Updated on February 11, 2016

RENO, Nev.—The number of women selling sex along Fourth Street’s string of dilapidated motels here used to be so high that fights broke out among pimps over who controlled each block.

As the city tries to fix its image as a poor-man’s Vegas and technology makes it easier to buy and sell sex online, much of the local sex market has gone underground. The shift hasn’t diminished prostitution, but it has made it harder for law enforcement and victim advocates to address. “Online social media has formed a beautiful platform for trafficking,” says Kelly Ranasinghe, a senior program attorney with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and one of the leaders of its child sex-trafficking arm. “It’s getting much more clever and harder to prosecute.”

Melissa Holland, the founder and director of Awaken, a Reno group working to end sex trafficking, says the organization is encountering more girls looking to get out of the life. Whether that’s the result of an increase in trafficking or awareness is unclear, but Awaken helped 65 girls in 2014 get therapy, secure housing, find work, and enroll in school. In 2015, that number was 85. Nationally, the advocacy group Polaris says it saw a 24 percent increase in trafficking victims reaching out between 2014 and 2015. “We’ve not seen a decrease,” Holland says during an interview in a cozy sitting room above her office dotted with bright pillows, designed as a welcoming space for women seeking help.

While the women Holland works with are generally between the ages of 18 and 24, studies suggest that sex-trafficking victims are getting younger. Hard statistics are hard to come by on an industry whose main players are experts at evading authorities, but the general consensus among experts is that children, overwhelmingly girls, now enter the world of sex trafficking between 12 and 14, younger by several years in just the last decade (The Washington Post has noted that several of the reports and organizations that use this age range cite a 2001 report that the paper suggests is dubious and outdated. The paper points to a separate study that suggests 15 may be the average age of entry, but there is no conclusive evidence). Most come from poor, dysfunctional families, and many are recruited out of the foster system or shelters by men who promise love and stability. “A lot of young girls respond to that,” Ranasinghe says. “It’s quasi-romantic, quasi-parental.”

Sarah (not her real name) knows exactly how men lure in young girls and women. The now-29-year-old grew up as part of a happy, middle-class family in Reno, but her parents divorced when she was 18, and the former swimmer turned to heroin and meth to dull the pain. She bounced from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego, working part-time jobs to pay for the habit, before eventually landing back in Reno. “Things are just different here,” she says during a conversation in the Awaken sitting room. She occasionally gazes out the window toward a pair of strip clubs in the distance where she still spots girls who are trapped. “You don’t have to put up a face,” she adds, referring to the fact that there was no need to hide her drug usage.

She was living in motels week to week and working a little, but none of her friends had jobs, and soon it seemed like the only options were selling drugs or sex. “You paid for your life on a daily basis,” she says. So when a friendly, well-dressed man from Stockton, California, met her at a casino downtown and said, “Let me take you away,” she agreed.

Her handler would drive Sarah to convenience stores in town, where her clients were mostly Indian men who liked that she is also Indian. Her pimp, who was Mexican, never slept with her or beat her but gave her away to his brother who “fell in love with me,” she said.  “When it comes to matters of the heart, that’s my brother,” he told her by way of explanation. Sarah would ultimately work for several more pimps, each more violent than the last, and occasionally on her own—using the now-shuttered RedBook to find clients—before she was arrested for selling meth. After a year in prison that was “worse than the streets,” Sarah reconnected with her mother, stopped using drugs, and enrolled in college, where she is still a student.  

But advocates say such positive outcomes are rare. Judge Egan Walker, a district judge in Reno who handles child sex-trafficking cases says he fears the number of children who return to the sex industry is high. Their pimps, however twisted, are often their only source of emotional support, and victims, especially young girls, can be reluctant to say anything negative. They also don’t have the ability to process the trauma they’ve experienced, and behave aggressively toward judges who sometimes have very little training in how to handle such cases.

Most, like Sarah, are picked up for other offenses, and identified later as trafficking victims. The children in Walker’s courtroom are disproportionately children of color. Holland says slightly less than half of the women she works with are white, a few are Latino, and most are black. Most are not on-track to graduate from high school and have few job skills, which allows pimps to stay in control. “It’s awful to say and awful to talk about,” the judge says, “but these kids are renewable resources.” Pimps move victims from city to city to create a sense of delirium and dependence, and threaten to hurt friends and family members if victims try to leave.

So curbing trafficking is a difficult prospect, complicated by the fact that local casinos and hotels gain customers from the practice. “The casinos rely on it,” Sarah says. “You don’t get in trouble on the casino floor if you’re looking good doing it.” When it comes to child victims, Nevada stands out as one of the worst states. In 2014, 87 children were arrested for  prostitution, according to federal data. Nearby Arizona, with a population more than twice as large as Nevada’s, arrested just six children for similar activities.

Yet a shift in public opinion on the issue appears to be taking place. Since 2000, the United States, which has historically criminalized prostitution, including when it involves children, has passed several laws aimed at helping victims and punishing traffickers. Nearly 40 states, including Nevada, passed anti-trafficking laws between 2013 and 2014, and more than 10 states, at the Department of Justice’s urging, have passed laws preventing minors from being prosecuted for selling sex. Yet more than half of states in America continue to allow child sex-trafficking victims to be charged for selling sex, and 300,000 American children are considered at risk of sexual exploitation. Even when victims are identified, getting them the help they need involves piecing together a patchwork of agencies that can involve the foster system, schools, and nonprofits. “Unless everyone works together, there are vulnerabilities the traffickers can exploit,” Ranasinghe says.

Some states have created specialized dockets, particularly for sex-trafficking cases involving children. Nevada approved a measure last year that allows district courts to toss out prostitution convictions where the defendants are also victims of trafficking. A judge in Kansas has started wearing casual clothes instead of robes to reduce fear among victims, while another in Florida relies on therapy dogs. But penalties for purchasing sex remain relatively small in many states, and pimps are retreating from public view behind apps and websites. Seriously reducing sex trafficking would require an unprecedented coordinated effort by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of entities that, right now, are often at odds with each other. Perhaps the most significant obstacle is the fact that there are no good numbers on where the problem exists in the first place.