Sex trafficking takes place every day just under the surface of ‘normal’ life — but people like activist Adia Lancaster work to make it less normal
Ask Adia Lancaster what human trafficking looks like, and she will tell you: It looks like you and it looks like me. “Gated community. Henderson. Summerlin. Middle-class family. It doesn’t matter. It can happen to anybody. You have to accept that and take proper precautions.” She will go on further to say human trafficking looks like prostitution. It looks like a step into a parallel universe populated by “Romeo” and “gorilla” pimps (who coerce by seduction or by force, respectively) operating below the surface of normalcy in a society programmed to excuse itself and turn the other way.
“Las Vegas is such a unique city,” says Lancaster, 38, project director of New Hope Foundation International (NHFI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to navigating survivors to services and educating the public. “Our numbers keep increasing for the visitors we get each year. We’re having conventions every weekend. We have celebrities who are performing every night here, and we have fights that are going on, and we’re probably going to have the Raiders team. That brings an influx — a demand — and people think this is the adult playground. Whatever happens here, stays here. You can call this number and get a girl to your door. But guess what? These escorts also have pimps. The girls in the strip club, these girls, often, their pimps are right there. Those massage parlors — those girls are being trafficked. So it’s like how do we fight this mindset of, ‘Come, whatever you want, you can have. We allow it.’”
Lancaster hopes to combat the issue and the mindset through public awareness. Sunday mornings often find her in local churches delivering talks on human trafficking to wide-eyed congregants, after having spent Saturday night working outreach on Fremont Street with NHFI staff and volunteers, handing out brochures to tourists, and engaging with locals.
It was on one of those evenings, late last year, that NHFI volunteers were approached by a young woman on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont. She said she wanted to get out.
NHFI volunteers took her to Safe Nest that night and the next day bought the young woman a bus ticket back home to California. “She saw us out there many times before,” Lancaster says, “and when she found the opportunity, she seized it.” Lancaster counts that evening as a victory in the fight against those who would exploit another human being as a disposable commodity in our streets and in our homes, in adult video chat rooms and Strip hotels, and also in the battle against a culture of shame and judgment that can look at the shadowed figures tottering on high heels on Fremont Street, or biding their time in lounges along the Strip, and “make the assumption that this condition of slavery is in any way voluntary.”
“Know that that girl right there, the one you’re pointing to, she’s 13 years old and she has a pimp, and she is forced to do that. She has to make a thousand dollars that night before she can come home and sleep or eat. That’s the reality. And the reality is that the youngest girl Metro has found out there (in 2015),” Lancaster says, “was 11 years old.”
There is something both disconcerting and comforting in sitting across from Adia Lancaster in New Hope’s Downtown Las Vegas Boulevard offices. She is at once the most calming presence you will ever encounter and the most impassioned. There is something tastefully ascetic and disciplined in her bearing, which may have come from a father who was a long-time educator, a Marine, and a one-time seminarian. Hair pulled back from the high bones of her face, fitted jacket contrasting with pleated slacks in slate, she is uniformed, and when she says it’s the aim of organizations like New Hope and sister programs Purple WINGS, Rape Crisis Center, Salvation Army SEEDS of Hope, and Center 4 Peace/Embracing Project to bring awareness and end trafficking, you know she possesses the will and the patience to see it through. “When I connect with survivors, it is more about: How can we support you? What can the community do? And how can we share your story, your experience in a way that is sensitive, trauma-informed; getting their wisdom.”
In keeping with United Nations protocols, the NHFI website defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”
“It doesn’t matter if we legalize prostitution,” Lancaster says, thinking of the 15 counties in Nevada where prostitution is legal, and brothels like the Moonlight Bunny Ranch and Sheri’s Ranch Brothel have operated legally since 1971. “In many ways it’s like putting out a welcome mat for trafficking to flourish,” Lancaster says. “It’s really fighting that mindset, and we have to say, ‘No, we’re not going to call this prostitution,’ because there is no such thing. A child never grows up saying, ‘I want to do this. I want to be a prostitute.’ They are sex trafficking victims. And when we look at that 11-year-old, we want to use the term the commercially coerced, sexually exploited child because they are victims of this atrocity.”
Lancaster’s own childhood was an uncommonly balanced one. Born in California to an African-American father who firmly believed in education, and a deeply involved mother from the Philippines, she and her sister were raised in a home filled with love and discipline, and it shows. Lancaster graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a degree in human development, and pursued nonprofit work out of a desire to help the vulnerable and the voiceless. She says that while she does not have a story of direct victimization, what she has is a belief that security, fresh opportunity and a restoration of self is a right we should all hope to attain for men and women who have been pushed outside of safety, pushed outside of community and “pushed outside of the possession of their own bodies.”
New Hope Foundation International began as an organization called Congo Justice in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Japanese filmmaker Richard Fujita was living in L.A. and watching the horrors unfold on the evening news. “I wondered what the U.N. could do to stop it and make sure it did not happen again, then I wondered what I could do.” Fujita’s first efforts were in funding farming and sustainability in the Congo. It was during this time that he noticed the ways in which sex was weaponized, in the form of exploitation and rape, by one village against another. After he moved to Las Vegas in 2010, his work continued. It also became clear that the global issue had a parallel closer to home. “In Las Vegas you could see the same type of human trafficking, using sex for the benefit of destroying life.” The green hills and carnage of east Africa may seem far from our Southern Nevadan experience, but Adia, along with Fujita, felt it was all a circle, an open loop of shared cause, shared circumstance.
“At the time there was a bill that Obama had passed that became a law,” recalls Lancaster. “We were getting signatures to D.C. to implement a portion of the law that says our allies like Rwanda and Uganda have a part to play in stopping exploitation in the Congo.” The Democratic Republic of Congo Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006 was co-sponsored by Senator Hillary Clinton, and it called for a halt to sexual violence perpetrated against women and children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The bill goes on to recommend that the secretary of state withhold assistance — the appropriated $52 million for fiscal year 2006 — if the secretary determines that the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is not making sufficient progress toward accomplishing the policy objectives.
Lancaster and other victims’ rights advocates sent forward a petition, entitled Petition 1152 — the number of women in the Congo who were victims of rape each day — that called for then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to act on the law and withhold funds. It was during an event for Congo Justice in March 2012 at UNLV that Lancaster introduced the topic of sexual violence not only in the Congo, but in our global community. “We bridged what is happening locally with sexual violence and human trafficking, and we had survivors speak, and a former vice detective and politicians. We realized it was important.” Congo Justice became the New Hope International Foundation, and in 2013 the organization produced the documentary Surviving Sin City: The Power Lies in a People United. The 30-minute film weaves a seamless tapestry of survivor testimonials with community leaders, such as Lieutenant Karen Hughes of Metro’s vice and narcotics division, Alexis Kennedy of UNLV’s criminal justice department, Assemblyman John Hambrick, and Chris Chapel, lead pastor of Casa de Luz.
As sexualized violence had become normalized in Congo, many of us were, and continue to be, unaware of how normalized a certain brand of exploitation and accompanying violence has become in our own backyards. “That’s still a very challenging thing,” Lancaster says, regarding the ways we see and yet refuse to see it. “A lot of our mass media desensitizes us to objectifying women, violence against women and the masculinizing of our young boys. We’re fighting against what’s being portrayed out there.”
Perception is everything when it comes to reframing prostitution as human trafficking in the public mind. Daniele Dreitzer of the Rape Crisis Center sees the misjudgment in the judgment we assign. Like Lancaster, Dreitzer understands the fragile thread of humanity that stretches between the teetering woman in heels on Fremont, the girls brought in from California and sold on a dream of a false Romeo’s love and riches, the homeless teen coerced into selling his body by a family member or trusted friend, and the Rwandan mother whose brutal violation is part of the spoils of war. “We’re so inclined as a society to look at individual issues as sort of a slice, or a piece of a pie, but the whole pie fits together. Every trafficking victim has been a victim of sexual assault,” Dreitzer says. “Whether there was money exchanged in a situation doesn’t change the fact that they ultimately have not consented to what is going on. Even when they’ve been coerced into thinking that they’ve consented.”
Dennis Hof, owner and operator of the Bunny Ranch, stresses the distinctions between legalized prostitution and trafficking as ones of safety and choice. “There are no underage girls in legal brothels,” he says. “Every worker who comes in must come in with positive ID and fingerprints verified by the sheriff’s department. The sheriff also talks to these women, privately, so that they are free to say, ‘I want to be here,’ or ‘I don’t want to be here.’ Our system works. It is the only thing that will cut down on sex trafficking. If a consumer has a choice between legal and illegal, he is going the legal route.”
In 2013, Lancaster was recognized by former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, now Senator Cortez Masto, for the impact NHFI made in bringing greater awareness of the issue of human trafficking to the community. The recognition came during the 77th session of the Nevada Legislature as Masto introduced and helped pass Assembly Bill 67, which was signed into law and took effect on July 1, 2013. The law establishes the sex trafficking of children and adults as a crime, makes victims eligible for state assistance, and allows them to sue their traffickers.
January was National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. A new PSA campaign featuring Attorney General Adam Laxalt was screened to a gathering of social workers, community organizers, and vice officers in Metro’s Downtown headquarters. Produced by the Nevada Broadcasters Association and the offices of the attorney general, the series of announcements feature Laxalt unraveling the numbers: There are 21 million victims around the world being sold and exploited. Here, Metro has recovered 2,229 victims of sex trafficking since 1994. Just last year, it recovered 107 children victimized by human traffickers.
Other grim numbers were released in February as Arizona State University researchers completed a yearlong study of sex trafficking in Las Vegas. They found that two-thirds of the victims were younger than 18, and one in five was brought to Las Vegas from elsewhere. Out of the 159 cases Las Vegas police identified as cases of sex trafficking, nearly three out of four were not prosecuted, often because victims feared reprisal from pimps. Esther Rodriquez Brown of the Embracing Project finds the numbers frustrating. “My problem is we don’t do anything with the demand. I know that pimps should be incarcerated, and traffickers, but when you talk about sexual exploitation in our city, most of the pimps come from the same background as our girls — poor, minority. We have to hold them accountable, but the point is, what are we doing to the people who come to Vegas to buy sex from our children?”
Lancaster acknowledges the perfect storm of factors that caused Arizona State to conduct such research with our city at its center, and she points to one of the testimonials featured in the documentary Surviving Sin City. In it, the mother of a Centennial Hills high school student who was trafficked warns us of the three things traffickers rely on, “Our ignorance that this is not happening, so that they can continue doing it. Our denial so that we say, ‘No, this can’t happen to me,’ and then our inaction. We don’t want Las Vegas to represent this, and we have to be the ones who say it.”
To report instances of human trafficking, call local authorities, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 888-373-7888, or the Department of Justice Hotline at 888-428-7581.