Report shows Lake Tahoe is a hot spot for sex trafficking
Special to the Bonanza
Checkered history for Backpage.com
On Jan. 9, 2017, after months of investigation, a U.S. Senate subcommittee released a report that accused Backpage.com of concealing evidence of criminal activity by systematically editing its adult ads to remove words that indicate sex trafficking, according to multiple media reports.
The Senate report cites internal documents showing that 70 to 80 percent of the ads are edited to conceal the true nature of the underlying transaction.
According to the investigation, the terms Backpage automatically deleted from ads before publication include “lolita,” “teenage,” “rape,” “young,” “amber alert,” “little girl,” “teen,” “fresh,” “innocent,” and “school girl.”
“Critics say the website has become an increasingly popular vehicle for commercial sexual exploitation,” according to a Jan. 9 report from the Associated Press. “Senate investigators have called Backpage a market leader in sex advertising and it has been linked to hundreds of reported cases of sex trafficking.”
After the report was published on Jan. 9, Backpage announced it was pulling all of its adult listings in the United States due to mounting pressure from the government and law enforcement.
“The decision ... will no doubt be heralded as a victory by those seeking to shutter the site, but it should be understood for what it is: an accumulation of acts of government censorship using extra-legal tactics,” according to a statement released by Backpage that day.
Of note, company officials have maintained through attorney statements over the years that they have not broken any laws in terms of its adult advertising.
As for what’s next, various cases against Backpage remain tied up in the legal system — including one case that has already reached the U.S. Supreme Court — mainly over the federal law designed to protect free speech online by granting immunity to websites that post content created by third-party users, according to a Jan. 24 AP story.
A recent report suggests illegal sex trafficking occurs in Northern Nevada, including Reno, Virginia City — and right here in Incline Village/Crystal Bay.
Released in late 2016, the 4-page “Mapping Commercial Sex Advertising Around Reno, NV” study, was compiled by the Creighton University’s Human Trafficking Initiative and includes statistics gathered between April and September 2016 from listings in the Reno section of Backpage.com, a classified advertising website similar to Craigslist.
The report states that while the commercial sex industry is deeply embedded in Reno, according to the Backpage listings (which no longer exists due to the company pulling all adult-themed ads earlier this year), it also includesTruckee and South Lake Tahoe, and east and south to Nevada cities such as Fernley and Gardnerville.
The Tahoe region is deserving of special attention, according to the report, because of a higher concentration of legal sex workers in a less-populated area.
During a survey of Backpage, 8 to 10 sex workers advertised their services for Crystal Bay; 40-45 sex workers were listed for Incline Village; 60-65 were listed in Truckee; and 50-55 were listed for South Lake Tahoe.
Overall for the “Lake Tahoe” category 200-225 sex workers were listed, according to the report. Meanwhile, 95-100 sex workers are listed for Carson City; 400-450 for downtown Reno; 900-1,000 for Reno as a whole; 175-200 for Sparks; and roughly 100 for Virginia City.
“Indeed, Lake Tahoe has the highest intensity of Backpage sex workers on the heat map,” the report reads. “The number of sex workers advertising to the area on a per-capita basis exceeds that of Reno or any of the other surrounding areas. Incline Village and South Lake Tahoe also have a high rate relative to their population size.”
Among other findings, the HTI report suggests that though Backpage is only supposed to promote adult escorts and legal commercial sex, evidence indicates that adults and minors have been trafficked through the site as well.
ABOUT THE HUMAN TRAFFICKING INITIATIVE
The Human Trafficking Initiative started out as a student-driven project led by HTI Co-Directors Terry Clark and Crysta Price, before morphing into continued research into the social networking of sex trafficking.
According to Creighton University, the project gained funding through a grant from The Sherwood Foundation and Women’s Fund of Omaha to provide studies related to human sex trafficking across the United States.
The monies allow HTI to hire five full-time employees dedicated to this project. Law enforcement/nonprofit agencies throughout the U.S. have reached out to the university asking HTI to provide insights for their regions.
“There is not a lot of data on the commercial sex industry, so the Sherwood Foundation and Women’s Fund asked us to do this basic research,” Clark said in a recent interview, adding that group has primarily researched the sex trafficking problem in the state of Nebraska.
Meanwhile, since there are reportedly few resources dedicated to the issue in Washoe County, the Reno-based nonprofit group Awaken reached out to Creighton and HTI for help.
“Creighton looked at the website Backpage, and in collecting data, found that there are 1,500 women and children in the region circulated in the sex ring per month,” said Melissa Holland, founder and executive director of Awaken in Reno.
Although it is hard to compare statistics with other parts of America due to the reporting mechanism continuously evolving over the past two years, Clark said that in comparing Reno to Lincoln, Nebraska (with a population size of 225,000 vs. 250,000), Reno has five times as many sex workers per month.
“(Nevada’s) relationship with the casinos and environment is the perfect combination for this type of activity,” Price added. “Lake Tahoe is a nice tourist, expensive place, and being so close to Reno lends itself to flourish there. There are a lot of males in that area with expendable cash, away from their normal lives and any accountability, and sporting events.”
Clark said the HTI research only includes how many sex workers were listed on Backpage last year, and the research doesn’t report any data on specific trafficking. Both Clark and Price said HTI will be attempting to get a fuller picture of the sex trade by using other social networks and other data that is not totally reliant on Backpage.
INSIDE THE MIND OF A SEX TRAFFICKER
“We know the sex trade to have three components: supply, the sex traffickers and demand,” said Holland, adding that a sex trafficker’s main tactic in recruiting victims is the “lure of romance.”
Further, impressionable young women or children are especially at risk, she said.
“They target those looking for love, and through their charming, manipulative ways will start giving them attention in order to exploit them,” Holland said. “They will strategically start to demoralize and isolate her until she is solely dependent on them … it is sick how they do it.
City of Reno Police Chief Jason Soto agreed and added that the advent of technology and how criminals use computers exacerbate the problem.
“Twenty years ago, we tackled this issue through prostitution stings, but it’s changed a lot since then — they have become the victims of the traffickers,” Soto said. “It’s more of a faceless crime, too, because of the computer. It’s been introduced in a completely new fashion. It used to be that homeless or women who were really struggling would seek out pimps or ‘johns,’ but now people are using the internet to recruit.
“It’s much more complex and there are a lot more people involved in that lifestyle.”
Potential charges for sex trafficking depend on a criminal’s background, and one can face anywhere from probation to life in prison, contingent on the details of the crime.
‘WOMEN DON’T COME FORWARD’
Awaken and the city of Reno believe more resources are needed to completely eradicate the issue of sex trafficking — something that is difficult to do.
Further, the fact Reno is a 24-hour town with cheap hotel rooms and thriving nightlife also lends itself to the problem, Soto said.
Although he admits he doesn’t know the Lake Tahoe area enough to comment on sex trafficking crimes here, he knows that sometimes, Reno criminals make it over to the lake, and vice versa.
Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Scott Bloom said he is unaware of any specific sex trafficking crime happening in Incline Village/Crystal Bay. That said, he is trying to get more information from Awaken on how the department can help.
“If there’s a crime like that happening up here, then we definitely want to know about it,” Bloom said.
Another issue is that many sex trafficking victims aren’t reporting the crime, officials said, which adds another challenge to law enforcement trying to catch and prosecute the alleged criminals.
“Challenges for sex trafficking, in general, is that women don’t come forward with the crime,” Soto said. “Some of these gals are young and they don’t want to report it.”
Soto added that Reno has a street enforcement team that addresses these types of crimes in the city and work undercover. One detective is dedicated to sex trafficking, and sometimes the FBI and a specific task force intervene, depending on other factors involved in the crime.
Further, Soto said the city regularly works with Awaken to place recovery program information in areas where sex trafficking victims are most likely to see them.
PRESENTATION IN INCLINE VILLAGE LATER THIS MONTH
Awaken is hosting a free local event on April 26 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Sierra Nevada College, TCES rooms 139/141, in Incline Village to share findings of the HTI report and share practical solutions to try to help the local community.
“We want to create education and awareness opportunities,” Holland said. “Ninety percent of the population believes that human trafficking is a form of slavery, but 20 percent doesn’t believe that it happens in their own community. There are several ways to get involved — if people want to get on the front lines, then there are opportunities to mentor the women and children that we work with.
“The average age of people who enter the sex trade is 14 years old, so Awaken attempts to restore some semblance of their childhood by doing fun activities with them.”
In the Incline Village area specifically, victims could benefit from donated beach passes or professional services at a pro bono rate, she said. Awaken is also looking for financial donations to try to purchase a house for those in recovery.
Although catching sex traffickers, in general, is becoming more challenging than ever before, it is also receiving more exposure than it ever did, so it’s hard to determine whether sex trafficking is getting better or worse,” Soto said. “There are never enough resources to help with this type of problem until it’s completely gone,” says Soto.
For more information or to RSVP to the April 26 Sierra Nevada College event — which is sponsored by SNC Tahoe and Awaken — contact Tara Madden-Dent, Ph.D., Director of Global Programs at Sierra Nevada College at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kayla Anderson is an Incline Village-based freelance writer. Email her at email@example.com.