Imagine this: You are a 12-year-old girl who just had a fight with her parents. You didn’t feel like your parents understood you, so you decide to run away. You’re not sure if you will be gone long, but at the moment, it seems like the best decision. What happens next you never thought would happen to you. You are kidnapped by someone you know, someone you thought you could trust. This person keeps you against your will, eventually selling you to the highest bidder. For the next days, months and even years after that fateful day, you and three others are forced to use your bodies as currency – providing sexual services to paying customers as many as 40 times a day. You are shipped from city to city, motel to motel. And the cycle continues. Without knowing it, you’ve become a statistic in one of the world’s most horrific epidemics: human sex trafficking.
This fictional version of you is just one of 27 million people enslaved worldwide. Of those individuals, 80 percent are female and 50 percent are children. Less than 10 percent of the victim population are boys, said the Department of Justice (DOJ) in an article about exploited boys in The Boston Globe.
"Men and boys can also be victims of sex trafficking," according to the DOJ in The Boston Globe article. "However, cases involving men and boys do not make up a statistically significant portion of the sex trafficking cases we investigate or prosecute."
Also, the average age of a child in sex trafficking is 12-to-14-years-old.
To help those victims of sex trafficking, a nonprofit called Breaking Free was founded by Founder and Executive Director Vednita Carter in 1996. The nonprofit works specifically with victims of sex trafficking in which they define as the buying and selling of human beings for sex. They provide advocacy, direct services, housing and education for those who are victims and survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution.
It’s more common than you think
If you think this problem isn’t happening in your neighborhood, think again. The FBI ranked Minnesota as one of 13 states for highest incidence of minors in sex trafficking. These victims are often times kidnapped, tortured and raped.
“In order to break the cycle, we must first recognize sex trafficking and prostitution as a form of violence against women,” Carter said.
To raise awareness about this issue, Carter along with many other members of the community gather at events and speak out. Carter joined five other community members on Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at the Rasmussen College Blaine campus to educate the audience about human sex trafficking during a panel discussion.
“Law Enforcement used to think of it [sex trafficking] as a victimless crime, but the reality is that it’s not the case…we know that now,” Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart said. “Once I was elected sheriff of Anoka County, I was informed of human and sex trafficking, and how it’s alive and well in Anoka County and the Twin Cities. [In fact], Minnesota is known as “the factory” by one Vegas vice group. Now, we’re looking to spread the word, get out and help.”
According to a November 2010 study, at least 213 underage girls are sold for sex an average of five times per day, and 45 underage girls are sold on any given weekend, through the Internet and escort services each month in Minnesota, said breakingfree.net. This is not including hotel, street or gang activity. These sex traffickers or “pimps” set a nightly quota of $500-$1,500 for the 3-5 girls working for them. If these quotas are met – and they usually are – the sex traffickers make $547,000 a year.
Remember, 100 percent of women in sex trafficking are somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister and somebody’s mother.
“How can any one of us sleep knowing that is happening in our communities?” asked John Choi, Ramsey County attorney. “If it was happening in your family, what number [of girls being sold] would be acceptable to you? It’s important to understand what prostitution is about, what’s going on with those kids, so we can get that number from 45 girls being sold a weekend to 0.”
What happens to the victims once they’re out?
Once a person has escaped the sex trafficking lifestyle, her life is by no means perfect. Often times, she has a drug and alcohol dependency problem, is homeless and has a criminal record.
“Ninety-five percent of women that come to our programs [at Breaking Free] use drugs and alcohol to numb the pain,” Carter said. “They need it because the pain is there every day.”
In addition, 71 percent of the women Breaking Free helps have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of the traumatic experiences that have happened in their lives.
“It’s not so easy to erase,” Carter said.
Also, 90 percent of women at Breaking Free have a criminal record.
“Their records are because of prostitution,” Carter said. “We think it’s something that they did to themselves, when in fact, it something that’s been done to them. How can they change their lives? How can they find a job?”
Lastly, 71 percent of women that come to Breaking Free need housing. However, they only have 36 one and two-bedroom apartments. The nonprofit is trying to get more companies involved.
“We’re trying to do all we can do, but these are some of the barriers that make women unable to leave that life,” Carter said.
So, who are we looking for? What does the “sex trafficker” look like?
People we know are keeping sex trafficking alive and well.
“They’re your coaches, your pastors, your fathers, your sons, your uncles,” said Joy Friedman, trainer and outreach manager of Breaking Free. “They look like everyone else, they look ‘normal’.”
In addition, girls in high schools are coercing and selling other classmates into sex trafficking.
“You think it’s just happening in the bad neighborhoods, oh no,” Friedman said. “It’s high school straight-A students that are involved in sex trafficking now, too. It’s anybody.”
What’s being done to combat this epidemic?
There is a lot being done to fight human sex trafficking. Stuart said there are now police task forces in place.
“There are task forces now in Anoka, Ramsey and Hennepin counties,” said Paul Young, Violent Crime Division chief, Anoka Attorney’s Office. “These officers are partnering and we have come a real long way in a couple of years.”
“Also, we asked the police departments in Anoka County if they could donate a couple detectives part-time on an ad-hoc basis, when we’re working on specific cases,” Stuart said. “We also plan to attend ongoing public speaking events to spread the word about human sex trafficking.”
Carter said education is key. The community needs to understand this is a problem, and their children need to be educated, as well.
"You never know when it will come knocking at your door, or your sister’s door, but if we can educate each other, maybe we can end it together," Friedman said.
What can parents do to prevent this from happening to their child?
A parent-child relationship is extremely important, and can help in preventing a child from being a victim of human sex trafficking.
- Make sure your children know who to trust and who not to trust. “These “pimps” [or sex traffickers] are tricky guys,” Carter said. “They know how to coerce very young women and children.”
- Have the courage to talk about difficult subjects with your children. Explain there are bad people out there. “I’m brutally honest with my kids,” Stuart said. “I tell them, if it’s not somebody your parents would invite over to dinner, you don’t go anywhere with them. It’s a simple rule and they tend to remember it.”
“We need to tell our children the realities of sex trafficking…in elementary school,” Friedman said. “Also, it’s about having an opendoor policy. It’s about opening the door and telling your children to tell you everything, no matter how bad it is. It’s also about not reacting…let them know it’s OK, so they know what to expect.”
Learn about why there’s a problem with sex trafficking in Minnesota, what the public can do to prevent sex trafficking, how to spread the word about sex trafficking, and options for victims of sex trafficking by watching Breaking Free Founder and Executive Director Vednita Carter in the video below.