We spent last week in Las Vegas, Nevada. We left Ontario early in the morning on Sunday, and in true Canadian fashion our plane had to be de-iced before we could take off! We flew over the Grand Canyon and landed in the beautiful desert city of Las Vegas. It never ceases to amaze me that a trip that used to take months or years now takes a few hours.
Las Vegas surprised us. Generally speaking we do not like big cities, but found ourselves drawn to the unique desert landscape, gorgeous mountains, sunny skies, lack of traffic, beautiful hotels, and flashing lights. We were hosted by a wonderful family just outside Vegas proper who spoiled us with good local food! When we arrived, we took in the sights and watched the dance of the Bellagio fountains with awe and delight. I felt like a tourist.
While driving around, we would sometimes see an illusion of water in the distance, which ended up simply being a patch of dry earth. The name of one Vegas hotel perfectly describes the city – MIRAGE. Behind the glitz and glamour there were some darker themes that began to emerge as the week progressed.
We had the opportunity to meet with two trafficking survivors, one of who bravely told her story on film for the very first time, and the other who has started an organization to help at-risk girls. We also met with a detective who deals with pimps, a woman who used to be a dancer in a club, and a mother whose daughter is still being sold by a pimp in Vegas. Unbeknownst to us, we landed just in time for trafficking awareness week, giving us a chance to sit in on a task force meeting and attend a human trafficking summit at University of Nevada. We could not have come at a better time.
On the main strip where the big hotels are, people wearing T-shirts saying “GIRLS DIRECT TO YOU” handed out cards that had phone numbers and pictures of naked women – often just body parts of naked women. They would discreetly try to hand it to the men without their wives or girlfriends noticing.
There were two things that stood out to me. First of all, every person I saw handing out cards was Hispanic. I saw one man arrive at his corner and reluctantly pull his T-shirt over his clothes, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a job taken out of desperation. The second thing I noticed was that some of the people handing out cards were women themselves, who looked embarrassed when I made eye contact. Our host told us that one night she went with a group of people to give out gift cards and notes of encouragement to those handing out cards, and some of them actually cried because someone showed them kindness. It deeply saddens me that even those advertising the industry are being stripped of their dignity and humanity.
We were told that many of the pictures of women, on the cards as well as the trucks that would go by with big letters “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS” were in fact decades old. They would recycle the same images over and over. It’s all an illusion.
I personally experienced a man in his 50s trying to proposition me and bring me to his $400 room at the Venetian Hotel. When he finally got the message and left me alone, I noticed my hands were shaking – mostly from being furious and disgusted that he thought he had the right to even approach me. I was also a little frightened, since the first question he asked me was whether I was alone. I wondered who he would end up with that night, and couldn’t help but think of the mother we had interviewed earlier that day whose daughter was still under the thumb of her pimp in the very same city in which this man was now prowling.
“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
Unfortunately, this motto draws hordes of bachelor parties and other groups of men into town, and traffickers are now recruiting girls at malls and schools to meet the booming demand for paid sex. Though prostitution is only legal in the rural areas of Nevada, excluding Las Vegas, the culture of tolerance for purchasing women’s bodies makes the area ideal for exploitation. While some women say they have made a decision to be in the industry, a woman we met who used to be in it now tells her son that he must “respect women even when they don’t respect themselves.”
I leave Vegas with hope. The incredible community that is looking out for the at-risk and abused is gaining momentum, and I have no doubt that someday the motto of Vegas can someday be quite different.