Sexual exploitation and the buying and selling of our children and vulnerable others "happens here in Duluth every day," Shunu Shrestha of the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, or PAVSA, said in an interview a year ago with the News Tribune Editorial Board.

So, annually, with January presidentially designated as Trafficking Awareness Month, we hear reminders that, frustratingly, are still needed: Our kids and others are at risk, especially those who have trouble making friends, whose home lives are unstable, who've experienced abuse, who are homeless, who are transgender, or who share any of a number of other vulnerabilities that make them a target.

Such reminders will be front and center Monday at a community gathering and press conference to call attention, one more time, to a societal ill that's as tragic as it is pervasive. The gathering at noon at the Robert Powless Cultural Center at Second Avenue West and Second Street is to include a ceremony to honor trafficking victims and survivors and then be followed by remarks from Mayor Emily Larson, PAVSA's Safe Harbor Northeast Minnesota Regional Navigator Mel Alvar, Fond du Lac investigator and commander of the TRUST Sex Trafficking Task Force Kelly Haffield, and Lutheran Social Services Youth Program Coordinator Kathy Hermes.

More than just raising awareness of an issue oft invisible, this year training is being made available so more of us - particularly landlords, educators, emergency-room workers, mall employees, and hotel and motel workers - can learn to identify signs of trafficking. We all have a role to play in preventing exploitation. To schedule training, email PAVSA at

"The more individuals we train to spot the signs of sex trafficking, the more people will be on alert to help stop predators," Alvar said in a statement Friday. "With proper training, people who interact with potential victims of trafficking in public places like hospitals, gas stations, shopping centers, and apartment complexes will know when to intervene, who to call to report suspicious activity, and how best to guide victims to needed resources. We've built up a general awareness about trafficking in recent years, but becoming more proactive in our training efforts is the best way we know how to bring an end to sexual violence, exploitation, and trafficking in our community."

Without anyone telling them otherwise, young people and others susceptible to being exploited can be convinced or conditioned to believe that survival sex, doing a "favor" for a friend, or intimate reciprocation for an expensive gift is normal. Is expected. The internet can feed the normalizationation.

But no one should be pressured to exchange sex acts for a warm place to stay, for a bite to eat, to feed a drug addiction, to avoid a beating, or because they feel they have no other option. Sadly, that's what's happening, though. And yes, here in the Twin Ports. Every day.

Until we step up to spot it - and then put a stop to it.


Warning signs

Signs of sexual exploitation and trafficking can include:

  • Slang like "the life," "daddy," "track," "johns," and "stable"
  • Older boyfriends or girlfriends
  • Evidence of control or dominance in a relationship, including repeated phone calls
  • Online activity at Backpage, Craigslist, or similar sites
  • Unexplained tattoos, especially on the neck or hand
  • Downplayed health problems
  • Inappropriate or sexually provocative clothing
  • Sudden cash, expensive clothes, a new cellphone, or other big-ticket possessions without an established income
  • Frequent fear, anxiety, hypervigilance, and paranoia
  • Secrecy and vagueness regarding whereabouts
  • Late nights or unusual hours
  • Running away

Source: North Homes Children and Family Services of Duluth (, which distributes this list of "red flags" on bookmark-like cards