Each month in Nebraska, on just one website, about 900 people are advertised for commercial sex.

That’s according to a new report by the Human Trafficking Initiative, which shows that the commercial sex industry touches all parts of the state, from Scottsbluff to neighborhoods in west Omaha.

The research, conducted through the Heider College of Business at Creighton University, looked at Backpage, a classified advertising website that features ads for “escorts.” According to the report, Backpage accounts for 80 percent of online commercial sex advertising. The report’s findings come from nearly a year of examining data from Backpage advertisements across the state.

Findings of the “Nebraska’s Commercial Sex Market” report will be presented at a hearing Thursday for Legislative Bill 289, a measure introduced by Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks that would raise penalties for sex trafficking.

Terry Clark, co-director of the Human Trafficking Initiative, said the report is just a start.

“There’s a continued need for new, smart policies that are informed by research,” he said. “Reports like this can start to create a clearer and clearer picture of what this looks like in our state.”

Michelle Zych, executive director of the Women’s Fund of Omaha, said she hopes the data dispels some misconceptions about the industry and about human trafficking.

“I think there’s still an idea that this happens but not here, not in our own backyards,” she said. “There’s kind of a shock factor to shining the light on what’s happening in our own state.”

Nebraska has Backpage sites for Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, North Platte and Scottsbluff, though the ads also reach smaller communities, particularly along Interstate 80.

The site eliminated its escort section in January, but it’s only a matter of time before the ads move to different sections of Backpage or to different sites, said Crysta Price, a researcher at Creighton University and co-director of the Human Trafficking Initiative.

“Shutting it down won’t change the demand and therefore won’t change the supply,” she said.

Ads in Omaha often mentioned that “escorts” were willing to travel to specific parts of the city, Clark said. The top mention: west Omaha.

Price said the narrative of a “chained up and physically abused trafficking victim” is also a misleading one.

“There’s a lot of gray area here between (free) agency and exploitation,” she said. “We would all like to think that if we saw a trafficking victim, we’d recognize it in two seconds. But it’s not always obvious.”

Using computer programs, the researchers pulled data on Backpage ads and identified indicators of coercion and trafficking, including signs that the individual was underage or a part of a larger group of people.

More than 70 percent of ads showed at least one indicator of human trafficking, the report says. Fifteen percent showed multiple indicators.

More than 1 in 10 commercial sex ads on Nebraska Backpage sites advertised someone under 21 years old, and 1 in 5 ads emphasized that the individual was “very young.” “It appears that the people who are purchasing sex know that these individuals are often underaged,” Zych said. “That’s definitely a red flag for exploitation.”

The Human Trafficking Initiative report also found:

» On average, 675 people are advertised on Backpage per month in Omaha. In Lincoln, the average is 200, with 65 in Grand Island, 15 in North Platte and 10 in Scottsbluff.

» One-fifth of individuals in the commercial sex industry in Nebraska advertise in multiple markets in the state.

» African-Americans represent half of all individuals in the commercial sex industry on Backpage in Nebraska, despite making up only 5 percent of the state’s population.

The report’s recommendations for ongoing anti-human trafficking work include increased collaboration between agencies and across state lines, stronger policies to promote alternative employment opportunities and greater penalties for commercial sex buyers.

“There’s certainly a lot more work to be done, but now we have a better sense of what the scope is,” Clark said.

The Human Trafficking Initiative is supported by the Women’s Fund of Omaha and funded by the Sherwood Foundation.

mara.klecker@owh.com, 402-444-1276

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