Saturday, September 08, 2007

Escape From Las Vegas

Published: September 8, 2007

Amber is 19 years old and on Sunday she caught a flight out of Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport and went home to a small town in Minnesota, not far from the Iowa border.

I’m rooting for her. She’s low on funds (“I’ve got my ticket, that’s about all,” she said), and she’s at a crucial turning point in her life.

The question is whether she will go off to college in Florida, and stick with it, which she insists is what she wants to do, or whether she will slip back into her life as a stripper and lap dancer, which is so often the start of the descent into the hell of prostitution.

“I hate the dancing,” she told me. “Sometimes I think I don’t have a strong enough mind for it, because of the way people treat me.”

I met Amber in Las Vegas last week. I was with Melissa Farley, a psychologist and researcher who was asked by the head of the U.S. State Department’s anti-trafficking office to do a study of the sex trade and its consequences in Nevada.

(She published the book-length study this week under the title, “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections.”)

Amber’s story is far more typical than many Americans would like to acknowledge. There are many thousands of Ambers across the country, naïve kids from dysfunctional homes who are thrown willy-nilly into the adult, take-no-prisoners environment of the sex trade with no preparation, no guidance and no support at all.

They are the prey in the predatory world of pimps, johns and perverts that goes by the euphemism: adult entertainment.

Amber’s parents are divorced. Her mother, with whom she lives when she’s in Minnesota, is both physically and emotionally ill.

For awhile, she said, she had a stepfather who physically abused both her and her mother.

“He was on meth,” Amber said. “He’d hit us, scream at my mother. We’d make dinner and he’d go into a rage and throw away the whole dinner. So we’d go without dinner that night.”

Amber was both shy and rebellious and began dancing at a strip club in Minnesota on a dare. That was several months ago.

One afternoon a wrestling coach from her high school came in while she was dancing. “I was topless,” she said, “and I just wanted to crawl into a hole.”

She saved enough money to go to Vegas and tried out for a job there. “The manager told me, ‘You can’t work for me. You’re too big,’ ” she said. “So I didn’t eat for four days. All I had that whole time was one bowl of cereal and some water. It was horrible. I lost 10 pounds and went back. He made me take off all my clothes and dance for him. And then he said I was still too big. You have to be practically anorexic to dance for him.”

I asked why she continued dancing even though she hated it. Her face took on the puzzled look of a kid who had no good answer for not doing her homework.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s not very logical, is it?”

She got a job at Sheri’s Cabaret on South Highland Avenue, which trumpets to all and sundry that its dancers are completely nude. The owners of the cabaret also own Sheri’s Ranch, a legal brothel about an hour’s ride outside of Vegas.

“It’s unbelievable the way the customers degrade you,” Amber said. “Their hands are all over you and they’re always trying to have sex with you.”

I asked if she’d ever been tempted to give in. She waited a long moment before answering.

“Sometimes I am,” she said. “Sometimes a guy will offer a lot of money, and I might think that could help with whatever I need for that month. But then I think, I just can’t do that. Nobody should violate my body like that.”

I asked Amber why she was willing to talk candidly and on the record about her experiences. She said, “I want people to know what it’s like for us. They think we’re just a bunch of lowlifes who like to get naked for money. We’re not. We go through a lot.”

When I asked her if she ever wanted to get married and raise a family, she was unequivocal.

“No” she said. “I don’t want any of that. I just feel if I get married the guy will change and show his true colors. I don’t want that to happen to me.”

She swears she’s going to school and will try to find work in the fashion industry.

I asked if she thought she would ever go back to dancing.

“Probably not,” she said.


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