Billboards will help draw line on sex trafficking

The glow of a few roadside billboards isn’t much competition against the Strip’s blinding lights, but it’s a start.

That was the unspoken message I heard at Tuesday morning’s human trafficking-themed news conference at the Grant Sawyer State Building. Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who has been consistently pro-active on this issue, led the gathering.

Not that Masto and Metro Vice Lt. Karen Hughes phrased it that way as they unveiled the first of several Clear Channel Outdoor-sponsored billboards that will put the toll-free number for the Polaris Project’s National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline on the street in large numerals. (The number is 1-888-373-7888.)

Clear Channel estimates the billboards it is donating will display 1.6 million impressions a week over a 15-week span. The national hotline is a tool, one of many, authorities are using in an attempt to pull young women and girls out of the prostitution racket in a city that hypes its sexual side like few others in the world. In case you haven’t noticed, the Southern Nevada playing field isn’t exactly level.

On one side, you have lusty Las Vegas with all the hedonistic trappings and elusive promises of glitz and greenbacks. You have a pop media culture that just can’t help glamorizing the pimp-and-whore subculture.

On the other side, prostitution experts say, you have many girls raised in poor neighborhoods without education whose perceived options and worldview are precariously narrow. It’s little surprise that you don’t find many street prostitutes from functioning family environments.

In Las Vegas, where the sex trade and adult-themed businesses generate many millions, change has come slowly. But at least our community’s teen-age prostitutes — most of whom are local girls — are no longer disgustingly characterized as willing participants in a “victimless crime.”

With the passage this year of Assembly Bill 67, which makes sex trafficking of children and adults a crime and increases the penalties for pandering, Nevada at last sent an enlightened message on the issue in a state that still offers legalized prostitution in several counties.

When it comes to sex trafficking, positive change comes slowly here. Masto and Hughes agreed that the collaboration between local, state and federal law enforcement and concerned interest groups has never been higher.

It will need to stay that way.

Those who monitor sex trafficking at the street level know the issue is complicated by the fact many girls are socialized and persuaded into entering the life.

Persuasion is often accompanied by violence and threats of violence to family members, Hughes said.

Getting into the life is as easy as crossing the street. Getting out can take years and often requires substantial psychological deprogramming and life training.

The fears are often justified and the dangers very real.

That’s why the message that help is out there and alternatives are possible needs to echo down streets where it once was barely whispered.

“I think sometimes the lack of them having a voice comes out of a sense of self-preservation,” Hughes said.

“It’s not until I think we as a community really care about what happens to these victims — and they believe with sincerity that we are going to provide them with an exit strategy — that we are going to be able to succeed at a high level. Until that happens, I think those pimps and traffickers are going to have a strong foothold.”

It’s a long shot, but maybe that change begins with a phone number.

“So much more needs to be done on this issue,” Masto said.

Amid the glaring reality of Las Vegas, Tuesday’s billboard announcement was a small but positive sign.

Change is possible, even here.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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