A Friday night at J Dub’s Bar & Grill in Williston, N.D., begins and ends with multicolored flashing lights, thumping dance music and crowds of young men with money to spend.
“A lot of testosterone being thrown around in this town,” says Nathan Kleyer, 24, a Williston native who’s at J Dub’s with some friends for a few drinks.
And he’s seen it all over town, he says: “These scantily clad women walking in, and they will hop tables until they find a john to take them home.”
He’s seen it in bars, and he’s even heard about it at a nearby chain restaurant, he says.
“If you’re looking for it, you can find it; it’s there,” Kleyer says. “You know, there’s women looking to make money, too.”
This is the kind of anecdotal story you hear about prostitution in the Bakken oil fields region. The workforce is well-paid and is predominantly male. Ask people who live there, and it doesn’t take long before you start hearing about a rise in prostitution.
Tiffany Aho runs a cleaning company in nearby Sidney, Mont. Her company cleans oil field offices in the North Dakota oil fields as well as “man camps,” the clusters of long narrow buildings or trailers built by oil companies to cheaply house workers.
“We get several people when we’re out on locations that ask if we offer more services than just cleaning,” she says.
“Sex services?” a reporter asks.
“At all times, I send two girls — I never send one girl to a location,” Aho says. But that doesn’t stop the propositions from coming.
Scan the North Dakota section of the online classifieds site Backpage.com and you’ll find pages of postings from female escorts with revealing pictures of women offering companionship, massages and more.
Many posts contain disclaimers saying anything that happens is between two consenting adults.
“I mean, you can’t put your finger on it,” says Bryan Lockerby, the administrator of the Division of Criminal Investigation for the Montana Department of Justice.
Lockerby knows the oil boom in his state and in neighboring North Dakota means economic opportunities for organized crime. “Guns, drugs, prostitution — all of that goes hand in hand,” he says.
But law enforcement in the region just hasn’t had the training or the resources to fully grasp what’s happening on the ground.
Agencies are trying to change that, though. There are more highway patrol officers now, and the FBI has a new office based in Sidney that covers the entire Bakken region.
And to address prostitution, Lockerby says, you need to start with a focus on human trafficking.
“Seventy percent of the women that have gotten into prostitution started at the age of 13 to 14, when they were recruited by pimps.”
Montana established a human trafficking task force in 2012 — a partnership among the state and federal agencies such as the FBI, IRS and the Department of Homeland Security.
Still, the task force has only prosecuted a handful of cases since forming.
Adrian, who lives in Montana, says she wasn’t recruited into prostitution. She was originally forced into it, she says, by her adopted parents in Texas.
“I was 11 when I started getting sold,” she says. “And by the age of 15, 16, I was sold to a pimp.”
Adrian asked that her last name be withheld because she fears for her safety now that she’s speaking out. She says going to the police was never an option — she was always so closely watched.
“I mean, if you went to go get help, you were dead. … There’s always someone outside your door when you’re doing what you had to do,” she says. “If they weren’t, they were sitting outside in their cars, so there was no escape.”
But she did escape, making it all the way to a Montana safe house called Traffick Refuge. She considers herself one of the lucky ones.
Now 19, with dyed red hair and a new GED, Adrian is trying to spread awareness.
While Adrian was trafficked in Texas, Patricia Freeland, Traffick Refuge’s executive director, says she’s sure this kind of trafficking is on the rise in the Bakken. She says schools need to be better informed — and that the oil companies need to better monitor those man camps.
“They’re so out of control, I believe, because it’s so rural — so small town — in North Dakota and eastern Montana.”
The attorneys general of both Montana and North Dakota have joined others around the country asking Congress for more funding for programs that fight human trafficking.
As for law enforcement, Freeland says officers need to stop treating prostitutes as criminals. “I don’t care how willing they look,” she says. “They’re victims.”