North Dakota’s male-dominated oil fields have created huge demand for sex workers. This demand has led to a human trafficking epidemic that the state can’t remedy on its own.
It’s an unfortunate reality seen throughout the world: where there are men and money, there are prostitutes. And where there are prostitutes, there are victims of human trafficking.
Not all individuals selling sex choose to do so willingly — some reports estimate that about 70 percent of “prostitutes” are actually human trafficking victims. There has been a push in recent years to crack down on the underground sex industry and help those who were forced into the industry to escape the physical, economic and emotional controls placed on them by their pimps or traffickers.
While it’s no secret that human trafficking victims are being bought and sold every day in the United States, many people purchasing sex are unaware that the prostitute they hired may be a human trafficking victim. This lack of awareness has allowed the industry to continue to profit, especially in prosperous, male-dominated regions such as North Dakota.
Amid the financial boom in the oil-rich Bakken region of North Dakota, many young men have flocked to the once desolate state, causing housing prices to skyrocket to levels similar to much larger cities like San Francisco.
The men working on the oil fields don’t seem put off by the large rent checks they are writing, but the highly skewed male-to-female ratio is proving problematic, prompting many to seek out prostitutes.
Although prostitution is currently illegal in North Dakota and is classified as a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine, the demand for prostitutes has never been higher in the Roughrider State.
Windie Jo Lazenko is an advocate for human trafficking victims who founded 4Her North Dakota — a ministry that helps educate the public and advocate for victims in the hope of eradicating human trafficking for the purpose of sex in the United States. Though she was raised in Southern California, Lazenko has found herself in North Dakota in recent years investigating rumors of rampant human trafficking in the state.
After touring the town of Williston, which included visits to Wal-Mart parking lots and hotels where entire floors have been purchased by pimps and traffickers, and browsing websites such as Backpage.com, Lazenko says she can confirm that those rumors were, sadly, not rumors at all — the state is facing a human trafficking epidemic.
Lazenko told MintPress that the number of trafficking victims in the state is higher than many people realize. Unlike several other states that have been proactive in implementing tougher laws, she says, North Dakota is still struggling to educate the public and law enforcement officials about prostitution and human trafficking.
By failing to educate the public and law enforcement, she says, awareness for the darker side of the sex industry is limited in North Dakota. But that may soon be changing.
A call for help
Earlier this week, North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer and Rep. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota met with North Dakota’s Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and state law enforcement officials to discuss growing concerns related to human trafficking in the state, as well as ways North Dakota’s human trafficking epidemic could be helped by national efforts.
Stenehjem also discussed the implementation of safe harbor legislation that would guide law enforcement to assist victims of human trafficking instead of arresting them for prostitution.
Much attention has been paid to the human trafficking epidemic in North Dakota, but human trafficking occurs in every state in the U.S. As with other countries, the people involved often have no choice but to sell their bodies.
“A lot of people think this happens only in faraway countries outside of the United States,” Paulsen said. “The truth is it’s happening in our backyards.”
“Human trafficking is a serious epidemic which hits us close to home in North Dakota, but is also demanding attention nationally,” Cramer said in a statement on Monday.
Though not all states have asked for federal assistance in combating human trafficking, Stenehjem says that national assistance is required in North Dakota because “these are not localized enterprises, these are nationwide, even international” operations. Despite the size of the problem, anti-trafficking advocates say North Dakota only has one FBI agent currently working on human trafficking cases.
People before profit
The reason so many people are being trafficked to the region is because it’s been reported that some prostitutes make as much as $160,000 a year. The men who are earning historic figures in the oil fields are apparently sharing some of that wealth with the men and women who keep them company.
On websites such as Backpage.com, women describe themselves as being from places as far away as Las Vegas, New Orleans and Miami, illustrating just how far some women are forced to travel to earn money for their pimps or traffickers. Those who are from other countries usually make their way to North Dakota after they are promised a good job or education, but their traffickers take away the women’s papers when they arrive.
These trafficking victims can’t just run away, either. As Lazenko points out, many of the victims are branded by their pimps — often in the form of a tattoo of the pimp’s name.
A survivor of human trafficking herself, Lazenko says that even without the Bakken oil fields, she believes human trafficking would still be on the rise in North Dakota, as well as across the rest of the United States.
“National awareness is needed across the board,” she said. “It’s real and here, and we need to do something about this.”
Since Lazenko knows first-hand the dynamics at work in the industry, she has decided to stay in the state — specifically in Williston, a city where many human trafficking victims are reportedly taken — to serve the needs of the victims. So far, she says she has helped “10 girls” escape the sex trade.
Working alongside domestic violence shelters in the area, Lazenko says she provides mentorship and advocacy support. She also helps to fill other gaps the shelters lack for human trafficking victims, such as education and job opportunities.
Though safety and shelter are Lazenko’s first priority when helping victims — she says there’s not much you can do to help someone if you can’t house them — she also helps trafficking victims obtain the mental health services they need due to the severe trauma they’ve suffered.
“Their bodies have taken a beating in lots of different ways,” she said, adding that many are told they are only good for providing sexual services.
Members of the general public can help end human trafficking by educating themselves on how to identify a human trafficking victim, she says, encouraging people to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline, law enforcement and advocacy groups such as 4Her.
But as Paula Bosh, a victim specialist with the FBI’s Minot, N.D., operations, told a local news outlet, North Dakotans’ “niceness” can impede their ability to identify or report trafficking.
“We’re all very North Dakota nice here, I think, and would like to believe that this isn’t happening,” Bosh said. “Once you see it, you don’t unsee it. It’s very much there.”
Lazenko also says financial resources are needed to house victims of human trafficking, so members of the public hoping to help can always donate money to relevant groups and advocacies. It’s also important to vote for candidates on both the local and national levels who pledge to fight against human trafficking, she says.
However, Lazenko cautions that none of these tactics will be enough as long as there is a demand for sex workers, which is what creates an opportunity for pimps and traffickers to exploit men and women, boys and girls.
“Men who purchase sex are under the impression that women are willing and want to do this as a way to support themselves,” she said.
That may be the case in a small percentage of cases, she says, but the majority of the men and women — both underage and adult — selling their bodies are being exploited. The only way to truly set them free is to end the demand for sex.