To stop a forced sex trade

by Emily Kaiser

T EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the second in a two-part series that examines sex trafficking in the United States. Today’s article features a look at Minnesota trafficking as well as local and University efforts against it

The voices of sexually trafficked women and children are not going unheard.

With approximately 50,000 women and children transported to the United States for sexual trafficking each year and Minnesotans being recruited from local teenage hangouts, sex trafficking is no longer just an international issue.

People across the state and campus are educating themselves, creating awareness and working with politicians to protect the women who are considered modern-day slaves.

According to University police and the University’s Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education, sex trafficking is not an issue on campus.

Steve Johnson, Univeristy Police Department deputy chief, said issues with prostitution or sex trafficking are rare at the University.

But many University staff members are working on the local and nationwide issue.

Sex trafficking is a growing problem, and Minnesota is at the forefront of the issue, said Lauren Gilchrist, outreach coordinator for the University’s Deborah E. Powell Center for Women’s Health.

The center focuses on the public health perspective of sex trafficking by educating health professionals on how to spot trafficked victims, Gilchrist said.

“Victims are looking for emergency assistance and ending up in the health care system,” she said. “This is an area (where) we need to raise awareness so we are providing other sources.”

Gilchrist said the University hosted a program last spring about sex trafficking, and the center plans to continue to educate people through future programs.

Globalization and improvements in transportation have increased sex trafficking, University Regents professor of law David Weissbrodt said.

Weissbrodt also serves on the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which provides money to those subject to trafficking.

Weissbrodt said the most dramatic case he heard was of a 13-year-old Nepalese girl who was promised a job but then was forced into prostitution and contracted HIV.

“After having heard that story, it’s very hard to ignore the issue of trafficking,” he said.

Chittaphone Santavasy, a University Humphrey fellow, worked with human trafficking issues in Laos and said she hopes to coordinate with other human-trafficking experts in the United States.

“This is our opportunity to come together and learn to be leaders in our field and go back and continue working on it in our home countries,” she said.

Here in Minnesota

Minnesota residents are also involved in sex trafficking, said Christine Stark, a survivor of sex trafficking in the state.

Stark is an activist through her writing and public appearances.

She said she was trafficked by her family as a young girl and escaped by saving money for college. Stark attended the University her first year and transferred to University of Wisconsin-Madison to get away from her family.

Rural Minnesota is one of the sex trafficking pipelines to larger cities, such as Chicago, she said.

Men are looking for white, blond girls for prostitution, Stark said, and Minnesota is the place to find them.

“The girls are bored with the rural area. It’s cold here, and they are looking for something fun and exciting,” she said. “Pimps prey on that.”

Stark said pimps will target malls and try to befriend young girls.

“The pimps can guess which girls are probably vulnerable,” she said. “The pimps tell the girls they are beautiful, that they love them and agree their parents are terrible.”

They eventually convince the girls to take a trip with them, and once the girls arrive, they realize they are being prostituted, she said.

Trafficking is an essential part of prostitution, Stark said.

“The traffickers want to isolate those being used in their systems,” she said. “You want to keep them transient; it doesn’t let them stabilize physically or emotionally.”

Stark said sex trafficking and prostitution is a “huge social issue” that must be addressed within American culture.

“Our culture is essentially a culture of prostitution and porn,” she said. “It is affecting more than just those in it, even the little girls at the junior highs performing lap dances.”

The issue is often overlooked because of the stigma of prostitutes, she said.

“Much of society views them as garbage, and garbage doesn’t get helped,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to view them as human beings.”

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said her main concern within sex-trafficking laws is making sure people who are trafficked are treated as victims, not criminals.

“We need awareness and recognition of prostitutes as victims so they are not subjected to immigration penalties,” she said.

Kahn said many women are arrested for prostitution and sent back to their country before they can receive help, because they lack immigration papers.

“We are dealing with people who are helpless,” she said.

Breaking Free, a nonprofit organization in St. Paul, assists women getting out of prostitution by providing support, housing and community awareness, said Executive Director Vednita Carter.

The organization works with approximately 500 women each year, about 38 percent of whom were trafficked, she said.

Breaking Free is trying to trace trafficking in Minnesota, but it’s a difficult task, Carter said.

“It’s a very ruthless underground industry with a lot of gangsters,” she said. “A lot of the women who have been trafficked have a hard time turning in evidence because they can lose their lives and they have families they are concerned about.”

The Aurora Center does not offer specialized services for prostituted women but would refer them to organizations such as Breaking Free, said Liz Borer, legal advocacy and direct services coordinator for the center.

Borer said the center may work with former prostitutes, sometimes for services related to domestic abuse or rape.

“It’s always kind of a challenge because prostitution is not something people like to talk about,” she said.