Claudia Hamm didn’t really understand the problem of human trafficking until it became personal to her.

“I’m a grandmother of a 16-year-old girl,” she says. “There’s a market for girls like her—even younger than her. It’s a hard thing to come to grips with.”

It took Presbyterian Women, and the Super Bowl coming to the Bay Area, for Hamm to become aware of human trafficking. “It wasn’t even on my radar until Presbyterian Women made it one of their top mission priorities in 2012,” she says.

Because of that, Hamm, who was then moderator of Presbyterian Women of San Jose Presbytery, began to pay attention to the news about human trafficking. When nearby Santa Clara was selected as the host city for the 2016 Super Bowl, she began hearing an oft-repeated claim—that the Super Bowl is the largest human trafficking event in the country. “They kept saying there’s lots of prostitution and sex trafficking around the big game,” says Hamm. “As I talked to the other women about this, we were shocked and felt like we had to do something.”

So they held a human trafficking forum in March 2015. What they discovered at the forum is that human trafficking is a huge issue for the Bay Area. They also learned that while there is no hard data to prove that human trafficking increases around large sporting events, it occurs every day of the year. Based on government investigations and reports made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, California is believed to be one of the nation’s top destinations for traffickers, along with Texas, Florida, and New York.

“We learned we are a gateway for the human traffickers,” says current San Jose Presbyterian Women moderator Rosaleen Zisch. “Our airports and seaports provide easy access to the Pacific Rim; our southern border opens the door to Latin America, for people to get moved in and out of—and across—our country.”

Understanding gained at the forum helped Presbyterian Women move beyond their shock to take further action. In May they connected with some 50 agencies and 1,500 activists at a Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition event, which was held at Levi’s Stadium, site of the 2016 Super Bowl.

At that biennial Freedom Summit—the largest of its kind in the country—the women connected with Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that works with law enforcement and community partners to identify survivors of trafficking and to help them rebuild their lives. Freedom House operates two “safe homes” in the Bay Area, one for women who have survived trafficking, the other for underage girls who, with help, escaped their traffickers.

Hamm now volunteers at those homes, and she’s learning more about the grim reality of human trafficking. “Some of these girls are younger than my granddaughter,” she says. “Many are from foster homes, as young as 11 and 12. It’s so dark, what humans will do for money.”

“It’s pure evil,” says Freedom House founder Jaida Im. “These children are the runaways, the throwaways. It’s just abuse, after abuse, after abuse.”

To help counter the abuse, Hamm helps train personnel in the hotel and motel industry so that they can better recognize trafficking in their midst. She also stays in communication with the agencies involved in the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition. She describes her efforts as simply “doing my bit.”

A growing problem
At Arizona State University, Associate Professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz directs the university’s Office for Sex Trafficking Intervention Research. “The sex trafficking market is enormous and growing steadily,” she says. “It is much larger than any of us anticipated.”

The Arizona State researchers flagged 65 percent of commercial sex ads during the 2014 and 2015 Super Bowls as possibly involving sex trafficking. The suspected victims tended to be from nonlocal area codes, but the majority of potential sex buyers were from local area codes.

According to the report, “The online environment provides conditions where sex trafficking can flourish, maximizing exposure of the victim, increasing potential profit while minimizing exposure of the trafficker.” It recommends that law enforcement agencies aggressively target online sex trafficking, in part through partnerships with research universities that can synthesize data to track online traffickers.

But even that might not be enough. Roe-Sepowitz says the key is to address the demand in the marketplace. “What we’ve discovered by looking at sex trafficking around the Super Bowl,” she says, “is we can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”

Although statistics often are used in discussions of human trafficking, Ryan Smith cautions against relying on them. Smith, the Presbyterian representative to the United Nations, says it is widely held that statistics can be misleading when taken out of context. In addition, he says, the issue of sports and trafficking is complex and nuanced, and many scholars have concluded that trafficking does not increase during large sporting events—it’s simply given more media attention. For those who wish to gain a better understanding of the issue, Smith recommends a 2011 report published by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, titled “What’s the Cost of a Rumour?

Broadening the focus
Brian Wo is likewise concerned about the complexities of trafficking. Wo, a former pastor and co-founder of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, says the emphasis on trafficking around the Super Bowl always focuses on sex, and labor trafficking gets ignored. The Coalition conducts monthly training sessions for hotel workers, airport personnel, cab drivers, and bar and restaurant employees to help them recognize signs of trafficking and to learn how to report suspected trafficking.

During training sessions, Wo encourages people to pay attention to their surroundings during big events and to ask themselves questions like, “Where do they get their janitorial services? What about the extra help selling stuff on the street?”

Rosaleen Zisch has seen something else missing in the emphasis on human trafficking. For the most part, the focus has been on women and girls. Yet there is a growing awareness in the Bay Area that something else is happening. “It’s shocking, but the economic opportunity is huge for the traffickers—even for young boys,” says Zisch. “We have rescue homes for the women and girls, but nothing for young boys.”

Linda Walubengo, director of Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco, says there are lots of vulnerable LGBT youth in the city,  who can’t afford to live in the Bay Area. In many cases they are living on the streets and vulnerable to being trafficked because they were kicked out of their homes when they came out. Walubengo says pimps prey on them, offering friendship and a place to stay. “Then it’s like, ‘I really like you but if you do sexual favors for a friend of mine, I can get you some extra money,’ ” she says. In other cases, she says, a trafficker might say, “I have this friend of mine who’s having a hard time finding a boyfriend. Would you hang out with him?”

“Then when a rape occurs,” she says, “the victim is afraid to report it because the establishment might say, ‘You asked for it.’ It’s still highly stigmatized and difficult to talk about.”

Marq Taylor is founder of the nonprofit Buddy House in Atlanta, which is seeking to open respite care centers that offer free faith-centered programs to American boys and young men who have survived domestic minor sex trafficking. Taylor knows the pain of being trafficked as a young boy. He began telling his story in 2011 and now travels around the world in his fight against minor sex trafficking. Taylor says boys—males—are always perceived as the pimps and never as the victims. Because of this he began to feel as if the assaults he endured were his fault. He wondered, “Why is this happening to me?” He felt as if caregivers—those meant to protect him—didn’t believe him, so he shut down and often had thoughts of suicide.

“That’s why people traveling just to get a boy, or a child, it makes me sick to my stomach,” he says. “Everyone’s focused on the Super Bowl. But go to a big city, where there’s a large event, including church conferences, and it’s happening. People don’t want to get involved. They’re in denial. I want to stop it.”

To further address the enormity of this growing problem, Roe-Sepowitz began reaching out to faith community leaders in the Phoenix area in November. She asks them to communicate one simple message: buying sex from people, whether children or adults, is not acceptable.

“Wherever there are large groups of men with money, away from their families, even at large religious events, sex trafficking happens,” she says. “We have to change how people feel about buying people; we can’t arrest our way out of this.”

Chris and Anna Smith, who co-founded the nonprofit Restore One in Greenville, North Carolina, hope to open a shelter for American boy survivors of domestic minor sex trafficking this spring. Citing a 2008 study by John Jay College and the Center for Court Innovation that found a “significant” number of boys among trafficked youth in New York City, Chris says, “We need a response to human trafficking, like we get at the Super Bowl, 365 days a year. What about all of those other kids, and adults, who are victimized on a day that has nothing to do with the Super Bowl?”

Paul Seebeck is a communications strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.