The Reality of Sex Trafficking

Twelve years ago, I walked into Breaking Free — a survivor-led nonprofit organization that supports and advocates for sex trafficking survivors and sex workers. Then–executive director and founder Vednita Carter gave me an opportunity to start from the ground with my first case management position. I was hired in part because of my lived experiences. Though I had never been trafficked, I discovered at Breaking Free just how much my life resonated with those I was there to support. The work changed my life and how I viewed the world.

For four years, I have been the Safe Harbor Division Director at The Link, overseeing programs for sexually exploited youth. I do trainings and public speaking to bring awareness in Minnesota and across the country to how homelessness is a big factor in why people are trafficked.

Not that many years ago, youth under the age of 18 were jailed for “prostitution” offenses, as we called them then. Minor children were seen as criminals instead of people in need of support. Minnesota’s Safe Harbor Law was enacted in 2011, after consistent work by many advocates in the field. The Minnesota law has advanced to a point where anyone through the age of 24 has a right to services and safety, rather than being arrested.

We would like to see sex trafficking survivors of all ages given this same level of assistance, but it is still a work in progress with legislation.

I know how easily I could have been a victim of trafficking and exploitation. I’m Black and LGBTQ+, and grew up with a challenging childhood. I endured my own traumas.

I do this work because I know young people need people who understand them and won’t give up on them. They need support from people who look like them and can show them that healing is possible.

Racism and sexism play a huge role in folks, mostly men, feeling like they have the right to other people’s bodies. Many buyers are middle-class, white, married men. Human trafficking is an extremely profitable crime.

People think of movies like Pretty Woman, where trafficking and escort services are glamourized. Others think it is about being kidnapped off the street by a stranger. But trafficking someone is generally a process of grooming. Predators are clever and target vulnerable people and build relationships with them — youth, people with a prior history of experiencing abuse, people in need of a place to sleep or food to eat.

Many people, particularly youth, don’t even know they have been victimized.

Some people are exploited by family members. For many people, trafficking is generational, happening within families for long periods of time. We must address and support families, without judgment.

There is misunderstanding about how people can be trapped into the trafficking system. Often it stems from a need to survive. Lack of housing is a huge risk factor and can easily lead to exploitation and survival sex.

That is why prevention efforts are critical. Traffickers know it is much easier to charm someone whose brain isn’t fully developed, who might be mad at their family, who might be kicked out of the house because they are LGBTQ+, or are simply in need of food or shelter.

We want to prevent young people from being trafficked, but it is difficult to have conversations in schools about consent, healthy relationships, and red flags. Many parents want to keep their kids away from these conversations. Yet real conversations need to happen early, before girls and boys are already harmed or trapped.

Dismantling attitudes that some people are superior to others is the only true way to end sexual exploitation.


Action = Change

1. Advocate for Minnesota’s proposed Homeless Youth Act (HF444 and SF388)

2. Call a regional navigator if you think a youth is struggling

3. Learn how to recognize human trafficking

Minnesota Day One Crisis Hotline — 866-223-1111, dayoneservices.org

For Deeper Reading

A 2017 report, “Mapping the Demand: Sex Buyers in Minnesota,” indicated that people who buy sex in Minnesota are predominantly white, married men between the ages of 30 and 50, with disposable income.


According to the U.S. Department of Justice, of the 1,169 defendants charged with any of the three types of human trafficking offenses in 2020, 92 percent were male and 63 percent were white.


According to a 2014 article by The Atlantic, the vast majority of young people who are rescued by law enforcement during countrywide trafficking sweeps are 16 and 17 years old. Other data indicates a majority of individuals begin to be trafficked between the ages of 15 and 17.


In “Preventing Human Trafficking,” a January 2023 Gender Policy Report published by the University of Minnesota, advocates and law enforcement officers indicated “it is not possible to end trafficking without ending the intersectional oppressions that create vulnerability, [such as] lack of housing, treatment for substance use disorder, access to wraparound health care and transportation, and economic alternatives.”

As one advocate put it, if we more accurately saw trafficking as an issue of poverty, we would not be saying “we should send law enforcement in to solve it.”