ATLANTA – Sierra Thompson was 18 when she was flown to Houston by a man she met on Instagram.
The man had flaunted a flashy lifestyle of fancy cars, expensive jewelry and designer clothes. Their first day together consisted of conversation, drugs and sex. On the second day, she says, the man lured her to a small Houston strip club to dance for money.
So began a three-year ordeal of being sold to strangers for sex in cities around the country – including Honolulu during the 2016 NFL Pro Bowl.
“A messed-up person messed me up,” Thompson says.
She eventually broke away from her pimp and returned to Atlanta. As more than 1 million people descend on the city for Super Bowl LIII on Sunday, she’s working with victim advocates, law enforcement officers, former NFL players and others to help break up the sex trafficking they say the event attracts.
“It’s not necessarily about football or the NFL,” says Courtney Dow, an outreach coordinator for the Atlanta-based nonprofit Dream Center. “It’s just about when groups of men get together, usually trafficking and exploitation increases.
“They’re on vacation, their wives and girlfriends aren’t with them, and it’s also a boys’ club, and it’s time for boys to be boys.”
Organizers are telling airport staff, hotel managers and retail workers how to spot traffickers and victims, and to intervene when necessary. Visitors arriving at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport this week heard an anti-trafficking public service announcement on the terminal train.
Volunteers, meanwhile, are visiting hotels, strip clubs, bus stations and convenience stores to give out information about services to victims.
It’s part of a larger effort to get bystanders to recognize trafficking, and to stop it when it occurs. Different campaigns have focused on spreading awareness among air crews, hotel workers and long-haul truckers.
Others have sprung up around major events: The North American International Auto Show in Detroit, NBA All-Star Weekend and the FIFA World Cup have also sparked campaigns to fight sex trafficking.
Some say the effort is misguided.
Annalee Lepp, founder of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women Canada, says research shows little increase in trafficking around large events.
Lepp, a professor of gender studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, says fans attend major sporting events primarily to watch the game. She says sex traffickers generally avoid such events because they bring a heightened police presence.
Bradley Miles, CEO of the nonprofit Polaris, says focusing on large events obscures a larger problem.
“We actually think that trafficking is a major issue 365 days a year,” Miles said. “There are no new traffickers (at the Super Bowl). The same 20,000 pimps are moving around to where the action is.”
Law enforcement officials say sex trafficking is a concern around Super Bowl festivities.
The Atlanta Police Department has trained officers on identifying victims. The department is also setting up an operations center to monitor human trafficking.
Eric Pauley, supervisor of the FBI’s Metro Atlanta Child Exploitation Task Force, says authorities here rescue 75 to 100 child sex trafficking victims each year.
Pauley says he expects many sex traffickers to travel to Atlanta this week to capitalize on the influx of visitors.
He said the greatest surge during major events comes from online solicitation.
There are an estimated 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally, according to the International Labour Organization.
Thompson, now 23, earned a GED through Wellspring Living, an organization that serves sex trafficking victims. She now works as an administrative assistant for a law firm.
Wellspring Living is among the organizations working with the Dream Center.
Wellspring Living founder Mary Frances Bowley said her team has been visiting convenience stores and putting stickers on bathroom stalls with emergency hotline numbers for victims. She’s advising store and hotel workers to look out for older men who appear to be controlling children.
“This is a platform to help people understand what trafficking is, so even when the Super Bowl is not here, people know what to look for,” Bowley said.
Former NFL players have recorded an anti-trafficking video now on YouTube.
“The simple fact of bringing awareness to human trafficking is a priority,” said DJ Shockley, a former quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. “Many people have no idea this is happening really close to them.”
“The mission is to rescue and restore,” former Falcon Alge Crumpler said.