New report spotlights stories of sex trafficking survivors

“If you aren’t going to help us with jobs and housing then you can’t complain about we do to survive.”

That’s a statement from a survivor of sexual exploitation featured in “Voices of Safe Harbor,” a new report from the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault commissioned by Hennepin and Ramsey county officials featuring interviews with 72 survivors of sex trafficking.

The goal of the project is to help guide the work of service providers who are helping victims of sexual exploitation rebuild their lives. The Hennepin County Board approved a No Wrong Door Response Plan a year ago that aligns with the state’s Safe Harbor legislation, which directs law enforcement to treat youth involved in prostitution as victims and help match them with service providers.

“These children have been abused and marginalized, and until the passage of the Safe Harbor Law were treated as criminals rather than victims and survivors,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene, who represents southwest Minneapolis neighborhoods and St. Louis Park. “This report is an incredible opportunity for all of us to better understand why that characterization was so harmful and misleading. These direct voices will inform policy makers’ ability to support survivors, and to prevent future sexual exploitation.”

The survivors interviewed ranged in age from 14 to 42. Many of the people interviewed called for more sexual health education with an emphasis on healthy relationships — something many said they lacked in their own lives. They also asked for more empathy and cultural awareness from people in their lives, including social service providers.

Jeanne Ronayne, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said victims are the “true experts on the issue of sexual exploitation.”

“Recognizing and addressing those connections is key to effectively responding to sexual exploitation and preventing,” she said.

Many of the survivors interviewed in the report also emphasized that they turned to prostitution because they didn’t have any other options.

“Whatever men asked of me I did so I could eat,” one victim said in the report.

According to a report released in late 2014 by University of Minnesota researchers, the juvenile sex trafficking market in Minneapolis is driven by violent recruiting methods targeting vulnerable girls who are often exploited by traffickers and pimps from their own neighborhoods. Youth with vulnerabilities who struggle to meet their basic needs are most at risk of being preyed upon.