Oil boom towns have lots of men with lots of disposable income, and that combination has drawn prostitutes to the area.
As the oil industry continues its financial boom in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana, another industry has begun to surge in visibility and profitability as well: prostitution.
Just like in the gold rush days of the Wild West, local law enforcement officials say the women — and a few men — are in these boomtowns for the same reason everyone else is: money. Part of what attracts prostitutes to towns bordering the Bakken oil fields is that those cities are filled with a large number of young men, who often earn a higher income than their parents.
Dubbed “man camps,” these oil boom towns are filled with “A lot of testosterone,” according to 24-year-old Williston, Montana-native Nathan Kleyer, who works in the Bakken oil fields.
Kleyer, who dropped out of college to work in the oil industry, said that since there are so many high-paying jobs and a plethora of men in the area, prostitutes have flocked to the Bakken to make money, too.
R. Tyler Powers, another North Dakota oilfields employee, said he left his native-Florida for a job in the Bakken, where he says he would earn double or triple what he was making and be able to live a “playboy lifestyle.”
According to Slade Herfindahl, Watford City police chief, “[Prostitutes] hear on CNN Money about the disposable income, the man-to-woman ratio,” and then come in droves to the towns. “Some are dancers and say they’re doing this until they can get a stripping spot,” Herfindahl said. “The money is good. One told me she’s made $160,000 a year.”
Kleyer agreed it’s profitable to be a prostitute in these towns.
“If you’re looking for [sex], you can find it; it’s there,” he said.
He added that there is a variety of male and female prostitutes who can be found at bars, restaurants, hotels, and online sex-solicitation sites such as backpage.com. Law enforcement officials have also reported that some prostitutes will even solicit men on the job by going from truck to truck when drivers are lined up at disposal wells.
While prostitution is one of the oldest professions in the world, it is illegal in the U.S., with the exception of Nevada. Prostitution in North Dakota is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. In Montana, prostitution is a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than six months behind bars and a fine of $500.
As the number of instances of prostitution rises in the Bakken region, police say they have stepped up their game in order to prevent further expansion of the underground sex industry, partly to keep residents happy and prevent other crimes from polluting the towns.
But as Montana Public Radio recently reported, since the women usually only stick around for a few days and law enforcement officials in the area haven’t been trained on how to spot signs of sex trafficking, it’s hard for officials to determine if the women and men selling sex in the Bakken are human trafficking victims or sex workers by choice, and it’s been nearly impossible to stop prostitution from occurring altogether.
Bakken: Prostitution breeding ground
According to Bryan Lockerby, administrator of the state Department of Criminal Investigation in Montana, it has been difficult for the state to investigate a rise in prostitution in the area since it’s hard to pin circumstantial evidence down, and no one has yet found any evidence of the existence of a prostitution ring.
“You can’t put your finger on it; it’s just a rumor,” Lockerby said, adding that officials are aware that strippers from around the northwestern region of the U.S. have been rotated throughout the Bakken region on a weekly basis.
Dickinson Police Department Capt. David Wilkie said that investigating and stopping prostitution is a priority for the department.
“It’s not just two people hooking up; it’s two people in an illegal activity. It’s not victimless; it affects families, other people, and there’s a lot of money involved,” he said.
He added that Dickinson is usually a stopping point for prostitutes traveling between Williston, Fargo and other destinations.
“A gal will be coming from the Fargo area on the way to Williston,” he said. “Her ad will say she’s going to be in Dickinson for two days and then you follow that ad, and it will show that she’s going to be in Williston for a week.”
According to Detective Cory Collings of the Williston Police Department, prostitutes have been successful in the city because Williston is the hub for workers and skilled laborers, guys who are getting paid a lot of money — probably for the first time in their lives, and they don’t have a lot to spend it on, since most don’t have a family, or left their families in another city to work in the Bakken.
Prioritizing the arrest of prostitutes
While many advocacy groups argue that the prostitutes themselves should not be charged with a crime since an estimated 70 percent of women were trafficked into the trade and are victims themselves, there are also concerns that law enforcement officials in the area haven’t been trained or equipped on how to recognize prostitution or human trafficking. As a result, many of the prostitutes who have been caught red-handed by police are charged with prostitution, thrown in jail and sometimes fined before returning to the streets.
In 2012, Watford City police arrested nearly a dozen women for prostitution. Herfindahl said his department arrested a lot of prostitutes but also went after a lot of johns as well, since he recognizes “men are also engaged in a crime.”
However, Herfindahl said that law enforcement’s focus remains the prostitutes, explaining that while people think the women are “college girls, these aren’t that. They have a criminal history and there’s drugs.”
Unlike other law enforcement officials, Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching said Herfindahl has prioritized a crackdown on prostitution in his town while many other departments have not, because it’s a Class B misdemeanor, and some officials say they would rather focus on more “serious” crimes.
McKenzie County Sheriff Ron Rankin has followed in Herfindahl’s footsteps and has prioritized prostitution cases recently, even though he says the women often disappear before an investigation even begins. According to Rankin, since the women are moving in and out of these towns at such a rapid pace, by the time police get a lead, the women are gone. As a result, most of the police department’s investigations rely on the Internet.
Herfindahl says he regularly checks websites where women list their working names, phone numbers and communities they’re working out of. He then demonstrated how easy it is to set-up a “date” by calling “Holly” at a number he found online. He arranged to meet her in the lobby of the Airport International Inn in Williston, where “Holly” would agree to spend one hour with him for $300.
According to a report in the Montana Billings-Gazette, while some prostitution cases are indicative of human trafficking, those cases often lack proof, which is why Rep. Jenifer Gursky, D-Missoula, Mont., says she co-sponsored a piece of legislation that would make some changes to prostitution charges in the state.
One of the largest facets of the bill was that it would create an education program for law enforcement and community members on how to recognize signs of human trafficking. The bill would also allow human trafficking victims to seek help from officials without being charged with prostitution.
Republican State Sen. Elsie Arntzen, one of the bill’s sponsors, said that human trafficking is not a laughing matter and applauded the male-dominated state legislature for taking up the issue of human trafficking.
“It was not a barroom look of how our Wild West used to be,” Arntzen said. “This is something that my colleagues took serious. And that’s incredible.”
Lockerby applauded the bill and said that law enforcement has narrow training and resources when it comes to human trafficking and prostitution, so for law enforcement officials, the hardest part is treating the prostitute as a victim.