California’s Loitering Laws Could Cause Trouble At The Super Bowl

Photograph Source: Troutfarm27 – CC BY-SA 4.0

Women attending the Super Bowl LVI should be careful what they wear. Under California’s loitering with intent laws, police officers have the power to arrest suspected sex traffickers based on little more than their clothes or whether or not they’ve got a condom in their purse. This is troubling, particularly when you consider law enforcements’ incentives to over-police the big game.

Claims that legions of young girls are trafficked in for major sporting events persist, yet year after year this myth is disproven. In reality, the persistence of Superbowl human trafficking myths leads to more arrests of consenting adults than it does to rescues of real victims.

As police departments play up their arrest numbers to a receptive press, a startling discrepancy appears between the media narrative and the actual data. During last year’s Super Bowl, Florida’s Hillsborough County authorities celebrated a “record” human trafficking sting for the precinct. Yet they only made 75 arrests, and many of those were arrests of consenting adults working in the sex industry.

This is not to discredit the minors that are retrieved. Every person saved from sex trafficking is a win. That said, however, inflating the number of victims, as the common media narrative has done, doesn’t help anyone. In the last three years, 11 minors have been rescued from human traffickers during the Super Bowl. Atlanta in 2019 had “nine alleged juvenile sex trafficking victims,” Miami in 2020 had “one 17 year old-girl,” and Tampa in 2021 reportedly had “six people believed to be victims of human trafficking.”That’s a far cry from the thousands of victims we hear about every year.

Make no mistake, we need to protect children and adults from sex trafficking. But stories of legions of young girls being trafficked during the Super Bowl puts pressure on departments to solve the issue. Departments are given larger budgets to do so. The end result? Undercover and plain-clothes officers terrorize venues stereotyped as hotbeds of vice, like massage parlors, motels, and strip clubs.

And under California’s laws, it is a misdemeanor to loiter with the intent to commit prostitution. And intent is largely established at the officer’s discretion. Police often use racial, sexual and economic stereotypes during these purity-test arrests to make the determination whether the loitering proves intent to solicit.

Police face a difficult task of deciphering true victims of exploitation from those consensually in the sex industry. Adults in the industry may claim they are victims to evade a criminal charge, victims may avoid speaking with the police and accept a solicitation charge out of fear of retribution from a pimp.

In the words of Sheriff Chad Chronister of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, “Escaping the wrath of a trafficker takes courage, and in some cases, is nearly impossible.”

There’s a better way to fight sex trafficking: by decriminalizing sex work and allowing police to work with the existing sex industry in their community to crack down on sex traffickers. If sex work was decriminalized, sex workers would feel safe and able to report any troubling red flags without fear they may be penalized for coming forward. Decriminalizing the industry would make it safer for everyone.

As it stands today, myths around mass human trafficking ultimately end up driving law enforcement to harm consenting sex workers rather than rescuing victims. That’s why local sex workers and legislators have come forward with a bill to amend the California Penal Code, SB 357, which would repeal loitering with intent. Unfortunately, it won’t be considered until the end of 2022. The loitering laws will still be in place on game day. Imagine for a second, how, in an effort to combat trafficking and to look good while doing so, Los Angeles authorities might use this toolkit on the unsuspecting.

Communities should be empowered to tend to their commons, in practice however, problems arise when minor nuisances turn into misdemeanors. Law enforcement can interrupt disruptive behavior to maintain the peace, but criminal records lead to a lifetime of unemployment and repeat offenses.

Implementing SB 357 and dispelling the human trafficking myth would empower communities to implement policing and harm reduction policies that provide benefit rather than harm to their most marginalized. By empowering those in-the-know, police and communities can truly provide for the victims who need it.

Regan Ferrell is the Operations Manager at Old Pro, Inc, an organization focused on sex work decriminalization advocacy. Regan writes on tech policy, sexual freedom, and everything in between. @actualwebutante