ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Strippers and owners of topless clubs are scheduled to meet next week in New Mexico with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials who hope to bring more awareness to sex trafficking, a growing problem some call "virtual slavery."
The special conference slated for Tuesday at the Elegante Hotel in Albuquerque is aimed at educating around 125 people in the adult entertainment industry about the dangers of sex trafficking and how to report it if they see it.
With the help of a female Homeland Security Investigations agent working in southern New Mexico, the arm of ICE is seeking to reach out to people who may be working alongside victims of sex trafficking without even knowing it.
ACE National, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents strip clubs and other adult entertainment establishments, is hosting the event as part of organization's nationwide push to help dancers and club owners identify sex trafficking and rescue victims.
ACE National's executive director, Angelina Spencer, said the group has trained 2,000 people nationwide, and club owners have an important interest in keeping any ties to sex trafficking out of their industry.
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, sex trafficking involves prostitution and other adult services that are induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act is under 18 years old. Often victims are drawn into sex trafficking by kidnappings, promises of a better job in another country, or being sold into the trade by family members.
"This is not a strip club problem. It's a U.S. problem," Spencer said. "From farm labor to a hair salon out of New Jersey, sex trafficking is everywhere and we need to be aware of it."
But she said ACE National felt it needed to create an educational program directed toward people in the adult entertainment industry since they might be exposed to trafficking victims. The group's effort is called COAST — Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking.
"Our clubs do not want to be associated with sex trafficking," Spencer said. "We're about entertainment and fun, not slavery and coercion."
Kevin Abar, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New Mexico, said the federal agency is in a big push to educate the public about sex trafficking.
"A lot people don't know that if you agree to a certain job involving sex and someone has to go across state lines for that job, that's sex trafficking," Abar said. "We're going to start being aggressive about going after sex traffickers, and people in this industry need to know what the laws are and how to spot trafficking."
Spencer said clubs are beginning to hang informational posters in places like dressing rooms to let performers know where they can call to report suspicions of sex trafficking.
"We don't want them to be vigilantes," she said. "We just want them to keep their eyes open."
Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras .