Sunday Mar 26

Winter 2022

EXCERPT - Panics without Borders: How Global Sporting Events Drive Myths about Sex Trafficking

The Myth of the 40,000 Missing Girls - A Very Brazilian Beginning 

Excerpted from Panics without Borders: How Global Sporting Events Drive Myths about Sex Trafficking by Gregory Mitchell

Pamela, a teenage prostitute who had traveled from the poor Northeast of Brazil to cosmopolitan São Paulo to work, was in the shower when she heard the loud knock. Pamela was a travesti (an emic identity somewhat similar to transgender woman) who lived in a small overcrowded building filled with other travesti sex workers, many of whom had experienced housing discrimination or harassment in other buildings. The landlady managed both the building as well as some of the business affairs of the women. Pamela left the steamy bathroom and cracked open the door to see who was there, only to have police shove through and, she later explained, “I was soon getting my head beaten in.” This was no criminal raid, however, as prostitution is not a crime in Brazil; it was a “rescue operation.” Nearly eighty travestis and transgender women, including six minors in their mid-to-late teens, were forcibly “rescued” from the building and taken into police custody that day in February 2011, many of them physically or sexually assaulted in the process.

Police had to subdue the travestis because they did not want to be rescued. Nor did the minors want to be returned to the more conservative city of Belém. “Here we can ride the bus and go to the mall without being called names,” said Daiany. Samantha, age seventeen, agreed, declaring that she and those whose families couldn’t stop them would be taking the two-day bus trip back to continue selling sex in São Paulo as soon as possible. Perhaps that’s because in their makeshift travesti community, unlike in the families they had fled, they had some semblance of emotional support. Dimitri Sales, the policy coordinator for sexual diversity for the state government, contradicted them and defended the intervention on the grounds that it was merely “difficult for the travestis to recognize their situation [as] sexual exploitation.”

When news of the raid came out, I was sitting in a cheap bar in Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro frequented by backpackers, working-class locals, women selling sex, and the occasional travesti while interviewing garotos de programa (rent boys) who worked in bath houses called saunas that featured brothel-style male prostitution. (These men were the focus of my dissertation fieldwork and first book.) The consensus among these locals was that the police needed to stop barging into poor people’s homes and mind their own business. Far from being perplexed about sex trafficking, and equally far from framing the story as an issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, the scuttlebutt among the bar patrons was that this raid was just part of a larger crackdown that had included harassment of prostitutes, homeless street kids, and brutal raids on favelas (shantytowns) looking for drugs and gang members, which had ended in the deaths of many young Black and brown men. To wit: they were fed up.

The case of the travesti prostitutes encapsulates and represents several pressing problems happening in the period preceding Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. When one begins tugging at the loose threads of the shoddily woven story about the rescue of the travestis, one finds that state actors acting in bad faith used them (like so many other women in Brazil’s sex industry) to simultaneously appease the US State Department and international human rights and women’s rights organizations and broaden the power of a corrupt state apparatus. In this analysis, I build on Paul Amar’s notion of the parastatal (a lexical mirroring of paramilitary) to describe “coalitions that can include government policymakers, NGOs, private-security agencies, morality campaigns and property developers . . . performing the public functions of a state that has outsourced its functions into a parallel realm of reduced accountability and unregulated power.” Legal scholar Janet Halley describes a related phenomenon from within feminist legal studies: governance feminism, which she describes as “an underrecognized but important fact of governance more generally in the early twenty-first century . . . refer[ring] to the incremental but by now quite noticeable installation of feminists and feminist ideas in actual legal-institutional power.” As examples, she cites the deployment of explicitly feminist expertise about gender policy in educational reform, NGO development and management, feminist prosecutors, and feminist cooperation with “sex crimes” units. She also explicitly identifies governance feminism with the institutionalization of anti–sex trafficking apparatuses within the state.

Parastatal tactics that harm sex workers and others on the margins of society are not new in Brazil, but they were intensified as a result of global sporting events and increased public attention. Nor is the instrumentalization of moral panics around sporting events unique to Brazil. There is a pervasive parastatal pattern of governments, neoliberal entrepreneurs, evangelical Christian groups, and allegedly progressive activists who promote a false correlation between global sporting events and sex trafficking. The wildly in- accurate “zombie statistic” that 40,000 women and girls are trafficked for sex before each World Cup has taken on mythic status despite being completely fabricated. Nonetheless, various media outlets dust off this falsehood every four years despite these girls’ nonexistence.

The result is a moral panic that extends far beyond feminist, religious, and juridical circles, filtering into popular consciousness. For example, in the case of Brazil, a popular telenovela (soap opera) called Salve Jorge that aired during the run-up to the World Cup focused on sex trafficking. It seized on the fears of predation and reified a hyperbolic vision into a common, if misguided, conception about what sex trafficking looks like. Such pop culture examples are both born of the moral panic about sex trafficking and contribute to said panic, continually resuscitating its mythologies and breathing life into this discourse in a circular fashion.

Typically, the religious groups and the neo-abolitionist feminist groups in question oppose all prostitution and believe that total abolition of the sex industry is the first step to stopping trafficking, usually by criminalizing the purchase of all sex, voluntary or otherwise, in an approach known as End Demand (or sometimes as the “Swedish Model,” “Nordic Model,” “Equality Model,” or “sex buyers’ laws”). Meanwhile, global sex worker rights groups and feminist anti-trafficking groups that advocate legalization or decriminalization of sex trades, or that have sex workers as partners in the development of policies that affect them, are not eligible for US funding, which requires a blanket anti-prostitution loyalty oath (known here as APLO, part of the US Leadership Act of 2003).  Certainly, APLO is neo-colonialist, but its primary effect is that for countries receiving United States Agency for International Development (USAID) money, only neo-abolitionists who consider all sex work to be exploitation/trafficking/rape are allowed to participate in creating public policy and laws around sex work and sex trafficking, including how to police and monitor these activities during sporting events.

Having examined whether sports events correspond with increases in sex trafficking and exploitation, working with a number of other researchers, we have demonstrated that this seemingly intuitive correlation is baseless. I document that sexual commerce (forced or unforced) remains stagnant or even decreases during these global sporting events. While commercial sex levels do not increase during these events, police violence against sex workers during such events always does.

We are living in a time of panic concerning the idea of sex trafficking, the definition of which missionaries, philanthropists, politicians, and law enforcement have expanded beyond any real utility in an effort to exploit the concept for their own individual aims. The near endless growth of what falls into the category of sex trafficking makes it difficult to stop the actual sexual exploitation and forced prostitution that does exist in the sex industry. The powerful people in these alliances provide funding only for NGOs and projects that rescue unwilling victims of prostitution, setting up perverse incentives for marginalized people needing aid to perform particular racialized fantasies of helplessness that appeal to donors while ignoring less sympathetic cases (e.g., those of voluntary sex workers who experience sexual assault, debt bondage, or exploitation). Additionally, overly broad and punitive laws passed in response to the imagined threats of trafficking frequently backfire, resulting in such things as sex workers being placed on sex offender registries, sex workers losing custody of their children, and sex workers being forced into court-approved moral rehabilitation programs run by religious charities to avoid jail time.

Sex trafficking and “modern-day slavery” have suffered from what the legal scholar Janie Chuang calls “exploitation creep” as an endlessly growing army of nonprofits, charities, and government offices join scholars, who operate in what she calls a “rigor-free zone,” in pushing for an expansion of anti-trafficking regimes into human rights law, tax law, tort law, public health law, labor law, and even the purview of military action.

In what really marked the myth’s “jumping the shark” moment, attorneys general and media outlets in Kentucky, Wyoming, and Nebraska reported that sex trafficking would spike during the total solar eclipse that sliced across a thin band of the United States in 2017 for several minutes. Frenzied headlines before the astronomical event proclaimed, “Wyoming Solar Eclipse a Hotbed for Sex Trafficking”; “As Solar Eclipse Nears, the Fight against Human Trafficking Is Ramping Up”; and “Seminars Teach Human Trafficking Intervention ahead of Solar Eclipse Events.” One official claimed that in the region of the eclipse, “a pimp will make approximately 1,000 dollars per day per girl.” Officials were especially concerned about children being separated from parents and made vulnerable during the two minutes and forty seconds of darkness.

The development of these coalitions of neoliberal agents, state forces, religiously motivated actors, and NGO’s is what Laura Maria Agustín’s aptly termed “rescue industry.”  The rescue industry is big business. The rescue industry operates using principles similar to what Forrest Stuart calls “therapeutic policing,” in which the goal is to transform those the state sees as a problem—be they homeless people, drug addicts, or sex workers—into rehabilitated, reintegrated, and self-governing citizens. He writes, “In the end, therapeutic policing can cause more problems than it cures. Such relentless police contact destabilizes the already precarious lives of those . . . [it] views as irresponsible and self-destructive, it actively delegitimates and criminalizes indigenous, self-directed attempts at rehabilitation and upward mobility that may resonate more harmoniously with residents’ personal circumstances than the regimes of recovery dictated from above.” Even when operating through therapeutic policing, however, the global rescue industry is often hindered by a lack of cultural competence, its moral entrepreneurs failing to understand the complex lived realities and political economic circumstances affecting women in the various societies in which the global NGOs and missionaries operate. Frequently, those on the ground don’t even speak the language and may not have ever lived in the countries in which they are launching operations. Consequently, the desired therapeutic policing often fails to move past punitive, corrupt, and violent forms of discretionary and capricious police engagement. In such instances, the humanitarian impulses of the parastatal alliances in question become perverse.

As Kimberly Kay Hoang writes, “Perverse humanitarianism also refers to NGOs’ operation as dislocated arms of the state that, under the guise of promoting freedom, engage in exercises of rescue that mirror practices of incarceration.” The perverse state has many tendrils with which to reach into the lives of those whose sexual lives and practices manifest in undesirable ways. There is what Pierre Bourdieu and others discuss as the (masculinist) right hand, or the hands of the police, carceral systems, and so on. On the (often feminized) left-hand side are the religious partner organizations, allied nonprofits, and social welfare programs. The left hand grew under neoliberalism, the late capitalist regime that stripped back social safety nets and caused the NGOification of traditional state functions. When these hands operate together, they form what Jamie Peck refers to as “the ambidextrous state.” In its efforts to police sex trafficking (or to at least create a kind of security theater out of the policing of sex trafficking), the state routinely grabs onto sex workers with both hands and won’t let go.

Excerpted from Panics without Borders: How Global Sporting Events Drive Myths about Sex Trafficking by Gregory Mitchell, published by the University of California Press.

Gregory Mitchell is a professor of gender studies at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..