By Suzanne Potter
This story was originally published by Public News Service.
January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and combating the problem is especially important in Nevada, which is home to the largest commercial sex trade per capita in the country.
More than 5,000 people, mostly women and girls, are sold for sex in Nevada each month, according to a 2019 study from Creighton University.
Melissa Holland, executive director and a cofounder at Awaken, a Reno-based nonprofit that helps survivors of sex trafficking get their lives back, said the traffickers target local teenagers.
“Over the last four years,” she said, “Awaken has seen victims come out of every single high school in Reno-Sparks and most of the middle schools.”
All sex trafficking is illegal, online or otherwise, in Clark and Washoe counties, which include Las Vegas and Reno. But solicitation of an adult for sex is only a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail. Brothels are legal in certain parts of 10 other Nevada counties.
Holland said she’d like to see the sex trade banned in every county – or at least, to have the penalty raised to what’s known as a gross misdemeanor.
“We have a sex tourism community here, which unfortunately means this is where traffickers come to groom girls and to traffic them,” she said. “Traffickers want to come to Nevada because the laws have done half the work for them, in terms of desensitizing people to prostitution.”
Awaken and other groups like it offer transitional housing, a drop-in center and counseling, and make presentations at local schools. The Nevada Attorney General’s website also has links to multiple agencies and programs designed to help victims.