Many people believe that sex trafficking looks like the movie Taken, where a victim is kidnapped and transported across borders. According to Dr. Lauren Martin of the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), the reality is much different. As director of research at the Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC), Dr. Martin leads the Sex Trading, Trafficking, and Community Well-Being Initiative, which studies commercial sex and sex trafficking in Minnesota. Her research suggests that sex traffickers often rely on subtle forms of coercion and manipulation – and frequently come from the same underprivileged communities as their victims.
At CEHD’s Women’s Philanthropic Leadership Circle (WPLC) Spring Program, Dr. Martin will detail her research, and examine the ways that local governments and institutions can work towards solutions and criminal justice reforms to help the victims of sex trafficking.
How prevalent is the problem of sex trading and trafficking in Minnesota today?
That’s actually a deceptively hard question to answer. Because sex trading – or commercial sex – is a hidden underground activity, there is no way to do a representative sample to get a sense of the scope and scale [of the problem]. However, I can point to a few things that indicate how large the basic problem might be. A few studies [on other subjects] have asked some questions about sex trading. For example, there’s an adolescent health survey, that was conducted with a nationally representative sample of adolescents in the U.S. They found that about 3.4 percent of young people had traded or sold sex or sexual activity for something at least once.
That gives you a sense of how many young people might be involved. When you look at homeless and highly mobile youth, many studies indicate that this is a group of young people who are more likely to be involved in sex trading and trafficking. There’s a built-in vulnerability because they don’t have anywhere to stay. Oftentimes, people will trade sex in order to have a place to sleep. It’s [also] tricky because the terminology – sex trading and sex trafficking – are not the same thing. Sex trading is a much broader category that refers to trading sex or sexual activity for money, food, drugs, a place to stay or something else. Sex trafficking is when there’s third-party coercion or force involved.
What are some common misconceptions people have about sex trafficking in Minnesota?
I think people often assume that sex trafficking looks like what we see in movies. People might picture the movie Taken where somebody is kidnapped and transported across national and international borders—a dramatic kidnapping situation where somebody is physically restrained.
In reality, what we see in Minnesota and across the country is that sex trafficking can be more subtle. That kind of captivity I described does happen, but most of what we see in Minnesota is using more subtle forms of coercion involving fraud or manipulation. The victim is often in a very vulnerable situation and they’re exploited from that place of vulnerability. Some of the victims might not even view themselves as victims; they might think it’s something they decided to do or that it’s somehow their fault.
Is sex trafficking in Minnesota concentrated in certain geographical areas, cities, and populations, or is it a statewide problem?
Many people think that prostitution and commercial sex is an urban issue. What we found is that commercial sex actually happens across the entire state, in terms of where sex buyers are coming from and where transactions are occurring. It’s everywhere.
When we look at who is more likely to be vulnerable, victimized, or exploited in commercial sex, we need to start thinking about structural inequality. People who are exploited in the commercial sex industry are often people who don’t have a place to stay or lack a stable income. So, we’re looking at factors like poverty, structural racism, and marginalization. Then, we start to see how the commercial sex market disproportionately impacts communities of color, American Indians, and other marginalized communities where poverty rates are high. People who are exploited are often not able to participate in the mainstream economy.
What does your research tell you about who are the perpetrators of sex trafficking or the buyers of commercial sex are?
If you think about commercial sex, there’s a person purchasing sex, there’s the person providing the sex act and, in some instances, there’s a third party connecting the two. We’re really focused on third parties that are using coercion or manipulation to bring a provider or victim into commercial sex acts. When we look at perpetrators, it’s people from a similar background to those who are victimized in sex trafficking – again, it’s about generating income. So, it’s often people from communities of color because they’re in a similar structural situation as victims, where they’re not able to be involved in the mainstream economy because of poverty and racism.
In terms of who the buyers are, our research found that most buyers in Minnesota are white men with a substantial income from across the whole state. We really have identified that sex buyers can be men that have a wide variety of professions from corporate positions to police officers to school teachers, or any kind of career. They could be farmers or truckers; there’s no single profile of who a sex buyer might be.
In conducting the study Mapping the Demand: Sex Buyers in Minnesota, were there other findings you found particularly notable or surprising?
I think it’s notable how much the marketplace for commercial sex seems to be an amplified version of the inequalities that we see in society. We look at who is doing the purchasing, who is providing sex, and what the payment structure looks like based on race and age. When we look at racism and ageism, the marketplace for commercial sex actually puts dollar values on people based on their identities. That is a stark reminder of how much the marketplace for commercial sex is rooted in – and amplifies – the inequalities in our society.
The issue doesn’t seem to get much attention in the state or local media. Why do you think this problem is largely ignored?
That’s an interesting question, because I think some issues related to sex trafficking do get a lot of attention in the media. For example, there was quite a bit of media attention around whether the Super Bowl was going to increase sex trafficking or have an impact on it. But to me, the media attention is not on the issues I would like to see get more attention: the intersections between structural inequality, sex trafficking, and commercial sex. By that I mean really thinking about sex trafficking and sex trading as embedded within racism, sexism, ageism, and factors related to poverty. I think for us to really understand the roots of sex trafficking, we have to look at how commercial sex becomes a way for people to survive in a society where there aren’t a lot of options for many of our most marginalized people, especially young people and people in poverty.
What are some steps our local and state governments could take to help stop commercial sex trafficking in Minnesota?
Everything that we’re doing, all the different research projects that we’ve done here at UROC on this topic, really points to the importance of making sure that people have what they need to survive. Often, commercial sex or sex trading is something that people do because they don’t have anything else. We should think about racial equity as being something that would help stop sex trafficking. Anti-poverty work would help stop sex trafficking. If people had more resources and support, they would be less vulnerable to involvement in commercial sex. They’d be less vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, when a young person doesn’t have a place to stay, and somebody says, “I’ll provide you a place to stay but you have to have sex with me.” That’s inherently exploitative. If that young person didn’t have to worry about where they were going to sleep, then they wouldn’t be in that position to make that choice. If we were better equipped to provide resources for young people and adults on the margin, there would be less sex trafficking.
What are some future projects you are planning around these issues?
One of the things we’re working on now is a project called Safe Harbor for All. UROC is one of three agencies engaged in a statewide strategic planning process to figure out what changes we should be making to our prostitution laws for adults involved in commercial sex. Currently in Minnesota there are a couple different legal frameworks that deal with commercial sex. We’ve got prostitution laws and sex trafficking laws.
We’re exploring how changes to Minnesota state law might improve the lives of people involved in commercial sex. With the Safe Harbor for Youth policy, Minnesota will no longer arrest a young person involved in commercial sex. They’re viewed as a child in need of protection. That’s because we know that having a criminal record for prostitution can negatively impact the lives of those individuals. A prostitution arrest can make it difficult to get housing, and bars you from being a nurse and a lot of different careers. It’s very stigmatizing.
As part of a statewide strategic planning process, we’re looking to see what the consequences and impact would be – intended and unintended – of changing state law so adults would no longer be arrested for prostitution-related offenses. By adults, I mean those people providing sex. This is often referred to as partial decriminalization. We’re talking to people across the state and will be reporting back to the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota State Legislature with strategic next steps for what the state should do.
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