Minnesota is ranked one of the top 13 states in the nation for the recruitment of women for sex. Awareness on the issue of sex trafficking is becoming more widespread, but it is still very misunderstood. It’s an issue that is occurring all over the world, even here in Duluth.
“I would get beat with a wooden paddle, and one day I had enough,” said a former trafficking victim who used the name ‘Gina’ during her four years in prostitution.
Gina is a Duluth resident who spent four years traveling around the United States selling sex for money. She is now raising two foster children in the Duluth area. Gina was brought into the world of prostitution by a former boyfriend.
“It’s a different world. Like night and day,” she said.
Minnesota law defines sex trafficking as “the receiving, recruiting or obtaining by any means of an individual to aid in the prostitution of that individual."
Trafficking or prostitution is the fastest growing black market crime in the United States, according to the United States Department of Justice.
“People think prostitution is a choice of life and that it’s acceptable in today’s society,” said Suzanne Oliver, founder of Love Justice, an organization that brings faith-based support to victims of sex trafficking.
Oliver said that most women in prostitution aren't there by choice.
“When a person is held against their will and being threatened, they will do it just to stay alive,” Oliver said.
Safe housing is rare for victims trying to escape trafficking, especially in Duluth. Duluth has organizations that offer housing for the homeless but does not currently have housing services available specifically to victims of trafficking. Housing for the homeless is becoming more difficult to fund as well due to recent budget cuts.
“Pimps will hunt them down and make them work with force or even beat them almost to death,” Gina said.
“Women won’t walk away (from prostitution) because there is no guarantee of freedom without safe housing,” Oliver added.
Funding for advocacy here in Duluth comes solely from fundraising and donations.
“There is minimal funding for trafficking awareness,” said Shunu Shrestha, Duluth’s trafficking task force coordinator.
Duluth has become one of the major hubs for trafficking, according to a report to the Minnesota Legislature in 2008. This is thought to be caused by the presence of a large native population and an international water port, according to the report.
“Duluth is surrounded by reservations, and (sex trafficking) is very prevalent among Native American women,” Shrestha said. Not only is this happening on reservations, but women are also being trafficked using the many ships that dock in Duluth daily, Shrestha said.
“Women were taken onto the boats for the purpose of prostitution,” Shrestha said.
The security of our international port has tightened immensely, which lead to an emergence of prostitution on the streets of Duluth. This change occurred as a direct result of the attacks on September 11, as now not just anyone can board the ships.
“The U.S. Coast Guard has changed,” Shrestha said. “People now can come easily off the boats and access girls in Duluth.”
Because sex trafficking is a growing issue in Minnesota, advocacy organizations like Love Justice are appearing in response to this growth.
In 2008, Erin Aili started A Beautiful Rescue, an organization linked with the Hillside Church in Duluth. The organization is aimed at raising funds and awareness for the issue of sexual exploitation.
“I started selling my photography to raise money for victims” said Aili, who has recently opened an Etsy shop to better market her photos.
Both of these organizations work together with the Duluth Task Force to support victims and raise awareness on the issue.
“I would get hundreds of phone calls a day from men,” said Gina, who also worked with other women who would service up to 100 men a week. She said it is now her goal to help other women who are in her situation.
“Without a decrease in demand, supply will just continue to grow,” Shrestha said. The task force is focusing a lot of its attention on awareness for men, especially since men are the primary purchasers of sex.