Sex trafficking, Minnesota and Metropolitan State University

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I’d like to issue a word of warning before continuing: this article contains information and statistics on sexual exploitation and human/sex trafficking. That being said, the issue is prevalent in Minnesota and deserves attention.

Metropolitan State University recently hosted an event called Stolen People Stolen Dreams, which you can read about here. It was a conference put on by several student organizations on sex trafficking and the possible signs of a victim and how to act when you think you might know someone being exploited.

Is sex trafficking new to Minnesota?
Of course not, considering our country’s long history with slavery, human trafficking of any kind cannot be considered new. But only in the last
200 years has the United States outlawed “white slavery” which only accounted for white women and children who were sold. 

Only after WWI was this changed to “women and children” to prevent exclusion based on race but fails to account for any adult male victims. It wasn’t until 2000 that the United Nations changed the wording to “Optional Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.” 

According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), in 2009, the FBI listed the Twin Cities as one of 13 U.S. cities with “a particularly high incidence rate of child prostitution,” and in 2015, “Minnesota had the third-highest number of human trafficking cases.”

Skipping ahead to 2019, Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, declared sex trafficking to be “not only a human rights violation, but also a public health crisis and personal tragedy.” Minnesotans don’t typically think of our state as a place where human trafficking occurs, but clearly that simply isn’t true. 

Just last year, around the time of the Final Four event, 58 people were arrested and faced possible felony charges for trying to solicit children for sex or human trafficking.  Larger concerts or sports events, such as the super bowl which had 43 arrests from a sting operation, have a tendency for increasing human trafficking activity however briefly. 

This January, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm released a new survey which found that at least 5,000 of Minnesota’s teenagers answered yes to the question, “Have you ever traded sex or sexual activity to receive money, food, drugs, alcohol, a place to stay or anything else?” 

Those 5,000 are only the number of children who admitted to this situation and only those who were of the 80,000 present in school to be included in the survey. University of Minnesota Nursing Professor Lauren Martin, who is one of the analysts for the survey, considered this number to be a lesser estimate of the likely much higher number. “The Minnesota Student Survey is conducted on one day in school, so it does not include youth who missed school on that day” Martin said.

This February, Senator Josh Hawley (MO) introduced a bill that would provide government funding for research and documentation “basically reiterating the wording of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005, while adding an accounting of trafficking victims” says Tom Jackman of the Washington Post.

And in early February, women dressed in wedding dresses and chains lobbied for lawmakers to ban child marriages in Minnesota. A bill is up for debate on making a no-exception law against marriages of people under 18. 

Until now, there was a law in place stating that minors cannot marry with the exception of having the permission of one parent.  Republican Senator Warren Limmer (MN), who was originally concerned with “recognizing marriages from other states,” was swayed to support the ban, especially due to cases when the bride’s parents receive a “dowry” in exchange for their underage daughter’s hand in legal marriage.

So, what is our own university doing to combat sex trafficking? As mentioned earlier, Metro State student organizations hosted the event to increase awareness which, according to Elizabeth Seidl, president of the Human Services Student Organization, will “hopefully become a yearly thing so that we can continue to educate…both the Metro State community and the community at large.”

Also, in 2017, Metro State hosted the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking to “discuss and deliberate ways to meaningfully engage survivors of human trafficking, as well as educate, empower and create awareness for those survivors.”

Maya Sullivan, dean of students, recognized that sex trafficking “is not as uncommon as people think it is, honestly, and in Minnesota in particular,” she said. Sullivan stated that there aren’t any financial aid programs that are specific to sex trafficking but mentioned that survivors who are also students at Metro State could apply for the emergency fund.

 “We don’t have anything that’s specific to individuals who are victims of sex trafficking. We certainly do have some of the emergency assistance funds that we have on campus. Those are for anyone who has an emergency issue that is potentially going to impact your ability to remain in school…the idea is to improve retention,” Sullivan said. 

Rita Dibble, vice president for university advancement, represents Metro State on the St. Paul Rotary Club and serves on its board.  Dibble said that “combating sex trafficking is an initiative with Rotary” and had a Metro State alumna, Bukola Oriola, speak at a Rotary meeting.  Oriola was appointed by former President Barack Obama to the U.S. Advisory Council and has an autobiography on her own experience with labor trafficking.

Furthermore, Metro State’s women’s and LGBTQ student services coordinator, Sam Poindexter, is also the college’s Title 9 representative.  This means, among other things, that Poindexter is a confidential resource and, “unless you are under 18, a vulnerable adult, or going to hurt yourself or others, I do not have to report it to the powers that be.” 

Poindexter wanted to emphasize this confidentiality and her ability to help find resources for survivors. “If, for example, a student came to me and said ‘Hey, I was trafficked. What can you do?’ Part of my role would be to connect them to organizations in the community already doing that work,” she said.

 Upcoming, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month for which Poindexter has many events “in the works” which wouldn’t be on human trafficking specifically, but would deal with issues like consent and sexual and/or domestic violence.

 Sex trafficking is not a topic people typically enjoy talking about, however, silence is the crime’s greatest weapon.  It is the uncomfortable looks, the sweeping under the rug, the shushing that prevents the public from readily recognizing and aiding victims.

 For more information on recognizing the signs of sex trafficking in others or yourself, visit the Minnesota Department of Transportation website here.  And if you see something or notice behaviors of trafficking victims, please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at: 1-888-3737-888. 

 As stated on the MnDOT website: “The National Human Trafficking Hotline is available to answer calls free from anywhere in the country, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year. It is not a law enforcement or immigration authority and is operated by a nongovernmental organization that is funded by the federal government.”