As sports fans across the country celebrate the biggest weekend of the football season, the frenzy around the game is already sparking conversations about team strategies, regional rivalries, and TV advertisements.
But for filmmakers Jane Wells and John Keith Wasson, the Super Bowl was the spark for a very different concern — the underbelly of the sex trade.
There is ongoing debate over the extent of sex trafficking at large sporting events. But in 2010, Wells read an article about women being brought to the Super Bowl host city, Miami, by sex traffickers.
“That headline caught my eye so I starting investigating the subject and interviewing survivors. I gradually came to realize just how big a story sex trafficking is,” Wells said.
The result of the filmmakers three-year journey exploring the sex industry is a new documentary called “Tricked.”
The film follows people impacted by sex trafficking across the United States: from the young women and their families who share stories of abuse and manipulation, to the pimps who openly speak of how they traffic these women.
The pair also traveled with the Denver Vice squad as the police pursued traffickers and talked with the ‘johns’ whose demand for sex underlies the industry.
NewsHour recently spoke with the filmmakers about what they discovered while making the film.
NEWSHOUR: You got a lot of incredible access to the many players – pimps, johns, girls, cops….were there challenges in getting people to talk on camera for your film?
JOHN KEITH WASSON: One thing we found was that people had a sort of prepared speech or way of telling their story that they felt comfortable sharing with you. Danielle in particular developed a persona that allowed her to distance herself from the story and explain, ‘this is who that person was.’ And so our work was to get to a more personal and perhaps deeper story. So there was a lot of challenge in getting someone to truly open up because everything we’re dealing with here is so fundamentally sensitive. We had to be delicate and make an environment where they felt fine sharing with us a story that went beyond what they had felt comfortable telling strangers in speeches.
Danielle was incredibly courageous to allow us to film her growing understanding of how traumatic this experience was for her because we went back and filmed her again, and again, and again. Through Danielle’s story we realized the difficulty of that road to recovery trafficking survivors. And she really showed us the strength it takes to be an actual survivor, to overcome these hardships.
JANE WELLS: And with the pimps I think one of the things that was very striking was that they don’t really, truly believe that what they’re doing is wrong. So they were much more open with us than I would have imagined before we started. So that allowed us to get incredible access to them because they really don’t have a lot of shame about what they do, or any shame at all. And they do what they do with impunity.
NEWSHOUR: Explain the title of your film. Who do you think is being tricked and how?
JANE WELLS: Well obviously ‘tricks’ is part of the parlance of the sex industry. But I think, obviously, the girls are the main ones who are being tricked by the pimps into doing this work. I think there’s a bigger picture which is that the wider culture is being tricked into thinking that maybe prostitution is something that is harmless, and it isn’t.
JOHN KEITH WASSON: We just kept realizing that there’s trickery throughout the world of sex trafficking. And while we were working with these pimps, we realized that they are extremely articulate, and their ability to change the floor and come up with a different twist of logic while you’re talking to them, shows how complete the force, fraud and, coercion can be.
We also found that ‘johns’ would come right out and say to us, “Oh, I never choose the girl that’s actually in a disadvantaged position. I’m smart enough.” And we bring up the numbers, saying, “Well, the vast majority of the women out there truly didn’t choose this on their own.” And yet the guy would still say, “Yeah, but you know, I make sure I only pick up ones who are just doing this to get through dentistry school, et cetera,” So that’s a situation where the guys, in many ways, are tricking themselves.
NEWSHOUR: Were there perceptions that you had about the sex trade before you started making this film that changed by the time you finished the film?
JANE WELLS: Absolutely. I think when I started; I thought that trafficking was really only an issue for underage children. What I learned was that there’s still so much force, fraud and coercion in the adult population. Things don’t magically change when people turn 18. So that was one thing. And the other was really just getting a much stronger sense of what the law enforcement does. We filmed some great and visionary cops doing amazing work, but we saw how they are constrained by the laws that they have to enforce. Some of the injustices are really in our criminal justice system itself.
JOHN KEITH WASSON: I was blown away by just the sheer numbers and the extent of this crime throughout America. And it seems, anecdotally at least from the cops we followed, that the ages are getting younger, and the overall violence level associated with sex trafficking is escalating. It just seems like all the trends and numbers were really moving in a horrifying direction.
Another thing that resonated was how in every place where we went, there were similar techniques in how the pimps really brought in their prey. And it just kept evolving from when we began filming to when we stopped filming. It began maybe with the pimps actually going to shopping malls to look for people who are sort of vulnerable, to blasting out a thousand people through computer and smart phone channels. The changing nature of the landscape was one of my horrifying takeaways.
JANE WELLS: The pimps we found are incredibly smart, sophisticated criminals. And they’re very computer savvy and they move along as the technology moves along. So when I first started filming, we were out much more on the “track” in cities like Washington D.C., and seeing scores and scores of transactions on the streets.
Then, things moved increasingly to the web: There was Craigslist and that got shut down. Then things moved to Backpage. There’s a tremendous amount happening on Facebook now and we also saw girls recruited by something called Mocospace which is a sort of chat-gaming room. And as soon as that became available, pimps were using it. So basically, any new methods of connecting with potential victims are snapped up very quickly.
NEWSHOUR: In an op-ed, Jane, you called sex trafficking “the most misunderstood human rights abuse.” Why do you say that?
JANE WELLS: First of all, many people still don’t see it as a human-rights abuse. Secondly, its an incredibly complex crime and issue altogether. But I think it’s also because many people believe that legalization is the answer, and that somehow all of the trends we’re seeing of more violence, younger children, and police enforcement problems will disappear with legalization. Nothing I saw led me to believe that’s the case, but the public at large seems to have two enormous misapprehensions: One is that it’s a victimless crime. And the second is that legalization will magically make all these issues disappear.
NEWSHOUR: How did you address the distinction between prostitution and sex trafficking in making your film? Where is the line between those two things?
JOHN KEITH WASSON: Well, that’s the thing: There’s a very clear distinction between the two. Prostitution is, in theory, a girl or guy who is choosing, to participate in offering sex for money at their own volition. Then you have sex trafficking, which is any minor who’s involved, who’s selling sex for money. And whoever is aiding or working with that child to buy or sell sex is committing a crime. And that kid is a victim of sex trafficking. And for anybody who’s over 18, it’s trafficking if they are tricked into selling sex through force fraud or coercion. So then there is the question of, ‘is it hard to define, force fraud and coercion?’ What we’ve found is actually, it’s really not. It’s quite clear if there is a girl who’s working and making zero dollars with someone who is clearly benefiting from her selling her body, something is going on there that is force, fraud or coercion. The difficulty is sometimes the trafficking victims don’t even realize at that moment that they are victims. And that’s where the challenge is and where a lot of the work has to happen.
JANE WELLS: We also filmed in Sweden where the Swedish have a broader sense of what sex trafficking is than most people do in this country. They look at a continuum of harm in the lifetime of someone who’s worked in prostitution. So it might be that right now, at this moment in time somebody doesn’t self-identify as a victim and doesn’t believe they are being trafficked. But it could be that they were under pimp control in the past, or it could be that later on in their life they might be threatened or forced to continue sex work and be very damaged by the process. That view means that anybody in the sex industry is certainly very susceptible, if not already partaking in sex trafficking. I found that argument to be incredibly compelling to me, especially in relation to Danielle, because we’re working with her a decade after she came out of the life and she’s still experiencing and re-experiencing a tremendous amount of trauma now.
NEWSHOUR: Were there aspects of sex trafficking that you didn’t get to address that you would have liked to explore more?
JANE WELLS: Well, I think one of them is the socioeconomic factors that make people more vulnerable to the manipulation that comes from pimps. And that can be runaway children, homelessness, hunger, and other factors. We weren’t able to touch deeply on that and that’s a huge factor. I think that there is a statistic out there that 30 percent of runaway youths will have some sort of encounter with the trafficking industry within 48 hours of leaving home. So just by the nature of being a runaway, of being hungry, of being on the streets, there’s this huge vulnerability there that pimps and traffickers can prey on. Also we didn’t have any male victims, boy victims. And the perception all along tends to be that the boys and men don’t have pimps. And when we were finishing the film, we did film a former male prostitute and he did have pimps. So there’s just so much more going on out there.
JOHN KEITH WASSON: Our goal is just to begin the dialogue. We realize that 20 films about this subject matter have to be made because there’s so much detail. It’s a very complex crime that’s going on. And slowly, I think we’re figuring out as Americans that it’s happening here, and it is our fellow Americans who are falling prey.
In our own film, it would’ve been nice to explore perhaps just some of the non-stereotypical situations in the sex trafficking industry; for example, just showing that there are female pimps out there and that there are all sorts of people who are taking advantage of the industry.
NEWSHOUR: There’s now been a lot of media and public attention to sex trafficking around the Super Bowl – what effect do you think that has?
JOHN KEITH WASSON: The Super Bowl is an excellent entry point for people to learn about sex trafficking. It sheds light on this issue. But the reality is that it’s happening every day and everywhere in America. And so we want to certainly focus on it during the Super Bowl, but then keep in mind that it’s also happening elsewhere and everywhere — the other 364 days out of the year.
JANE WELLS: Because the Super Bowl is such a quintessential part of the American narrative, I think it’s also an excellent way to underscore that this is a domestic issue. Because there’s still a sense among Americans that it happens elsewhere, not right here at home.
All video excerpted from “Tricked,” copyright 3 Generations.