by PAUL GEORGE and LINDSAY TOSTE
As the only state that has officially legalized the business of brothels, Nevada would be a likely place for low rates of illegal prostitution. However, Nevada is one of the leading states for sex trafficking – especially in the trafficking of minors.
In 2012, the Nevada Senate Judiciary Committee and state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, introduced AB67 – better known as the Human Trafficking Bill – to combat the rise of human and sex trafficking in Nevada.
Masto says law officers and judges throughout Nevada told her human trafficking was on the rise.
“Our own kids are being forced into this horrible trade,” Masto said in a phone interview.
According to a 2011 FBI report, nearly 300,000 youths in America are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation.
According to The Polaris Project, an organization dedicated to giving victims of sex and human trafficking a voice, 400 minors were identified as victims of human trafficking in Las Vegas in 2007.
In January of this year, a federal grand jury indicted Vernon McCullum III for transporting a 15-year-old girl from California to Reno for the purpose of prostitution.
Abigail Polus works with sex workers as a coordinator for Northern Nevada HOPES. She says life as a juvenile sex worker often begins with coercion and manipulation by adults who promise to provide money, shelter and protection. She says, in most cases, there is a strong correlation between those entering the sex industry and homelessness.
“It’s what commonly occurs with any underage individual who might be homeless or on the streets or lacking in support from their parents; experiencing abuse, neglect, and substance abuse,” Polus said. “If that is your family situation and that is where your life is, yeah, you’re highly likely to try and survive any way you can.”
The FBI found that the average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is 12 to 14. The report says it isn’t only girls on the streets who are affected; boys and transgender youth enter into prostitution between the ages of 11 and 13, on average.
“I think taking advantage of somebody who is not at full capacity to make those decisions is not okay,” Polus said.
AB67 would give Nevada law enforcement new tools to combat the trafficking of minors and adults. the bill would create the crime of sex trafficking and it would allow adults or children forced into prostitution the right to seek damages from the trafficker.
However, Polus and other advocates of legal prostitution believe laws like AB67 may backfire and harm people involved in legal sex work. They say “sex work” is a broad term that includes not only prostitution, but also other acts that involve no customer contact such as peep shows and phone sex.
Additionally, Polus says the bill runs into difficultly when it comes to defining coercion versus choice.
“A lot of people do see this as their best choice,” Polus said. “What realistic choices are there for helping them get out now when it’s their own decision and them using their own autonomy and being respected for the decisions that they want to help themselves in the way they see is best for them? Sex workers don’t always need to be saved. Some people have a very real choice in choosing to do that.”
Polus says there is no denying that sex trafficking often involves the victimization and manipulation of sex workers through brutality and threats. “That is being coerced against their will,” Polus said. “And you are doing something unwillingly or repeatedly or because you feel helpless, or don’t have access to other services or you feel threatened with physical violence or retaliation.”
Polus worries that under AB67, the victim of violence would have no way to protect his or her true identity from an accused pimp as the pimp is entitled to that information in the legal process.
Polus, who was once a sex worker herself, explained her experience in this type of situation.
“If I have something on the streets happen to me, am I going to report it? No,” Polus said. “I’m going to be afraid of getting a prostitution charge, which might outweigh the abuse that might be inflicted on me in my personal life. The harsh penalties have really the effect of not giving sex workers and sex traffickers a voice. They need to feel safe and comfortable and punishing the pimps is not saying, ‘you’re safe, you’re okay.’ It’s saying, ‘you’re good, you’re bad and you need to be saved.’”