(Note: This is the fifth of a six-part series on "Bakken Spinoffs" airing Thursdays through January 9th on "Montana Evening Edition.")
A Friday night at J Dubs Bar and Grill in Williston, North Dakota begins and ends with flashing multi-colored lights, thumping dance music and crowds of young men with money to spend.
"A lot of testosterone, (there’s) a lot of testosterone being thrown around in this town,” said 24-year-old Williston-native Nathan Kleyer.
He dropped out of college after discovering he could make more money than both his parents working in the oil industry. Kleyer said so many high-paying jobs and an over-abundance of men has led to another trend in his hometown—prostitution.
"If you're looking for it, you can find it, it's there,” he said. “You know, there's women looking to make money too."
Kleyer described sex workers hopping tables at certain bars in town, even some restaurants, looking for clients.
The website backpage.com has a steady stream of postings from female escorts in the Bakken area with titles like “°★°Platinum Doll, Extreme Pleasure Guaranteed°★° - 20” or “Brittany♥♥Bring in new year's the right way 2 girls :-) *lips so soft* - 22” Oftentimes, the women say they will only be around for a couple of days.
In Montana, the Department of Justice says there is a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing to rise in prostitution in the Bakken. But Administrator of the state Department of Criminal Investigation Bryan Lockerby said it remains difficult to pin that evidence down.
“You can’t put your finger on it, it’s just a rumor,” Lockerby said.
For instance, he said strippers from around the northwest have been getting rotated through the Bakken region on a weekly basis.
“Even though these people are dancers in that sense, quite often prostitution follows with that,” he said.
The trouble, Lockerby said, is law enforcement hasn’t been equipped to recognize or quantify the scope of prostitution in the Bakken, both through resources and training.
“The hardest part is treating the prostitute as a victim,” Lockerby said.
He said that breaks from how prostitution busts have been traditionally handled, where both the client and prostitute are charged with misdemeanor offenses. That’s made sex workers understandably leery of law enforcement, even though statistics show 70-percent of women in prostitution were brought into the trade through illegal trafficking—recruited by pimps as young teenagers. Meanwhile, Lockerby said only 10 percent of law enforcement has the training to deal with human trafficking, which he calls a staggeringly low number.
That training has been taught at the state law enforcement academy for the last few years. Lockerby said prostitutes caught today still can be charged with breaking the law, but their sentences can be suspended or deferred if they provide information leading to the arrest of pimps.
Also, the state established a human trafficking task force in 2012. It’s a partnership among the state and federal agencies such as the FBI, IRS, and Homeland Security. He said that interagency cooperation helps in trying to address the issue in the multi-state Bakken region.
Still, the task force has only prosecuted about two cases of sex trafficking per year since forming. Lockerby hopes growing public awareness will lead to more arrests.