A 14-year-old girl in Reno is fed up at home so she runs away, phoning her boyfriend to meet up to stay at a hotel together. Later, with five strange men waiting outside the hotel room door, her boyfriend says to her, “I need you to do this for me.” He meant perform sexual acts on the men in exchange for cash. When the girl said no, he raped and beat her; through her bruises she finally did what he’d demanded.
Not one of the men asked if she was okay.
“Why would they do that?” the woman later wondered — years after having been heavily involved in the illegal, exploitative side of Nevada’s sex trade.
“She’d had this experience for a few years at that point and doesn’t realize that’s a terrible thing,” said Melissa Holland, founder of faith-based nonprofit Awaken Reno, who spoke directly with the anonymous woman about her circumstance.
Since its start in 2010, Holland’s organization has worked with around 600 victims of human sex trafficking in Reno. Though they span a wide range of ages, Holland told Moonshine that the youngest victim she’s worked with was 11 and the oldest have been in their 60s. Of about 170 of those victims who accessed Awaken’s services and support systems in 2019, about a third are minors. Roughly half of the victims she’s assisted are white, half other ethnicities, and the “vast majority” began their relationship with the sex trade as children. Many of those children had been part of the foster system or living in group homes.
A ‘unique scourge’
The FBI treats sex trafficking under its human trafficking criminal definition, as crimes where “persons … are compelled to engage in commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion,” according to their website. But this gets complicated when victims, who can be manipulated or conditioned, may not always know they’re victims, said Gina Swankie, public affairs specialist for the FBI’s Sacramento field office (which includes the Tahoe/ Truckee region in its coverage area). Although the FBI only recently started compiling data on human trafficking, “if you’re looking for it, you’re going to find it,” Swankie said.
Human trafficking wasn’t outlawed in the U.S. officially until 2000, when the Clinton administration signed into law the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act.
In 2016, in a speech to the Clinton Global Initiative, President Barack Obama described “the injustice, the outrage of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name: modern slavery. It is barbaric and it is evil and it has no place in a civilized world.” Obama also declared January National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month to aid data collection efforts, increase training for recognizing victims, and create a task force.
A fair amount of victims and perpetrators of sex trafficking use Interstate 80 as a pipeline en route to Nevada, though Truckee Police Department Detective Sgt. Danny Renfrow said local law enforcement isn’t always successful in identifying these situations because the highway is outside of their jurisdiction.
“There’s so many challenges to get through to [victims] to find out that they’re actually being trafficked,” he said. “So how many have gotten by us, I don’t know.”
They head for Nevada, the land of semi-legal prostitution, where there is a hub and culture of sex tourism.
“If they are going across state lines, they’re predominantly Northern California [to] Northern Nevada, and second to that would be Northern Nevada [to] Vegas, but it’s not as much,” explained Awaken’s Holland based on her experience. “We see that [I-]80 route more often than not.” She cited Sacramento, Stockton, Oakland, and other places in the Bay Area and Northern California as frequent origins of victims and their traffickers.
Recent criminal history backs up Holland’s claim that the San Francisco area is a hotbed for modern slavery. The FBI’s online indictments archive shows that Sacramento’s Jaquorey Rashawn Carter, 24, was sentenced on sex trafficking charges on Feb. 13, having coerced two 14-year-old girls to sell sex for his own profit and ultimately recruiting or managing at least five women in the Bay Area. In Walnut Creek the same month, law enforcement arrested dentist Cassidy Lavorini-Doyle, 36, who allegedly was running a child sex ring between California and Cambodia. Police say he offered a Bay Area woman $30,000 to “buy” her young daughters and police found receipts for “transactions” involving 10-year-old girls in his house, according to The Mercury News.
Nevada remains the only state in the nation to allow any form of buying or selling sex. It is outlined in the Nevada legal code that prostitution is legal in counties with fewer than 700,000 people.
Rather than list all the counties that allow licensed brothels and prostitution by sex workers over 18, it is easier in Nevada to state where prostitution is illegal. Those include Washoe, Clark (containing Las Vegas), Douglas, Eureka, Lincoln, and Pershing counties. Carson City, Nevada’s capitol which functions not within a county but as an independent city, has also outlawed all forms of prostitution.
Aside from Washington, D.C., Nevada ranks first nationally when it comes to rates of human trafficking overall (this includes labor and other trafficking; sex trafficking statistics specifically are still few and far between), according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The hotline is considered one of the largest databases for human trafficking and cites 9.97 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in Nevada. California has a rate at 4.15 cases per 100,000 people, but averages the most total cases annually, with the hotline reporting 3,741 total cases from 2017 to 2019 (last year’s total was uncharacteristically low at 749 cases in California).
Data suggests that cases are increasing everywhere nationally. The hotline, which has maintained extensive data on victims that have used their services, estimates that there was a 25% increase in overall cases of human trafficking between 2017 and 2018. In 2018, the organization reported they identified 7,859 cases of sex trafficking nationally, affecting 14,749 victims.
Globally, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that more than 40 million people around the world were victims of some form of modern slavery in 2016, and that at any given time that year, 4.8 million people were victims of forced sexual exploitation. The top way traffickers lured their victims into the trade, states the National Human Trafficking Hotline, was overwhelmingly a proposition from an intimate partner or spouse, followed by other family members, someone posing as a benefactor, someone promising a job, or, lastly, someone making false promises.
And therein lies one of the largest difficulties for local nonprofits, law enforcement, hospitals, airports, or other entities and agencies that want to be proactive in helping victims of sex trafficking: With the complex relationships typically formed between victims and traffickers, advocates are often seeking to help people who don’t want to be helped, or are inconsistent in whether they’re willing to accept it.
“Human trafficking is such a unique scourge, and how do you prepare for that?” said Brian Kulpin, vice president of marketing and public affairs for the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Kulpin is at the forefront of a recent push to increase training, security protocol, and resources for victims of human trafficking at the airport.
Creating safe spaces where victims may already be
Kulpin and his team have worked hard to ensure that RNO has infrastructure in place to allow victims to identify themselves in a safe manner and connect them with the resources they need.
Efforts came about because of “the right pieces falling into place at the right time with the right people and the right commitment,” Kulpin said. He added that he sees trafficking as a real issue in the Reno community and noted his high school-aged twin children and his 19-year-old daughter have heard stories of people they knew being trafficked or solicited to sell sex.
Both RNO’s CEO Marily Mora and board member Richard Jay serve with Awaken’s Holland on Reno’s newly created anti-human trafficking task force and are passionate about the issue, giving Kulpin “free rein,” he says, to create a comprehensive program. That system, announced in a press conference in August alongside Awaken, includes the airport being designated as a “safe space”; signage explaining how to get help in four languages (English, Spanish, Tagalog, and Mandarin, the languages Holland advised Kulpin are the most commonly spoken among the region’s sex trafficking victims); specialized training for all 3,000 of the airport’s staff in recognizing victims of abuse; and extra badges for all personnel identifying them as someone to talk to if help is needed.
“We can take you a few steps to the nearest airport door that only we have access to, swipe a card, and you’re where no one can get to you,” Kulpin said.
RNO’s safe space program has not uncovered any human trafficking incidences so far, though the airport was able to provide resources to a woman who had experienced domestic violence and a veteran suffer- ing from PTSD who used the signage and badge system to ask for help. Kulpin said the system is in place as a catch-all for people who may need it, and that the most important thing is that they have it in place just in case.
Like the airport, Tahoe Forest Health System is among a rising number of hospitals creating spaces for that same kind of privacy, according to TFHS director of marketing and communications, Paige Thomason. A 2014 study published in the Annals of Health Law found that nearly 88% of participants identifying as sex trafficking survivors had contact with healthcare during the time of their exploitation.
However, receiving medical attention doesn’t mean they seek help.
Thomason said that once a medical professional is able to be alone with a possible victim, the important next step is asking “leading questions.”
Thomason provided examples of these questions: “So how are you doing, are you living in a safe place? Are you afraid of anything? Has anyone tried to hurt you? Is there anything going on in your life?”
There are private ways to get messages to potential victims without speaking, according to director of TFHS’s two emergency rooms, Jan Iida, “like putting a sticker [with a message to the victim] on the bottom of a cup of a urine sample,” Thomason told Moonshine.
West Coast-wide hospital system Dignity Health has created a comprehensive program to help health care providers identify and assist victims, and Awaken is among the groups advocating that local hospitals adopt Dignity’s methods, which they are willing to share. According to Dignity’s website, “health care providers are often unprepared to identify and appropriately respond to trafficked persons.”
Northern Nevada Medical Center has worked extensively with Awaken and fellow nonprofit Tu Casa, and in 2019 rolled out their adapted version of Dignity’s training and materials.
“Our staff received training that prepares them on how to communicate with victims, offer support resources, and align with community agencies,” wrote Kaitlin Weber, the hospital’s chest pain coordinator and ER nurse, in an email.
Holland said Reno’s Renown Health has also verbally committed to do so, and she hopes to see them get the ball rolling on implementing a comprehensive system. Thomason said TFHS is open to incorporating any new training or practices proven helpful in identifying victims in the ER and making them feel comfortable asking for help.
So, why Reno? Is legal sex work the problem?
Another victim Holland has worked with “said her trafficker and his community of exploiters … would actually say they love coming to Nevada in particular because our laws of prostitution have done half the work of the groom- ing for them,” Holland told Moonshine Ink.
“Grooming” is a tactic that sex traffickers use to lure victims into the trade by playing a comforting, paternal, or romantic role in that person’s life, according to Holland. She explained that often a trafficker will spend weeks or months talking to that person
over social media or other internet forums or recruit fellow students to work for them at schools and do the grooming in person.
Nevada’s legal prostitution, according to Holland, normalizes the concept
of sexual ownership of another, which she says increases violence toward women, child human trafficking, and other “side effects” of legal prostitution.
It’s important to note that while Holland and others may see the correlation between legal prostitution and illegal sexual exploitation, many sex workers in places where it’s legal and places where it’s not offer escorting or other sexual services commercially, independently, and willingly. As stated in a 2018 study by Creighton University in Nebraska, commissioned by Awaken, “sex providers have diverse experiences within the commercial sex industry, and the degrees of agency and exploitation they experience exist along a continuum.”
Holland would like to see the end of that continuum.
“The promotion of prostitution creates a sort of permission for men to have this financial entitlement to women’s bodies,” she said. “If the effects of legalized prostitution could be pack- aged with a warning label, the FDA would never approve this.”
Holland’s ideal model of legislation is the “Nordic model,” initiated in Sweden and adopted in a few countries, where sex work is decriminalized in all forms, but buying sex is prosecuted. Not all activists agree, however: A former full-service sex worker based out of Las Vegas who prefers not to be named told Moonshine she thinks it is dangerous to conflate consensual sex work with exploitation and trafficking.
This sex worker and activist, who helped organize Vegas’s 2018 sex workers’ rights march and has spoken on panels for nonprofit Gender Justice, said it’s the culture of places like Vegas and Reno increasing overall sex tourism, not the legality of sex work. She would argue for full decriminalization and advocates for the rights of her clients as well.
“There’s not so much of a cultural vilification of [sex work] here … I am able to talk about it freely with other people and they don’t have necessarily so much of the stigma attached to it,” she said.
Holland argues that because of the basic fact of legal prostitution in parts of Nevada, Reno has been known as a “safe space” for human sex traffickers for years. She has made it her mission and that of her organization to turn that notion on its head. She said when she founded Awaken a decade ago, all the groups aiding victims of sex traf- ficking were establishing safe houses, but she didn’t want to follow suit in what she described as a “band-aid” solution.
“I really felt like God had said, ‘I don’t just want one safe house — I want a safe city,’” Holland said.