Sex Trafficking and Elizabeth Smart

North Dakota women meet Elizabeth Smart

Watford City has been getting real about a major issue here.

Oil + way more men than women flock to ND + tons of money = huge jump in demand for sex ie: western North Dakota is prime for sex trafficking.

The two events were not coordinated but in the course of a week Watford City hosted Elizabeth Smart at a “Women’s Day” dinner and also held a Human Trafficking Summit.

You know Elizabeth Smart, kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home at age 14 and held captive by Brian David Mitchell and his wife Wanda Barzee for 9 months before she was recognized and ultimately rescued. Mitchell repeatedly raped her, forced her to “marry” him, and in general just really messed with her mind, her view of the world, every truth she had ever known. The paralyzing fear and trauma that she experienced is unfathomable to me.

Elizabeth Smart presents at Women's Day in Watford City, ND

The fact that I found myself sitting at a table with my coworkers at the newspaper, in a room full of maybe 200 women, listening to Elizabeth Smart in Watford City, ND was strange to say the least and extremely enjoyable to say the most.

She said so much but what really struck me was something I’ve heard tons of times. Her message was really basic and really powerful. We can let bad things define us or we can allow bad things to make us better.

Elizabeth Smart in North Dakota

Smart was poised, beautiful, shy, and really inspiring.

She said that she is no longer sorry about what happened to her. She learned that bad things do not only happen to bad people. Bad things happen where there is opportunity. She said that if she hadn’t been kidnapped she would be just another blonde girl from Utah with a super small sphere of influence. Instead, her trauma has given her life a purpose, a direction, a voice. She has turned her pain into empathy for others.

I couldn’t help but think, while she was talking, that because this terrible happened to a girl, a smart girl from a huge community, with loads of support, a girl who could come home and get an education and had so much access to a myriad of resources she really could turn her horror into a beautiful life. And because that trauma didn’t ruin her, just shaped her, she could turn around and be a huge advocate for other girls, other survivors, without the huge community and resources to come home to. It is tragic and beautiful.

I took so many notes on her talk, she made so many interesting points, I could write about her all night but I’ll stop there. Send me a message if you want to talk more about it.

Anyway, when I met her after her presentation I came on a little strong. I was jazzed and inspired and she was a bit shy and reserved. I was feeling a little ADD and insisted we take an Elizabeth selfie, you know, because I’m Elizabeth and she’s Elizabeth and my friend standing by me, Liz, is an Elizabeth. I thought it was funny, Elizabeth Smart seemed confused.


This is what you call, an Elizabeth Selfie.

Anyway, not too long later was Watford City’s first annual Human Trafficking Summit, put on by local task force NoExploitation4All. Before the summit I wrote an article for the Farmer that you can read here if you are so inclined.

If you’ve watched the Lisa Ling “This is Life” episode about North Dakota (Filthy Rich) you met Windie Lazinko. Lazinko was a victim of sex trafficking. She was first sold into the sex trade when she was 13 yrs old. She fell under every category that would make her a prime victim – came from a broken home, sexually abused from a very young age by her mother’s boyfriend, ran away from home very young, looking for a place to belong, etc. Lazinko was in the sex trade for over 30 years and since her escape has become an advocate for victims.

Lazinko came to Williston, ND (about 45 mins north of me) four years ago to see if the media’s portrayal of the new frontier was accurate, or just sensationalized. She quickly realized that there was a huge problem here and moved to Williston permanently. She has started an organization called 4her and splits her time between helping victims in western North Dakota and educating groups with her presentation.

In her presentation, Lazinko had some pretty disturbing things to say about what she has seen here. Girls in vulnerable situations, through force, fraud, and coercion, are either brought to this area or recruited locally into the sex trade. They function under a pimp. They stay in hotels all night long in Williston where customers come and go. They strip. They hang out in bar bathrooms performing any number of sexual acts in the bathroom stall all evening. I am not making this stuff up guys.

Lazinko talked about a bus of victims that goes around western North Dakota from man camp to man camp. The girls are drugged out and their pimps lend them out to whoever for whatever.

The tricky part is that society is pretty new in understanding what is really happening to these women (and often children). They are often labelled as prostitutes and sort of fall into that categories of small time criminals who the public view as bringing on terrible stuff themselves. Several times during the summit, speakers mentioned that society’s view of and the laws preventing sex trafficking are similar to the general understanding of domestic abuse 30 years ago. Victims don’t want to come forward, they are under someone’s thumb and have not found all that much help or all that many resources to help. The issue is still quiet.

While I’m talking about disturbing stuff, how about this. Christina Sambor, a lawyer turned coordinator of a non-profit called FUSE which legislates for harsher sex trafficking laws in North Dakota, talked about a mult-city coordinated sting that went down last February. In at least 4 cities undercover officers posted ads on backpage (a website that sort of functions as the black market for sex, among other things) advertising a number of fictitious girls. The goal was to arrest “Johns”, or men trying to buy sex.

Law enforcement had such an overwhelming response that all of the stings were shut down super quickly. They ran out of jail space and officers to make all of the arrests. They received requests for girls as young as 11 yrs old. They received requests to just straight up buy girls. They received requests for girls that they could also physically abuse. Dark stuff. By the end of the night 13 arrests were made in Minot, 17 arrests in Bismarck and 8 arrests in Grand Forks.

Anyway, the summit had over 200 attendees. People from all over the state came to participate. The summit showed that people are taking notice and trying to make a difference. Lots of people in the community came just to learn. It was heartening to see so many people care and wanting to join in the cause.

Again, I have been struck with what I am learning and seeing while living in Watford City. While so different than anything I’ve experience before, these last few weeks have pushed me and made me really think. There is something really special in this city, an understated culture of progress and forward thinking.

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