Recently many of us crowded around televisions or streaming devices to watch as the Philadelphia Eagles topped the New England Patriots in one of our country’s most significant economic events of the year.
This year, NBC earned more than $400 million in ad revenue during the game. And, in a Jan. 29 New York Times article, sports economist Victor Matheson said the game generates between $30 million and $130 million in economic activity in its host city each year.
There is another, less familiar market that also experiences a significant boom that Sunday each year — the market for illicit sex trade. Super Bowl Sunday is the busiest day of the year for human sex trafficking in the U.S., but this only serves to emphasize a problem we face as a nation year-round.
Atlanta is one of the nation’s fastest growing hubs for human sex trafficking, and the market is not isolated to the city. According to sources within Glynn County’s Division of Children and Family services, sex trafficking, specifically of children, is a real problem here in Southeast Georgia. Our proximity to I-95 puts us along an intense trafficking corridor.
Since last month was Human Trafficking Awareness Month, I have been thinking about ways economic theory can inform our efforts to curb sex trade.
We currently have laws aimed at decreasing both supply of and demand for sex trafficking.
To reduce supply, law enforcement agencies are constantly working to find, arrest and prosecute pimps and others who organize trafficking networks. In addition, government and nonprofit agencies work to educate parents and children on reasons and ways to avoid being recruited or abducted into the sex industry. We have established hotlines and awareness campaigns aimed at helping those caught in these situations escape.
Efforts on the demand side of this market are not as prevalent, and mostly boil down to enforcement of laws against buying sex or engaging in nonconsensual sexual activity. A quick internet search reveals that many counselors offer services for those addicted to sex or pedophilia, but we do not see near the amount of public dollars spent on trying to keep would-be offenders out of the market as we do on trying to educate potential victims. This is something economics suggests we should reconsider.
The market for sex, like the market for any addictive substance, is characterized by highly inelastic demand. This means that folks in this market are willing to pay what it takes to get their fix, and so when prices rise, we do not see a sharp change in market activity. This is key to making informed policy choices if our goal is to reduce the number of transactions.
When we go after the supply side of the market, the result is an increase in price for illicit sex, but a relatively small decrease in the number of sex exchanges that occur. In fact, we may have just accomplished a goal opposite of our intentions by making human trafficking more lucrative for the suppliers who are left.
On the other hand, if we could decrease demand for human trafficking through appropriate education and therapy for potential sex buyers, we could simultaneously reduce the price of sex and the occurrence of trafficking.
Incidentally, this logic works for other relevant policy problems as well, such as our ongoing opioids epidemic. If we focus on addiction prevention and rehabilitation rather than on reducing the number of dealers or prescribers, we are likely to see more lasting results.
Dr. Melissa Trussell is a professor in the School of Business and Public Management at College of Coastal Georgia who works with the college’s Reg Murphy Center for Economic and Policy Studies. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.