Prostitution unmasked: Campaign reveals the pain of teen victims

"People think everyone who is doing this is happy and it’s a choice and that they want to meet some rich guy and be happy in the movie. But that’s not the case. People don’t want to know the truth. It’s not pretty.”

Editor’s note: To protect Angela’s anonymity, ThreeSixty Journalism is not disclosing her last name or any other details that may easily identify her.

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Sexually molested by an uncle at 14, she’s learned to devalue sex.

She starts sleeping around to fill the void left by her broken family. To find affection.

It doesn’t help.

She slips into a cocaine haze to numb the pain. Prostitution is how she pays for her crippling new habit.

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Angela’s story of sexual exploitation didn’t happen in some far away metro area like New York City or Los Angeles.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has identified the Twin Cities as the 13th largest center for child prostitution in the nation. In an average month, more than 200 girls are sold for sex in the area, according to a 2010 study by The Schapiro Group, an Atlanta-based research firm that works with nonprofits. Their average age is 13. And they’re expected to sell themselves for sex five times a day.

Organizations led by the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota are rallying for change and working to end the sexual exploitation of teen girls. They are fighting for Angela and young women like her who are forced into a life of torturous sexual abuse.

Angela’s story is similar to many teens’ across the nation. Regrettably, not all are as fortunate to come in contact with support organizations and embark on a successful recovery.

Even now, close to four years since she’s been free and clean, Angela finds it difficult to talk about. While avoiding eye contact and fidgeting, she tries to describe what her life on the streets was like. She often stops mid-thought and can’t bring herself to open up.

For Angela, it was never a “chosen” lifestyle.

“People think everyone who is doing this is happy and it’s a choice and that they want to meet some rich guy and be happy in the movie. But that’s not the case,” she said. “People don’t want to know the truth. It’s not pretty.”

EVERYTHING iS ONLINE

All too often, young girls are swept into the sex trafficking system as a result of abusive home situations, naivete and simply being at a vulnerable age, said Artika Roller, program director for PRIDE (PRostitution to Independence, Dignity and Equality), a Family Partnership advocacy group that provides support to sexually exploited individuals and their families.

If there is a homeless youth on the street or couch hopping, within 36 hours they will be approached by a pimp, and likely sold online, she said. The scene isn’t the same as it was 20 years ago. Gone are the days of johns surveying a neighborhood to pick up prostitutes near a dark alley.

Everything has moved online, making it much more difficult to combat, Roller said. Girls are sold on commonly visited sites such as Craigslist or Backpage.com, right in the public eye. From there, they are swept into a life no one would ever ask for.

According to a 2002 study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, more than 50 percent of sex trafficking victims are classified as homeless runaway youth. Those not classified as runaways are often recruited into prostitution through abduction, pressure from parents, or through deceptive agreements between parents and traffickers. A 2010 study by The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that around 100,000 children are victimized each year in the United States prostitution trade.

There are several reasons why the Twin Cities is prominent in sex trafficking: dual interstates, Minnesota’s border with Canada and a major port on Lake Superior, said Mary-Beth Hanson, director of communications at the Women’s Foundation, which has spearheaded a multifaceted education effort called “MN Girls Are Not For Sale.”

The Duluth port, especially, has a dark history of sexual abuse among Native American girls being beaten and gang-raped on ships by freighter crews. Today, that abuse continues with young girls of multiple racial backgrounds, many exploited by pimps to the point of absolute desperation, Hanson said.

Even if they wanted to flee, it’s common for many girls to resort to survival sex, or the exchange of intercourse for a warm place to sleep, food for the night and other basic human needs.

“I was living with a guy 30 years older than me to have a place to live. What 20-year-old wants to be with a 50-year-old?” Angela said.

GETTING OFF THE STREETS

Lucky for her, she got out after a year and a half and is attending college, thriving at an internship and counseling teen girls.

Much of Angela’s progress can be accredited to her involvement with PRIDE, which helps 150 women and girls escape the streets annually. In addition to counseling and therapy, PRIDE offers a supply room with basic necessities like shampoo, diapers and snacks, providing an alternative to survival sex. At the bare minimum, the organization’s six locations in the Twin Cities provide a safe haven for teens who simply need a place to talk.

“We don’t believe there are teen prostitutes. What we’re looking at are teens who have been sexually exploited,” said Roller, adding that awareness levels about teen sexual exploitation have vastly changed from a decade ago.

Started in 2010, “MN Girls Are Not For Sale” is a five-year plan to combat sex trafficking statewide. Its purpose: To galvanize resources and eliminate sex trafficking of Minnesota girls through grants, research, public education, engagement and mobilization of the public.

The campaign’s goal is to raise $5 million and provide grants to institutions that serve to combat sex trafficking, Hanson said. For example, grants could be provided to an organization that provides housing for victims, especially since there are currently only two to four beds statewide, on average, set aside for teens in the sex trade. A report to be given next month to the Minnesota Legislature calls for having 50 beds through shelters and host homes by 2014, Hanson said.

So far, the “MN Girls” campaign has raised $3.7 million, 74 percent of the goal.

“It’s a horrific act of violence against these children, and it was something that we felt was our mission to pay attention to,” Hanson said. “Being a philanthropic organization, we’re in a unique position to convene all the groups necessary to create systemic response and we’re connected to the resources to get this work done.”

When the Women’s Foundation first addressed this issue in 2008, the need for that kind of coordinated response was clear. Through the creation of the “MN Girls” campaign, and the organization and coordination of other programs and activists, the foundation is hoping to create a model for other states to follow, Hanson said.

One essential step in the campaign is the introduction of a new piece of legislation this January that will further develop and amend the Safe Harbors Minnesota law created in July 2011.

A primary component of the Safe Harbors law was the construction of a task force, whose recommendations to combat teen exploitation led to the proactive measures today. Another important factor of the law was the decriminalization of teens who are arrested for prostitution while under the age of 16. They are no longer treated as criminals, but as they should be — victims, Roller said.

If the new legislation passes, that gentler approach would be used for anyone under 18 who is caught selling sex. The previous age was based on the legislature’s decision that 16 was the age one could give sexual consent.

“Truth is, if you’ve been sexually exploited since you were 14, the day you turn 16 does not give you a choice,” Roller said.

SEEKING HELP

The most comprehensive approach to sex trafficking, and a big part of the “MN Girls” community-wide education push, is to view it as any other market. Sex trafficking is strictly a market-driven enterprise, and like any business, it relies on demand, Hanson said.

“If we can elevate the issue in the public and show people what this really looks like, and how no child ever chooses to be prostituted, then we can start to reduce the demand and change what the market looks like,” she said.

For example, the Washington D.C.-based Polaris Project, one of the nation’s first grassroots initiatives against human trafficking, estimated that a pimp housing three girls often enforces an average nightly quota of $500 per girl, per night. If these quotas are met consistently, a pimp can make as much as $547,000 in a year.

“Educating people who would purchase sex would make them not want to do it as much, and help lower demand,” Angela said.

Further efforts include the involvement of Minneapolis Public Schools to develop health class curriculum that would address the issue district-wide. Community education initiatives also include training police, security guards and even hotel staff to recognize potential warning signs.

However, the harsh reality is that often it takes more than good intentions to rescue a girl from a life of exploitation. Many times, girls believe they’re in love with their pimps or feel they have no other means for survival. The road to recovery requires that teens start valuing themselves as human beings and learning that they deserve respect, one of the key steps in therapy.

“It’s better to tell people what’s going on than keeping it inside,” she said. “Tell someone who can help, that you can trust.”

After Angela arrived at PRIDE as part of her probation, she began to see there was hope. Most girls that the organization counsels have been brought to PRIDE through an outside adult confidante. Finding that person who can reach them requires a tremendous amount of trust, Roller said.

PRIDE has since become a solid wall between Angela and the streets. Not only is it keeping her safe, it’s pushing her to believe in herself.

Angela is thriving in college with a 3.9 grade-point-average and counseling teen victims at court appearances. Her goal is to obtain a law degree and help other teen girls who aren’t in a position to help themselves.

“I want people to know that this is not something that just happens far away,” Angela said. “It’s going on here. People need help, not to be arrested.”

WHAT IS THE LAW?

FEDERAL: The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 is the first comprehensive law to address the trafficking of “persons.” The law provides a three-pronged approach that includes prevention, protection and prosecution. Under U.S. federal law, “severe forms of trafficking in persons” includes both sex trafficking and labor trafficking.

  • Sex trafficking is defined as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.
  • Labor trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.

STATE: Minnesota’s Safe Harbors Law of 2011 builds a system that responds to child victims of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. It treats sexually exploited children (under age 16) as victims in need of protection, not criminals, and establishes a mandatory first referral to services for youth ages 16 and 17.

Among the other provisions:

  • Increases fines on johns to create a funding stream for supportive services.
  • Explicitly defines sexually exploited youth and sex trafficking victims as children in need of protection or services.
  • Excludes sexually exploited youth and sex trafficking victims from the definition of delinquency. This provision, effective 2014, ensures that adequate systems to address sexually exploited youth are in place.
  • Amends the definition of “prostitute” to include only individuals 18 years of age or older, also effective 2014.
  • Charges the commissioner of public safety, in consultation with the commissioner of health, the commissioner of human services, and other stakeholders, to develop a victim services model to address the needs of sexually exploited youth and youth at risk of sexual exploitation.
  • Increases penalties for buyers of prostitution with revenue split between service providers, prosecutors, and law enforcement.

Source: MN Girls Not For Sale

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