The alarm bells reached peak decibel in November, when Dallas Police Sergeant Louis Felini told the The Dallas Morning News that between 50,000 and 100,000 prostitutes could descend on the metroplex for the Super Bowl. The call to outrage had sounded.
His estimate was astonishing. At the higher figure, it meant that every man, woman and child holding a ticket would have their own personal hooker, from the vice presidential wing of FedEx to Little Timmy from Green Bay.
And if you believed a study commissioned by the Dallas Women's Foundation, the hordes would include 38,000 underage prostitutes. Doe-eyed beauties from the Heartland would be peddled like Jell-O shots at the Delta Phi soiree.
Official Dallas would not be caught flat-footed. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and the FBI pledged extra manpower to fight "human trafficking." The Arlington Police Department put up billboards near Cowboys Stadium. They featured flashing photos of busted johns, warning visitors: We don't take kindly to perverts like you, son.
Even the Shapiro Law Firm leaped in. Noting that an estimated 40,000 hookers showed up in Dallas for the NBA All-Star game last year, it wanted to make sure that, should a hedge fund manager find himself ensnared in naked compromise, "our attorneys provide experienced defense for sex crimes, including the solicitation of a prostitute."
The city was gearing up for a massive invasion of skanks and sex fiends. It would be like Normandy, only with way more plastic surgery—the largest single gathering of freaks and pedophiles the world has ever seen. At least outside of a Vatican staff meeting.
But if Dallas is like any other Super Bowl—or Olympics or World Cup, for that matter—today's four-alarm panic will tinkle as softly as a servant's bell by next week. All evidence says that America's call girls will be at home, watching the game of TV, just like you and me.
Judging by Super Bowls past, the mass migration of teenage sex slaves is nothing more than myth.
Read between his very terse lines, and you can tell that Brian McCarthy isn't happy. He's a spokesman for the NFL. Every year he's forced to hear from mopes like yours truly, wondering why his customers are adulterers and child molesters.
The routine is the same in every Super Bowl city. The media beats the drum of impending invasion, warning that anywhere from 15,000 to 100,000 hookers will soon arrive. Politicians lather on their special sauce of manufactured outrage. Cops and prosecutors vow stings and beefed up manpower.
By implication, the NFL's wealthiest and most connected fans—captains of industry and senators from Utah—will be plotting a week of sexual rampage not seen since the Vikings sailed on Scotland. And they must be stopped.
"This is urban legend that is pure pulp fiction," the NFL's McCarthy says. "I would refer you to your local law enforcement officials."
So that's what we did. Meet police Sergeant Tommy Thompson of Phoenix, which hosted the 2008 Super Bowl. "We may have had certain precincts that were going gangbusters looking for prostitutes, but they were picking up your everyday street prostitutes," Thompson says of his vice cops. "They didn't notice any sort of glitch in the number of prostitution arrests leading up to the Super Bowl."
Conspicuously noted: He doesn't recall a single arrest of an underage girl.
Perhaps Phoenix was an anomaly. So let's go to Tampa, host of Super Bowl 2009. Police spokeswoman Andrea Davis says her department ran special operations on the sex trade. They came up empty. "We didn't see a huge influx in prostitutes coming into Tampa," she says. "The arrests were not a lot higher. They were almost the same."
Now it could be that both departments are incompetent, mistaking tens of thousands of women in fishnet stockings for a very large synchronized swimming team. So let's travel to Europe, where the hooker influx for the World Cup is routinely pegged at 40,000. If anyone's going to break the record for the world's largest orgy, it's the Godless Eurotrash, right?
Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup. U.S congressmen warned the promiscuous Krauts that fleshly opportunism would not be tolerated. So the government spent millions of euros to crush human trafficking. No one could say the Germans were perv enablers.
But apparently 39,995 of the blasphemers had carburetor trouble in Prague and never showed. The final Cup tally for forced prostitution arrests: 5. German brothels couldn't even report a surge in business. And a further study by the Swedish government ruled "the 40,000 estimate was unfounded and unrealistic."
There don't appear to be solid figures for last summer's South African Cup, but anecdotal evidence says the sex business was slow.
The only concrete numbers we have: Museums showed record attendance.
This isn't to say that the sex trade isn't alive and well. It is. Nor is it to imply there are no such thing as teen prostitutes. There are. The problem is that most of what we believe remains fixed in a blaxploitation film from 1973, where menacing pimps named Lester beat their weeping charges with diamond-encrusted canes.
Ask Maggie McNeill.
That's not her real name. It's the pen name she uses on her website, The Honest Courtesan, where she dispenses wisdom on all things hooker. She ran an escort service in New Orleans for six years, supplying ladies for the 2002 Super Bowl. As she sees it, almost all we believe about the industry is fallacy.
"Pimps do exist," she says, "but they're a relatively rare phenomenon." The vast majority of hookers are willing, independent contractors.
Underage hookers are also "extremely rare," McNeill says. Over the years, she fielded a few hundred applications from ladies of the eve. Only one didn't pass a drivers license check.
Sure, there are exceptions. But McNeill doesn't think huge numbers of hookers are going anywhere. And they won't be heading to Dallas for a very simple reason: Sporting events suck for the sex trade.
The younger fans have already spent thousands on jacked-up hotel rates, airfare and scalped tickets, she says. They only have enough left to nurse Bud Lights and Jäger bombs.
The executive caste may have money to burn, but most bring their families along. "What do they say to their wives?" McNeill asks. "'Hey honey, I'm going to see a hooker now?'"
As for McNeill's experience during Super Bowl week in New Orleans: "I really saw no change whatsoever."
So how do these myths get started? Through good intentions, of course.
There's no way to quantify the number of hookers, since most women won't admit to their profession. Public confession only brings an audit from the IRS or a visit from child welfare workers.
That leaves the outside world to speculate—usually with stats only appreciated after eight beers near closing time. Professors pitch junk studies whereby every runaway girl is a potential prostitute.
Advocacy groups take those numbers and fan them by the thousands, buffing them with lurid anecdotes of "sex slaves" and "victims of human trafficking." The fervent simply can't believe that isolated cases are just that: isolated.
But it's hard to kindle interest in the world's oldest profession. So they latch onto the occasional news story or CNN special. After all, children in distress sell.
"Underage girls make better victims, better poster children," says McNeill, a former librarian with a master's from LSU. "I'm 44. What kind of believable victim would I make?"
The study by the Dallas Women's Foundation shows how the numbers are baked. It hired a company to gauge the percentage of juvenile hookers in Dallas. Its scientific method: Look at online escort ads and guess the ages of the women pictured!
Never mind that escort services often yank said photos from the Internet to put their most sultry visual forward. And never mind that such methodology wouldn't pass muster at Mert's Discount Community College & Small Engine Repair.
The company still decreed that 38 percent of Dallas hookers were underage!
(Disclosure: The Dallas Observer and Backpage.com are owned by the same parent company, Village Voice Media Holdings.)
Not ones to miss 30 seconds of free air time, that's when the politicians climb aboard. After all, what would you rather do? Be fitted for the role of child-rescuing hero at a congressional hearing or a press conference? Or sit down to the complex, painful task of addressing America's age-old runaway problem?
Of course, we in the media are equally culpable. We dutifully relay the fraud via our Patented Brand of Unquestioning Stenography, rarely bothering to check if it's remotely plausible.
And by this time, there's no going back. The fraud must be upheld. Charities have raised money to help the innocents. Politicians have brayed and task forces have been appointed. Editors and news directors have ordered five-part series. No one wants to look like a moron.
But the week after every Super Bowl, they all go quiet. Either the 100,000 hookers never showed, or they were in dastardly possession of super invisible powers.
Maybe it will be different in Dallas, with its all-hands-on-deck vigilance. Perhaps next week's dockets will be sagging with thousands of runaway middle-school volleyball stars. Perhaps the Shapiro Law Firm will be giving a bulk rate to the entire roster of the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.