The business of sex trafficking young girls is a highly organized criminal enterprise in which brutality and cruelty are tools of the trade. Native American girls who can be easily passed off to represent a variety of ethnicities, are especially prized in this burgeoning market.
A recent study “Mapping the Market for Sex with Trafficked Minor Girls in Minneapolis: Structures, Functions and Patterns,” reveals how pimps and gangs ruthlessly sort and prepare their “product” (young girls) for maximum financial return. Lauren Martin and Sandi Pierce are the two lead researchers of the report.
One example of such systemic brutality is the use of “trap houses,” a variation on the brothel theme usually located in abandoned houses for short-term use. Girls are invited to come party, given free drugs and alcohol and eventually trapped and forced to have sex with large groups of men hosting/attending the party. Typically trap houses cater to neighborhood specific male groups of lower income sex buyers. The researchers found that this can also be a recruiting tactic by gangs and mostly attracts younger men. Some facilitators running such operations post ads online and texts alerting customers to such parties. In addition to “breaking the girls,” trap houses are sometimes used as placement of girls deemed to be of less earning potential by gang operations.
One interview reported, “A Native American girl was set up to be gang raped by her boyfriend who was involved in Native gangs. She was taken to an abandoned warehouse for a party, was drugged through the punch she drank, and was raped by many men.”
The researchers also noted a high level of dynamism in the industry. Victims cycle in and out of the facilitators control and may migrate to other pimps, experience bouts of homelessness, be placed in foster care, treatment facilities or even return to their families. But according to the report, “the girls remain in the orb of facilitation because pimps deliberately build a level of dependency that keeps girls coming back for love, basic needs, a place to stay, drugs, etc.”
Girls are recruited into sex trafficking at schools, libraries, parks, malls, street corners, juvenile detention centers, shelters, residential homes of friends, family and acquaintances. Researchers found an example in which a pimp enrolled an adult woman at a Minneapolis public school so she could recruit vulnerable and special needs girls.
Researchers note that over the last 20 years free youth programs such as recreational and teen centers and after school programs have dwindled significantly. Youth whose families are affected by poverty have few outside supports making them more vulnerable to traffickers.
Researchers also examined public attitudes about sex trafficking of juveniles and found a marked change in the way that media portrays them.
In the years between 2007-13, media reports moved from using terms such as teen or juvenile prostitute to describing the girls as victims. Stories also began focusing less on the details of the crime and more on emotional appeals for supporting victims.
“It’s incredibly gratifying to finally see a change in how sex trafficked girls are viewed. Thankfully the term “sex-trafficking” is replacing the word prostitution. We finally have a term that doesn’t stigmatize the victim or her family,” said Pierce.
She pointed out that most adult prostituted women began when they were children and therefore were incapable of making informed decisions.
The publics understanding of the dynamics involved in prostituting women and girls, however, is beginning to change.
The Minneapolis Police Department is one the few law enforcement agencies that genuinely realizes that a trafficked child has been traumatized, according to Pierce.
“Police here understand that using a kid’s statement in prosecuting a trafficker can put them and their families at risk. They only use the kid’s statement if she wants them to,” she said.
Susan Koepplinger pointed out in a Minnesota Public Radio story about the study that Native girls are not often recognized as being trafficked. “They may show up in the system simply as ‘bad’ kids,” she said. Koepplinger is a long time advocate for Native girls and women.
Minneapolis deputy police chief Kris Arneson told MPR that she was struck by how often trafficked girls come into contact with public agencies yet are not recognized as victims.
“All my officers are going to have access to this because I want them to know what’s happening out there,” she said.
If we are to save these girls, however, our culture needs to challenge deeply rooted social norms, according to Pierce.
In the recommendation section of the report, researchers stated that people must, “Create social change by challenging the idea that commercial sex with young girls is an adventure, a male bonding activity.”
“Our culture says that if a man can pay for it, he is entitled to sexual adventure. Sex is also depicted in media as a bartering tool for women. Such norms perpetuate the industry including gentleman’s and strip clubs,” Pierce stated.
“We need capable guardianship in our communities. That means adults who are paying attention and challenging the normalization of sexual violence,” she said.
“As Native women, mothers, grandmothers and aunties, we need to get nosy. We need to wrap our arms around our youth and challenge our young men when we hear them talking about young women in disrespectful ways,” Pierce added.