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COMMENTARY: Time to attack the Las Vegas sex trade

What happens in Vegas shouldn’t always stay in Vegas — especially when children are likely being sold for sex every day in this city. This is an atrocity that needs to be stopped. And I’ve moved to Las Vegas to do it.

When I became general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1998, I made headlines for my off-the-cuff proclamation, “There’s a new sheriff in town.” Now I’ve set my sights on policing something much bigger — saving the lives of the children caught in this dark and barbaric industry. If I can do this, it will be my work as the co-founder and president of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking that will be my most enduring legacy.

As much as we may not want it to be true, Las Vegas is a hub for sex trafficking, including among minors. Arizona State University researchers and detectives from the Vice &Sex Trafficking Investigation Section found that one in five underage victims was brought to Las Vegas specifically for the purpose of sex trafficking. And between 1994 and 2016, there were 2,794 minors recovered from human sex trafficking by the Metropolitan Police Department. In 2016, Metro documented about 140 child sex trafficking victims — roughly a dozen per month.

It is important to note that these numbers include only the children who have been identified by law enforcement. There are far more victims still out there than arrests that have been made. Because of this, it is impossible to know with certainty the exact number trapped by sex trafficking today.

What we do know is that children make up the majority of this industry. According to the Federal Human Trafficking Report, nearly two-thirds of the 661 active sex trafficking cases last year involved victims under 18. Of the 190 victims of sex trafficking identified in 2014 by Metro, 64 percent were children. Many of them are younger than teenagers. Esther Rodriguez Brown, founder of The Embracing Project, which works with victims of child sex trafficking in Las Vegas, says she has helped children as young as 8 years old.

This is not a benign industry. The Arizona State Las Vegas case study revealed that not only does sex trafficking exist in Las Vegas, but it is extensive and cruel — the report showed that “violence was a pervasive theme of most sex trafficking cases, especially with underage victims.”

The only real way to stop sex trafficking in this country is to get the message across to men that buying sex, however “willing” the person may seem, actually feeds the dark industry of sex trafficking — including among children. And the change has to start here in Vegas.

The culture of Las Vegas is a promiscuous one. To those who come here to drink, party and gamble, this city can feel like a place where anything is acceptable. In one survey, 16 percent of men reported having paid for sex in Las Vegas. A 2018 study commissioned by Nevada nonprofit Awaken Reno found that Nevada’s commercial sex market is bigger than any other U.S. state. Researchers also found that at least 5,016 individuals were being sold for sex in an average month in Nevada.

But when a man pays for sex, he has no idea whether that “willing 21-year-old” he is buying is really 14 — or whether she’s in the room because she’s being forced by someone else.

These children caught up in the sex industry in Las Vegas are victims, not criminals. And I can tell you that as long as the demand for sex buying exists, traffickers will fill the supply with victims, using whatever means necessary.

Every American man should be asking himself: What if these were my kids or grandkids? We need to get the message out that buying sex is not an innocuous act. It propagates the dark industry of sex trafficking, and I’m here to be a voice for those children who are trapped in silence. And if Las Vegas leads the fight against sex trafficking, other cities will undoubtedly follow.

Kevin Malone is a former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the president and co-founder of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, a nonprofit, faith-based organization committed to ending human trafficking in America.

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