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Forum editorial: Oil boom sex trade an epidemic

North Dakota’s attorney general again warned that sex trafficking in oil country is, by state historical standards, approaching epidemic levels. Wayne Stenehjem was on the airwaves last week reporting how easily it’s been for law enforcement agents to set up stings and nab men who were seeking to buy sex involving girls as young as 12 and 13. Every successful sting reveals the pervasiveness of the sex trade.

All the pretty spin on the obvious benefits of oil and gas development in North Dakota’s Bakken cannot put a happy face on sex trafficking. All the explanations (“well, duh, it happens everywhere”) cannot hide the awful reality that it has never happened before with the intensity and organization seen in 2014 in oil country. All the excuses (“well, duh, we need more law enforcement”) cannot hide the irrefutable evidence of an escalating sex trade that is growing only because it is following the money generated by the oil boom.

Stenehjem and others, in particular federal law enforcement officials, are not soft-pedaling a problem that goes to the heart of protecting vulnerable children – girls and boys. They are instead speaking out candidly, even as some politicians and industry leaders would rather not talk about a downside of energy development that is as down as it gets. Anyone heard anything substantial, anything credible, from North Dakota legislators, some of whom have sold their souls to the oil industry?

Luring young girls into the sex trade – essentially enslaving them – is a new phenomenon in North Dakota. It is a direct consequence of the oil boom. The responsibility for quashing it extends beyond the efforts of the attorney general and others in law enforcement. The unprecedented metastasizing of sex trafficking suggests law enforcement is not getting the help it desperately needs from the people who are creating the demand.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.