We are living in a time of great panic about “sex trafficking”—an idea whose meaning has been expanded beyond any real usefulness by evangelicals, conspiracy theorists, anti-prostitution feminists, and politicians with their own agendas. This is especially visible during events like the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, when claims circulate that as many as 40,000 women and girls will be sex trafficked. Drawing on extensive fieldwork in Brazil as well as interviews with sex workers, policymakers, missionaries, and activists in Russia, Qatar, Japan, the UK, and South Africa, Gregory Mitchell shows that despite baseless statistical claims to the contrary, sex trafficking never increases as a result of these global mega-events—but police violence against sex workers always does.
While advocates have long decried this myth, Mitchell follows the discourse across host countries to ask why this panic so easily embeds during these mega-events. What fears animate it? Who profits? He charts the move of sex trafficking into the realm of the spectacular—street protests, awareness-raising campaigns, telenovelas, social media, and celebrity spokespeople—where it then spreads across borders. This trend is dangerous because these events happen in moments of nationalist fervor during which fears of foreigners and migrants are heightened and easily exploited to frightening ends.