by Dennis Dalman
With his Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln freed slaves, but slavery continues widely in the United States in the form of sex-trafficking.
That was the topic of discussion July 9 at Celebration Lutheran Church in Sartell when more than 100 people gathered to learn about what many do not like to think about – that young girls and boys are being used as sex slaves far and wide, including right here in Minnesota.
Sex-trafficking thrives on the coercion of vulnerable young people who are troubled and hurting. Some are moneyless and hungry; others are homeless; still others have run away from abusive families; and in some cases they have been abducted, especially young girls or boys who “met” predators disguised as “loving protectors” via the Internet.
The informational meeting in Sartell was hosted by “Celebrate Freedom,” a group of Celebration members who want to shine light on the sex-trafficking crisis.
At the meeting, Sartell novelist Dennis Herschbach was the keynote speaker. He read a passage from his new novel, A River Through Two Harbors, a mystery-police book that deals with sex-trafficking of young Indian girls between Thunder Bay, Canada and the Duluth harbor. For many years, Herschbach taught high school in Two Harbors before moving to Sartell three years ago.
What’s ironic is A River Through Two Harbors is a fiction book – and yet it is not. It is based on facts and on actual characters. Sex-trafficking is happening along the North Shore, and although the victims in Herschbach’s novel are Indian girls, it happens to girls and boys of all races and socioeconomic categories, as the author noted.
What stunned and disgusted the audience at Celebration is the average age of girls and boys used as sex slaves is 14, with some as young as 10 and even, in a few cases, younger than that.
Herschbach said there are 650 girls and women reported as missing from Thunder Bay, the port city on Lake Superior in Ontario. Most of those, he said, are Indians. It can be assumed, he said, many if not most of those females are now being forced to work as sex slaves under control of brutal pimps. Herschbach said 30 percent of girls in the United States are molested in some way during their young lives. For Indian girls and women, it is 80 percent. Racism, poverty and hopelessness seem to be the triggering factors that make such girls targets for predators, including pimps, Herschbach noted.
According to some studies, a pimp can earn up to $300,000 in one year from just one girl used as a sex slave-prostitute. Even though local law enforcement and the FBI crack sex-trafficking rings and perpetrators are arrested and tried, the crime continues virtually unabated, Herschbach noted.
And far from being “just” a metro problem, sex-trafficking is widespread, urban and rural, he added. It has even been known to happen among high school students, with some students acting as pimps of other students.
“The problem is very, very real,” Herschbach said. “It’s very extensive. It’s worldwide.”
Although such a horrible crime will probably never be stopped altogether, Herschbach said the one thing everybody can do is to “save one girl at a time.” He gave tips on how to do that:
- Become aware of the problem and know it’s happening, sometimes right in one’s own town.
- Become aware of the groups and organizations on the front lines, battling sex-trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation. Get to know the dedicated people in those groups and then support them monetarily or in any other way. Help them, their work and their message get recognized far and wide.
- Speak out about the problem. Tell anyone who will listen.
- Men have a particular responsibility to speak out against the exploitation of females since those who are brutalized could be daughters, sisters, mothers, wives.
- People must put efforts into changing the “culture” that “boys will be boys,” which can lead to dismissive societal attitudes when male disrespect and exploitation of girls and women occurs. Herschbach said those attitudes must change from “boys will be boys” to “Enough is enough!” Some things, he said, we must realize are just wrong, period, and the sex-trafficking of girls and boys (as well as adults) is not only wrong – it’s a vile crime.
A question-and-answer session followed Herschbach’s talk. One woman was applauded after she told a personal, frightening story that pointed out how sex-trafficking can hit close to home. The problem, she said, we must stop viewing from a “we versus them” perspective. People in an upper middle-class group must understand sex-trafficking and the endangerment of girls can happen right in our own neighborhoods and schools.
The woman told about a granddaughter who was having trouble with a science class in school, and her failures in school bothered her deeply. She met a Rhode Island man online who said he and his wife would be happy to home-school her. Unbeknown to the girl’s parents, of course, the man sent the naive, troubled girl a bus ticket to come to Rhode Island. Fortunately, the girl’s family found out about the bus-ticket scheme. As luck would have it, the girl’s grandmother (the one telling the story at the Celebration meeting) happened to be in Chicago during the crises. They figured a Greyhound bus en route from Minnesota to Rhode Island would likely stop at Chicago. The family contacted Chicago police, and at the depot they and the grandmother intercepted the girl when the bus arrived. Her mother then flew to Chicago to take her back home.
With law enforcement tipped off ahead of time, the man in Rhode Island, later, was arrested while waiting with another man for the Minnesota girl to arrive on the bus.
“It (the sex-trafficking problem) is here, not just there,” the woman said. “We have to realize that and understand that. Our girls will become those girls!”
Another woman who spoke at the meeting works with the Central Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force. Some sex cartels specialize in trafficking young boys for sex, she said. It is shockingly easy, she added, to buy a girl or a boy via sex-trafficking websites. Such sites use specialized code language. As soon as their operators sense heat from law enforcement, they shift and change the websites, using new code language, trying to stay one step ahead of being busted. The woman said peer pressure, along with negative social and cultural pressures, have fostered a kind of underground “pimp society.”
That woman will be one of the speakers when Celebration Lutheran Church hosts an education program called “Survivors” from 9 a.m.-noon, Saturday, Oct. 4. The seminar will be sponsored by United Way of Central Minnesota.
There are many resources from which to learn more about the sex-trafficking epidemic. The following are just a few of them: Breaking Free: www.breakingfree.net; State Minnesota Human Trafficking Resource: www.mnhttf.org; Polaris Project: www.polarisproject.com; and Women’s Foundation of Minnesota (Minnesota Girls are Not for Sale): www.wfmn.org/mn-girls-not-for-sale.
Learn to identify sex-trafficked victims
One reason sex-trafficked victims seem “invisible” to people is their tormentors know how to keep them in fear and often hidden from public view.
Even when in public, these sexually exploited people are so fearful of retributions they will not seek help or speak out.
The following are signs that could indicate a child (or adult, for that matter) who is being sex-trafficked.
The person is not free to be on their own and always seems to have someone “escorting” them from place to place.
Is fearful, submissive, nervous, anxious.
Avoids eye contact.
Looks malnourished or sickly.
There are signs of physical abuse, such as bruises or abrasions.
Has few if any possessions, no money, no I.D.
Does not know what day it is.
Does not know where he/she is.
People who suspect someone they’ve come into contact with is being sex-trafficked should call 911 or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-3737-888.
photo by Dennis Dalman
Dennis Herschbach, Sartell novelist and poet, reads from his new novel, A River Through Two Harbors, a suspense-mystery novel about the crisis of sex-trafficking between Thunder Bay, Canada, and Duluth harbor. The meeting took place July 9 at Celebration Lutheran Church.