Demand and Sex Trafficking in the Dakotas

Since the discovery of approximately 24 billion barrels of untapped oil reserves in the Williston Basin in 2006, the communities of northwestern North Dakota have observed dramatic changes. Most notably, public law enforcement officials and victim service providers have reported a dramatic spike in service requests, as thousands of people from across the country migrate to the region in search of work.

The population in some cities and counties has increased exponentially in just a few years, resulting in housing shortages and inflation, and overwhelming the local infrastructure for health and social services, law enforcement, and transportation.  Most of this population influx has been of men filling jobs on the oil fields and to meet the exploding demand for trucking services and construction.

Many national news outlets have covered such market shifts and impacts in articles on the “Bakken boom,” but less attention has been drawn to the region’s burgeoning and increasingly visible commercial sex markets, and how many communities have seen the need to attack the demand driving these markets.

In Williston, where the city’s population increased 9.3% from 2012 to 2013, CNN reported in late 2011 that female exotic dancers traveled from as far as Texas and California to earn $2,000-3,000 a night at one of the city’s strip clubs. Fifty miles south in Watford City, officers with the Watford City Police Department conducted their first reverse sting when a prostituted woman’s phone continued to ring following her arrest. As police responded to the mens’ requests, they were directed to meet three men near a local convenience store. An additional john was arrested in the city’s RV park, after being identified by the arrested woman as a previous client. Upon arrival, police found that man “finalizing a $1,600 sex deal with two [additional] women.” All four men provided police with out-of-state home addresses.

In Dickinson, whose population jumped from 19,697 in 2012 to 26,771 in 2013, the police department conducted its first reverse sting “since the last oil boom [over 20 years ago]”, resulting in the arrest of seven sex buyers in January 2013.

In nearby Medora (pre-boom population: 111), five men were arrested for “hiring [a prostituted woman] to come from Dickinson to Medora, where housing was provided by the company for whom they worked.”  Their alleged employer, Ace Energy Services, declined to comment.

Two hours from Medora, in the eastern portion of the Basin, the Minot Police Department reports that it has conducted two reverse stings in the last year, adding that “with Minot’s population boom, prostitution is becoming a big problem in the city.”


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