) is mediated through the marketplace.  The “relation” (however defined) between buyer and seller of sexual favors turns both collaborators into commodities.

In a humane world, people would not prostitute themselves, sexually or otherwise.  Sadly, we do not live in a humane world, but one in which the patriarchal prerogative fights to maintain power.  Major popular gatherings like the Super Bowl and political conventions are magnets for commercial sex.  They are among the shrinking number of less contested venues of patriarchy.  They are places where “men can be men!”

David Rosen regularly contributes to AlterNet, Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker and IndieWire; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.