Sexual exploitation and the buying and selling of children and vulnerable others "happens here in Duluth every day," a leader of the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, or PAVSA, said in an interview two Januaries ago with News Tribune Editorial Board members.
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 targets.
Reminders of this are front and center through mid-February with a candlelight vigil, powwow, art fair, speakers, and more all planned to call attention to a societal ill as tragic as it is pervasive — yet is also and far too often invisible, ignored, and neglected.
That’s even though Minnesota is one of the top locations in the U.S. for sex trafficking, according to the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force. More specifically, four out of five Native American women and girls will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. And Native women are trafficked at 10 times the rate of other populations in our region.
Saturday is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day with January National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. In November, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to establish a national task force to address the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women. In Duluth, a fifth-annual memorial march for missing and murdered indigenous women is Feb. 14.
Beyond raising awareness, all of us — particularly landlords, educators, emergency-room workers, mall employees, and hotel and motel workers — can be hyper aware and vigilant in curbing and even heading off tragedies. We can all watch for signs of trafficking to help prevent and even end exploitation.
Warning signs to look for include slang like "the life," "daddy," "track," "johns," and "stable;" the presence of older boyfriends or girlfriends with youths; evidence of control or dominance in a relationship, including repeated phone calls; suspicious online activity; unexplained tattoos, especially on the neck or hand; downplayed health problems; inappropriate or sexually provocative clothing; sudden cash, expensive clothes, a new cell phone, 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; and running away.
Without anyone watching out, 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 normalization.
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. It’s a reminder that ought to come around more frequently than every January.
Trafficking Awareness Month events continue Thursday, Jan. 9 with a 4:30 p.m. candlelight vigil in Two Harbors; meet at the Lake County Courthouse.
Other upcoming events include:
** A presentation titled "How youth get caught up in sex trafficking," at 8 a.m., Tuesday, Jan. 14, at Life House Youth Center, 102 W. First St., Duluth
** Gichi Manidoo Giizis Pow Wow from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 18, at Black Bear Casino, 1785 Highway 210, Carlton
** Red-dress and red-skirt making from 1-6 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 19, at the Building for Women in Duluth, 32 E. First St.
** The presentation of an MMIW (Murdered Missing Indigenous Women) research project is at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 25, at theDr. Robert Powless Cultural Center in Duluth, 202 W. Second St.
** The Brave Art Youth Resource Fair is from 5-7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 6
** MMIW banner and art making is from 2-6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 13, at Duluth’s Central Hillside Community Center, 12 E. Fourth St.
** Duluth’s fifth-annual MMIW Memorial March is 2-6 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 14, starting at the American Indian Community Housing Organization, 202 W. Second St.
** The Great Lakes Red for MMIW Initiative is 4:30-6:30 p.m. at the downtown Duluth Public Library, 520 N. First Ave E.
Anyone looking for help and information regarding human trafficking can call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at (888) 373-7888 or the StrongHearts Native Helpline at (844) 762-8483.