An Inhuman Industry: Responding to Sex Trafficking in Arizona

Every year, from late January to mid-February, the city of Tucson hosts upward of 50,000 visitors, as the annual Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase — more commonly known as the Tucson Gem Show — draws exhibitors, traders, and tourists from around the globe. It is the biggest show of its kind, and the economic impact is considerable. This year’s show, which officially wrapped last week, was projected to bring $120 million in spending to local businesses.

Effective sex education arms young people with information about consent, negotiating proper boundaries, and forming healthy relationships.

In recent years, media coverage has also put the Gem Show in the spotlight for its alleged impact on an underground economy. The annual event has become a news hook for activists, victim advocates, and social workers who believe it serves as a boon to the nation’s $3 billion sex-trafficking industry.

Although the Arizona Republic rated the claim as “mostly false” when Martha McSally made it in 2015 — noting that evidence was mostly anecdotal — the idea that large events like the Gem Show lead to a spike in sex trafficking has remained a popular talking point. For example, at an awareness event last year, held shortly before the Gem Show’s kick-off, Tucson city council member Steve Kozachik commented, “Every time you have an outside event coming to any community, whether it be a sporting event or the gem show, the numbers of trafficking incidents spike.” He added, “That means the young in this community are vulnerable.”

Federal law defines sex trafficking as recruiting, harboring, transporting, or otherwise inducing a person to perform a commercial sex act against their will — or before they are legally old enough to consent. Last year, KGUN9 suggested that, during the show, as many as 100 women are “sold for sex” every night. The report, however, did not specify if it was referring to commercial sex as a whole or to trafficked sex exclusively — and whatever role the Gem Show plays in the trade is also a murky subject. Continue reading