Superbowl 50 is taking place next Sunday just a few miles from here. Some of my neighbors are renting out their suburban houses—five grand for the long weekend. Lots of locals here are getting out of town—winetasting in Napa, skiing in Lake Tahoe, or making the long drive to Disneyland.
Along with all the other hazards of 200,000 visitors descending on one place at the same time, one is talked about with increasing frequency—sex trafficking. For years, the urban myth of increased sex trafficking has followed the Superbowl (and Olympics, and World Cup) around like an unwanted cousin at a tailgate barbecue.
Sex trafficking—the real thing, not the political consumer product or object of do-good sloganeering—involves kidnapping or manipulating someone out of their community, forcing them to engage in sex acts somewhere else, and not allowing them to leave at will.
It's not simply prostitution, not even underage prostitution (which is, of course, illegal and awful). It's not making porn films, even under onerous conditions. It's not stripping or being an escort.
And it's not a special problem at this upcoming Superbowl any more than it was at previous Superbowls.
An increasing number of groups are intent on persuading Americans that we have a terrible and growing problem with sex trafficking. Their data is virtually non-existent, elided with words like "experts agree" and "shameful epidemic." The new phrase is "youth at risk of being trafficked"—which is, tellingly, ALL youth with any sort of problem.
The media reports anti-trafficking conferences and gigantic, grisly estimates; politicians grimly respond with vows of stricter laws, and the wildly unusual victim is trotted out as proof of some enormous underground industry.
A favorite ploy of anti-trafficking groups is to claim that major sporting events are a central focus of this evil. In 2011, Texas attorney general Greg Abbot said "The Super Bowl is one of the biggest human-trafficking events in the United States"—without any data. He strengthened a unit to pursue those involved with child prostitution (not the same thing as trafficking, of course). The result—at the Dallas Superbowl there were 113 arrests for adult prostitution, and none for trafficking.
The same is true for the three Superbowls before that: grim predictions of upcoming trafficking disasters, and none materializing. Says Robert Casey Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI's Dallas office, "The Super Bowl does not create a spike in those crimes." The 2012 Superbowl in Indianapolis: 68 sex workers arrested; 2 qualified as human trafficking. Last year's Superbowl in Phoenix: 71 adult and nine underage sex workers arrested; none had been trafficked.
Simple economics would explain why event-specific trafficking rarely happens: it makes no sense for traffickers to spend huge amounts of money dragging victims across the country, housing them, advertising for business, and charging reduced rates to undercut local prostitutes, all for a single weekend of illicit income—in a place crawling with law enforcement.
Nevertheless, promoters of a Sex Trafficking Panic are at it again. Last month local county Supervisor Cindy Chavez held a press conference announcing a trafficking awareness campaign with the claim that "the scourge of human trafficking is still prevalent throughout our county," citing no data whatsoever. Like almost all activists, she made no distinction whatsoever between labor trafficking and sex trafficking; labor trafficking is at least three times more common, although it's a far less glamorous issue.
Every year, the NFL has to deny that they're the center of an odious international sex slavery ring. Several years ago NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said the Superbowl sex slave story was simply an urban legend.
But that doesn't stop those who are feeding—and feeding off of—America's latest Sex Panic. One week before hosting the 2014 Superbowl, for example, Indiana's legislature unanimously passed a law that makes recruiting, transporting or harboring anyone younger than 16 for prostitution a felony punishable by 20 to 50 years in prison. The law was passed without a single documented case of sex trafficking in the state. You now get less jail time in Indiana for murdering a teen than for pimping her.
Nationally, dozens of millions of dollars are allocated for fighting human trafficking. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area some 39 organizations are dedicated to identifying and aiding survivors of trafficking. Most groups "fighting" trafficking primarily raise awareness, with little or no data on what this increased awareness actually accomplishes. "Raising awareness" would be harmless if it didn't cost money, encourage fear and anger, or spread misinformation.
Unfortunately, that's exactly why "raising awareness" about sex trafficking in America ISN'T harmless—it's diverting money, time, and attention to a barely-existing problem, encouraging politicians and the public to ignore more important issues—like unintended pregnancy, domestic violence, and a lack of prenatal medical care for poor teens.
Calling prostitutes of any age victims of trafficking is an insult to those who really are kidnapped or tricked into sexual slavery. And lying about the Superbowl's magnetism for the worst kind of criminality—when the numbers clearly show otherwise—is a disservice to every parent, every teen, and every taxpayer. It's the latest example of the Sexual Disaster Industry expanding its product line.
To repeat, real human trafficking is horrendous. While even one victim is too many, we should be grateful that with all of America's problems, sex trafficking victimizes such a tiny number of people. And we should be wondering at the motivation of law enforcement, non-profit groups, and politicians who work hard to frighten, anger, and mobilize the public about this.
Last week I spoke at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas. It wasn't exactly an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But porn lovers (and porn stars, porn producers, porn distributors, and porn photographers) are people too, and there had to be something interesting to see there, so I accepted their invitation. Besides, I have a book coming out in September called His Porn, Her Pain, and I want to get some advance support from people in the industry.
I spoke on "Has the internet really changed anything about sexuality?" My answer, of course, is "not really"—the human heart hasn't changed, and American society's ambivalence about sex hasn't changed, and the collision of the two still produces anxiety, miscommunication, and shame. It's what keeps me in business as a therapist.
But for me the big event was walking the floor of the mammoth convention. My host was my dear friend Mark who'd spent decades in the business (as a legal analyst, thank you very much), and he was gracious, patient, and informative as we walked up and down aisles, trying to ignore the deafening hip-hop music (why deafening and why hip-hop was never explained).
Aside from business-oriented stuff (think liability insurance and "your name here" key-rings) that's fairly standard whether it's a dental convention or fruit-grower's convention, there were some idiosyncratic things here. Row after row after row of dildos, high-end vibrators that retailed north of a hundred bucks, and miscellaneous products to use while watching porn. Just when you think everyone in America has all the sex toys they need, American capitalists (and Chinese manufacturers) come up with new ones. They give "stocking stuffer" a new meaning.
I tried on Virtual Reality goggles, and was suddenly receiving a 3-D blowjob—well, my character was, anyway. So were several other people in my special world, oblivious to the actual humans all around me. And how long before this VR video is synched to a Bluetooth-enabled sex toy so someone can actually feel the 3-D blowjob? "Less than 12 months," said the sales rep. Will they sell such a getup to minors? "You'll have to ask our legal department," he said. And when can we custom-design our VR so we're mating with, say, Scarlett Johansson or Tom Cruise? "The rights might be a bit hard to acquire," smiled our sales rep. What about, oh, Barbara Stanwyck? "Who?" replied the young man.
It was time to hit the really big hall, where the aisles were concentric circles, and the "booths" were miniature lounging areas for barely-dressed porn stars. Fans had a chance to stop, chat, and take photos of them. The women were working—smiling at everyone, hugging those who weren't too pushy, posing for photos.
Mark steered us past this one and that, and occasionally said "OK, let's talk to her," and we'd veer left or right and stop. Whereupon some young woman way less than half our age would spot us, hug my host, and get introduced to Dr. Klein. I'd tell her about my upcoming book about porn and hand her a color copy of the cover, she'd smile enthusiastically, hug Mark goodbye, and we'd be back in the slow, Kaaba-like promenade with thousands of our intimate friends.
We'd been wanting to connect with Jessica Drake, described in Wikipedia as "an American pornographic actress, film director, screenwriter, sex educator, philanthropist, and radio personality." She also has 540,000 twitter followers. In case you're wondering, I have 4,163 twitter followers.
At age 30 Jessica's made over 300 films, and spends considerable time educating her enormous fan base about sexuality. She's known Mark since she started in the industry, and periodically refers to my work as an educator. Mark and I agreed that getting her backing of my upcoming book would be A Great Thing.
So we left the circular big hall, and went back to the first enormous room we'd walked. We saw a life-size doll of Jessica, posters of her way bigger than that, and then we saw…about a jillion fans lined up to say hello, take a selfie with her, and maybe say a few words: I dunno, maybe something like "I've had some of my best orgasms with you, thanks," or "When I want to really get it up, I think of you."
Mark guided me past this long, long line—bigger than anything I'd ever seen at SFO or JFK security—and we got to the front, a few feet from this major cultural icon. Finishing an autograph, she looked up, Mark caught her eye, and she squealed. "Mark my boy!" She strode over, hugged my slightly embarrassed friend, turned to me—and squealed "My favorite sex therapist!" and hugged me, too.
It was glorious, and rushed, and in slow motion all at once. I felt bad for the guys who were finally at the front of the line—they must have been waiting for a couple of hours, and of course had no idea why we were suddenly getting The Girl's effusive attention—but this was no time to be shy or even considerate. For about four minutes Mark and I were alpha males—despite being the two oldest guys in a room of 15,000, the only two guys there who didn't have raging erections.
I handed Jessica the packet for my new book, she vowed to read it and text me "soon," she hugged us both, and Mark and I retreated, quickly swallowed up by the crowd. We headed toward the hotel lobby, totally satisfied with our rare, hard-fought prize—a brief Audience, complete with recognition. It was about time for a Diet Coke, and then I had to get a cab for the airport.
If you ask most people what they want from sex, they'll say some combination of pleasure and closeness.
And yet people's decisions around sex are clearly about other things. The way men and women select partners; choose to initiate or decline sex; relate to their preferences or fantasies; obsess on how they look, sound, or smell; and remain present or check out during sex—all of these decisions make it clear that for many people, their sexual agendas go way beyond pleasure or closeness.
In fact, pleasure and closeness may be quite far from what people are really going after in sex . Instead, the big payoff of sex for many people may involve feeling powerful; feeling competent; feeling attractive; feeling desired; feeling important to someone; feeling normal; satisfying curiosity; having something to brag about; or feeling naughty or avant-garde.
Some people do feel pleasure while feeling one or more of these other things; but many people use sex to create some of these feelings while experiencing little or no actual physical pleasure.
For example, I have worked with young men who like getting blowjobs from casual hookups. They don't necessarily find them enjoyable, but they feel like successful alpha-males. Some guys report thinking during oral sex "if only my high school buddies could see me now," while the physical experience itself is of only limited importance. Some young women tell me, "yeah, I have sex every week or two, but it's mostly to fit in, or to avoid the hassle of saying no, or to prevent being labelled a prude—but do I enjoy it? Sometimes yes, sometimes no."
Here's one powerful but simple question that tells me a lot about the sex that people have: Do you kiss or hug during sex? The main reason adults do those things for more than a second or two is for the pleasure. When people say they don't do those things before, during, or after sex, I figure the primary sexual story is about something other than pleasure. Of course, I follow up with lots of other questions.
Performance anxiety can certainly undermine pleasure. Erections, vaginal lubrication, and orgasm should not be ends in themselves, but rather a means to something else—experiences like enjoyment, satisfaction, pleasure, gratification, or intimacy. When people focus too much on their "performance," it's hard to relax and enjoy sex.
To someone wound up about "performing" well, the best that sex can get is "Well, I delivered the goods that time," or "Well, I didn't mess that up, did I?" Not only is that a pretty thin outcome, it actually increases the chance of the dreaded sexual "dysfunction."
That's why I don't aim therapy toward resolving someone's dysfunction; I aim at increasing their enjoyment.
And so I never assume that pleasure is what motivates people's sexual decisions, and I never assume that sex is mostly pleasurable for people, even when they have great orgasms. I do assume, of course, that if people do something, they're getting some payoff or other. I just don't assume I know what it is.
Some people play golf because they like fresh air. Some play because they like to compete. Some play because they like mastering a skill. Some play because it makes them feel close to their (dead) father. And some play because they like having an excuse to wear funny clothes.
It's the same with sex—we don't know why someone else likes what they like, or does what they do (say, oral sex, or vibrators, or the Pirate Game). Memo to therapists: the only way to find out is to ask. Memo to lovers: the only way to find out is to ask.