By Maddison Cervantes
Four years ago, Detective Sergeant Ron Chalmers of the Reno Police Department was attending church when donations were being asked to build a shelter for girls victimized by sex trafficking.
Chalmers found himself wondering, “What country could this be for?” as a basket was being passed around. It was not until Sacramento, California was mentioned that Chalmers’ attention was captured.
“I am not oblivious to what goes on in the world,” Chalmers said. “But I remember thinking, ‘How much sex trafficking could there really be in Sacramento?’”
A year later, Chalmers was put in charge of sex trafficking investigations for Reno PD and discovered that the issue was not only encompassing California’s capitol, but Reno as well. Chalmers then questioned: if he was not aware of the problem, then how could anyone else be?
“[Sex trafficking] is happening, it’s not fabricated, it’s a real problem,” Chalmers said. “In order to win that war, people need to get on board. I hate to say it, but the reality is that Reno PD won’t solve the issue – it’s going to come from the community.”
Marissa Crook, president and founder of the club Students to Abolish Sex Slavery, is a community member and University of Nevada, Reno student who is working to address this issue. Crook founded the club over the summer, and she trusts that spreading information of sex trafficking will shed light on a problem that remains in the shadows.
“Our goal, first, is to raise awareness on campus,” Crook said. “Most students don’t realize that there are so many slaves just blocks away and it is very disturbing.”
Crook was originally a pre-medical major at UNR. Upon learning of and researching sex trafficking, Crook found a passion for it and switched her major to political science. SASS was then established by Crook and Vice President Matthew Chang, another UNR student with a desire to put a stop to the practice.
Chang explained his drive regarding the exploitation of women, and stated that through his own research on the topic, he became sickened by the truth behind it.
Nationally, the average age of girls who become victims of sex trafficking is 12 years old. According to Chalmers, the average age of victims in Reno is 22 years old.
“In many of the news reports I researched, victims testified that they were often only teenagers when they were recruited, and forced at gunpoint to become prostitutes,” Chang said.
On the week of Jan. 26-29, SASSy Week took place at the university as an effort to spread the word on exploitation. The week consisted of events such as an awareness display, a trafficking documentary called “Not My Life” and a Panda Express Fundraiser for future events.
After the trafficking documentary, Chalmers was one of the three panelists who spoke to the audience, giving insight on the issue through a more graphic lens.
Chalmers has spent over 2 1/2 years bringing in outside sources to remove girls from the life of slavery. These resources include the Washoe County Health Department and Awaken INC., a Christian nonprofit organization whose mission is to unite the Reno community in ending sex trafficking. Awaken was involved in the trafficking documentary and panel held on Jan. 27.
“It’s difficult to try to make the girls understand that there is more out there for them when, in one night, they make more than one week working at McDonald’s,” Chalmers said. “It’s hard to say that you should get a real job making less.”
Chalmers stated that through resources like Awaken, Reno PD is able to offer the victims food, clothing, housing and, in some cases, college funding. Health care and testing for sexually transmitted diseases are provided for the victims as well, including tattoo artists who remove the tattoos applied by traffickers to label their “property.”
If Reno PD rescues a victim then Awaken will work with her to help restore the health and human dignity she has lost.
Crook added that the process of exploitation is referred to as “grooming.” The trafficker’s goal is to psychologically bind a girl to himself. Trauma bonding, which is similar to Stockholm syndrome, is also enforced on the victims.
“It’s very much an exploitation of vulnerability,” Crook said. “The whole fraud component is shown through [the trafficker] pretending to be loving towards you. He’ll buy you nice things while slowly pulling you away from your family, start to abuse you and then begin to exploit you; there is a whole process.”
At the beginning of the academic year, SASS formed a partnership with Awaken to strengthen their fight against exploitation.
According to Chang, the club’s formulated goals are to fight human trafficking in the form of supporting state-wide anti-trafficking bills in Carson City, and creating volunteer opportunities for students to use their skills to help local survivors.
Along with these goals, SASS is planning events during the spring with the Associated Students of the University of Nevada, including a 5k fundraiser, and others that will promote the battle that is slowly but surely catching on to the rest of the community.
Chalmers believes that the community’s education on the exploitation of women in Reno can dramatically impact the sex trafficking business, and eventually bring it to a halt.
Maddison Cervantes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @madcervantes.