One week ago, I went on something called a human-trafficking bus tour and have been struggling since to make sense of what happened. On a DART bus, accompanied by a police officer and about a dozen other human-trafficking tourists, we were taken past the Shops and Park Lane, where a Collin County man was once accused of forcing runaway teens into prostitution, and then by some strip clubs and massage parlors near Harry Hines Boulevard.
Never leaving the safety of the bus, we learned from our tour leader that some of the massage parlors have been busted for selling sex. (!) The case against the strip clubs was not as strong. The clubs we saw, the tour-leaders explained, shared some common traits with other strip clubs, and those other strip clubs were busted for various types of illegal activity. We did not travel by the office building that's home to the online adult classified site BackPage.com, though we were shown the BackPage website in a conference room beforehand. (The Observer's offices are in the same building, different floor, and the two businesses are not related except for being in the same office building. Would have made for a handy bus stop, though.).
"You can see it says 'new to the city,' 'real petite', 'snow bunny,' 'not long in town,' with some emojis in there," read Dixie Hairston from a Backpage ad. Hairston is the leader of a Dallas initiative to stop the demand for commercial sex, in her work for a nonprofit called Children At Risk. Backpage, as Hairston pointed out, is often used by police for sting operations. Hairston said the ad had many warning signs that the girl was being trafficked against her will.
"All of this is telling us that she's young, she's new to the life, she is petite and young, and she's not in town long," Hairston said, analyzing the ad, "which means that someone is moving her about." People listened and took notes while snacking on the free wine and cookies offered by friendly Children At Risk staffers.
Children At Risk has offices in Houston and Dallas, and its stated mission is lobbying for policy changes to protect the children. Lead by Dr. Bob Sanborn, the group describes human trafficking as a major problem in Texas, though some of their research portraying a rampant human-trafficking market here appears to be overblown. State government research, relying on data from another organization called the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, says that 10 percent of tips to the national human-trafficking hotline came from Texas, but Texas may have more trafficking cases that are not identified. Humans are definitely being trafficked for labor and sex here, police say, but getting hard numbers about the extent of the problem in Texas is extremely difficult. "...these existing measures of human trafficking provide a limited view of this criminal activity," the Texas Department of Public Safety report explains. "A comprehensive assessment of the threat of human trafficking and related crimes should reflect a thorough understanding of the nature of this criminal activity."
Given the complexity of the task, it would probably be too much to ask a "Human Trafficking Learning Excursion" (the official name of the bus tour) to help us fully understand the extent of human trafficking in Texas. What we did learn from the tour, however, is that there are definitely places in Dallas where sex-related things have occurred.
Here's where those places are:
The Park Lane Shopping Center How does one get away with selling a teen for sex in a public bar? It was a good question a tour-goer had, referencing a 2013 case involving the Collin County man. Not even the police officer could provide a definitive answer. Word-of-mouth was the likely explanation for how the suspect found his customers. "You don't just walk in, find a business card on a bulletin board and know exactly what it's supposed to be for," the officer said.
XTC Cabaret "Just like any sex-oriented business, there is a likelihood that illegal activity will be going [on]," Children At Risk's Hairston said of XTC. The club, she pointed out, is owned by Rick's Cabaret, which settled a lawsuit over unpaid wages for its dancers. "I think that's a really good story, because not only does sex trafficking occur through these clubs, but labor trafficking occurs."
Wyndgate By Wyndam Hotels (One key Trip Advisor review: "I was scared! Pimp fight in the hallway outside my door.") So the hotel chain last November announced its partnership with a different anti-sex trafficking group called Polaris, a move championed by the Children At Risk tour leaders. The Wyndgate hotel we were shown sat next to XTC, but maybe that was just an unfortunate coincidence.
DART's Bachman Station "We know that girls wearing student IDs are targeted by traffickers on buses, because they get to ride DART for free," Hairston said. DART now posts ads on the side of its buses urging people to call the National Human Trafficking hotline.
Pandora's Men's Club It's a BYOB strip club, which Children at Risk argues gives the owners an excuse to keep out Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission inspectors and the extra accountability that comes with that. Hairston pointed out that a different BYOB club in Dallas was once busted for employing underage girls. There have been no underage busts documented at Pandora, however. "We kind of just wanted to highlight what a BYOB club looks like," Hairston said of the decision to include Pandora on the tour, "and talk about some of the different ways that they can operate differently from clubs like XTC."
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Blue Angel Body Bath It was subject to a sting operation and its assets were recently seized by federal authorities.
Seventh Heaven In 2010, an undercover Dallas police officer reportedly visited the Asian massage parlor and was offered sex for $200, part of a massive police bust of brothels posing as massage parlors.
Despite that, the parlor was still there and apparently open, though the windows were darkened. "If you get closer you can see that the hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 4 a.m.," Hairston said. "Along the sides of this building are cameras pointed down, not to really look for security purposes but to look to see who's coming in."
Send your story tips to the author, Amy Silverstein.