Sex & Modern Slavery: Why human trafficking thrives in Nevada despite legalized prostitution

Nevada is not just a sex trafficking hub, the state also ranks among the top five in the prevalence of women murdered by men in the country

                            Sex & Modern Slavery: Why human trafficking thrives in Nevada despite legalized prostitution
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Sex & Modern Slavery is a campaign focused on the issues of human trafficking within the sex industry in the US. Over the next few days, this column will feature stories on the aspects of the illicit business and the role of the society in mitigating the issue.

"Sin City" and "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" are popular phrases that pertain to the state of Nevada where human trafficking is a serious problem. However, another moniker for the state that you might not be aware of is "America's Disneyland of Sex," as used by Chariane K Forrey, a researcher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In fact, many young people find themselves vulnerable to sex trafficking in Nevada's most popular city, Las Vegas. 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has listed Las Vegas as a top thirteen city for high-intensity child prostitution. Although Las Vegas has only a quarter of the population of New York City, it has three times the number of juvenile arrests, with the average age of a child prostitute being 14 years old, according to Forrey's research. Many of these children “age out” and become adult women remaining under the control of a pimp. The prostitution of adults is legal in 11 rural counties in Nevada. By creating false identification, outside pimps can use these brothels to traffic children.

In 2009, Shared Hope International's study on minors trafficked domestically within the United States found that the number of suspected domestic minors in sex trafficking in Las Vegas was 5,122 -- the highest estimate among all cities researched. Between 1994 and 2007, almost 1,500 minors appeared before a Las Vegas judge for prostitution-related charges, yet law enforcement arrested just 435 pimps between that same period.

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Nevada is not just a sex trafficking hub -- the Department of Justice rated Las Vegas among the top 17 destinations for traffickers to target -- but the state also ranks among the top five in the prevalence of women murdered by men in the country according to the Violence Policy International's study of data from 2017. According to the organization called Human Trafficking Initiative, legalized prostitution in Nevada led to the state having the highest rates of illegal sex trade in the country, adjusted for population -- 63% higher than the next highest state of New York and double that of Florida.

An audit by the Sherrif's Office in Lyon's County, Nevada, last year of the legal brothels in the county found that 30% of the women had red flags for being sex trafficking victims. The analysis pointed to at least six different human trafficking indicators, showing that some sex workers could still be controlled by a pimp. Other human trafficking indicators observed in the audit included documentation showing workers applying for prostitution work cards “almost immediately” after entering the country, as well as documentation of an out-of-state marriage “upon entry into the US." 

A 2013 study of 150 countries from the London School of Economics found that wherever prostitution was legal, sex-trafficking tended to increase, not decrease, as demand also increased with the legalization. The organization End Sexual Exploitation wrote this about the state, "Despite all the rhetoric about supporting the choices of those in the sex trade, when advocacy groups and governments normalize the sex trade, they choose to allow the vulnerable, desperate, and reckless to become the prey of the greedy, powerful, selfish, and lascivious. They choose to ensure that a pool of persons are always on supply as public, sexual property. They disregard the immeasurable harm to the lives of those used up as fodder in the commercial sex industry."

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In her 2007 report, 'Prostitution and trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections', Melissa Farley presents the results of numerous interviews with brothel owners and prostitutes, and she says that most brothel prostitutes are controlled by outside pimps and that they suffer widespread abuse by brothel owners and customers.

One of the most famous cases about potential trafficking cases in Las Vegas is that of Jessie Foster, a Canadian woman who disappeared in the city in 2006. Foster had decided to stay back in Las Vegas after visiting with her friend, and in 2005 got involved in prostitution. She was arrested once for solicitation and was the victim of battery on several occasions. Foster was one of four sex workers who disappeared in Las Vegas between 2003 and 2006. The bodies of the other three had since been found. In the aftermath of her disappearance, her mother, Glendene Grant founded Mothers Against Trafficking in Humans. Grant believed that Foster became an unwilling victim of human trafficking and that Jessie thereby became a sexual slave.

A study by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) and the Arizona State University found that the most common type of sex trafficker of these victims was a Romeo-type pimp using romance and promises to convince the victim to enter into prostitution. In some cases, the Romeo-type pimp turned into a violent, fear-based Guerilla pimp once the victim stopped responding to the Romeo technique. Additionally, social media was used in the recruitment of nearly one out of every three sex trafficking victims.

The problem is that Nevada’s system of criminalization outside of legal brothels still does not provide adequate protection for sex trafficking victims. According to Forrey, the law treats victims as criminals and fails to prosecute the traffickers justly. Forrey recommends that the law should recognize adults and children forced into prostitution as victims and not as criminals. Forrey also says that comprehensive awareness campaigns must be promoted to teach the public about issues of sex trafficking and how to best respond. Additionally, the detection and arrest of sex buyers must be enforced. 

If you or someone you know may be a victim of trafficking, call the national human trafficking hotline at 888-373-7888 or text “HELP” to 233-733.

If you have a news scoop or an interesting story for us, please reach out at (323) 421-7514