The Survivor

Windie Jo Lazenko’s fight to save victims of sex trafficking
Lazenko began working with victims in North Dakota after the oil boom drove a surge in trafficking

“THIS IS WHERE WE FOUND THAT LITTLE gal in the snow with nothing on but a T-shirt. Her head had been bashed in by her pimp.” Our headlights rake a desolate embankment on the fringes of Williston, N.D., as Windie Jo Lazenko does a three-point turn and continues her grim tour. Gas flares illuminate the pump jacks in the distance. Just up the road, she says, is where a woman was imprisoned in an RV for several months by a gang of drug dealers. We pass Love’s truck stop, where in 2017 a 19-year-old escaped from a big-rig cab where she’d been held captive. Then we pull into the parking lot of the Grand Williston Hotel, once notorious for the broken lock on its back door that allowed johns to come and go unnoticed by front-desk personnel. “This is where Jae”—a 17-year-old high school student who found herself in prostitution against her will—“was forced to meet her pimp’s quota of $2,000 a night,” says Lazenko, 50, a social worker and survivor of sex trafficking who has spent the past decade campaigning against sexual exploitation and advocating for victims across the U.S. She tests the back door. It still opens.

From 2009 to 2015, when oil prices skyrocketed and technological advances in hydraulic fracturing brought an unprecedented boom to the oil fields of North Dakota, Jae, now 23, could have hit her quota with three tricks. Tens of thousands of workers flooded sleepy towns, seeking entry-level jobs that paid six figures. The influx of cash-flush men brought a huge demand for prostitutes. At one point, Williston and the surrounding area had the highest gender imbalance in the U.S., ranging from 10 to 20 men for every woman, according to city officials. Women couldn’t walk into Walmart without being propositioned, Lazenko recalls. “It was an infestation.”

Sex trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, occurs when a person performs a commercial sex act through force, fraud or coercion. For under-18-year-olds, it is any kind of commercial sex

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