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, once said in an interview 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 Feb. 22 with the annual declaration of January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Human Trafficking Awareness Day was this week, and Enger Tower was lit blue in commemoration.

Events this year are being planned virtually due to the pandemic, but each is still an opportunity for all of us to learn more in the name of dispelling myths about human trafficking, ending exploitation, and protecting victims. The events include a candlelight vigil, question-and-answer sessions for youths and caregivers, a community art project, the sixth-annual MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) Memorial March in Duluth (a car caravan this year), 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.

“Human trafficking, by its very nature, is a hidden crime whose victims and survivors often go unidentified, and/or misidentified,” PAVSA said in a statement announcing this year’s commemorations. “It is occurring throughout the United States, in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Eventual victims are often targeted due to vulnerabilities or inequalities, several of which have been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Survivors of trafficking can be any age, race, gender, or nationality, and they may come from any socioeconomic group.”

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Troublingly, 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. Four out of five Native American women and girls will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes, the task force has determined. And Native women are trafficked at 10 times the rate of other populations in our region.

For all his faults, President Donald Trump, during his term, signed an executive order to establish a national task force to address the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women. The legislation includes guidelines and best practices for law enforcement to follow; improves coordination between law enforcement agencies; and enhances reporting, record keeping, and communication between law enforcement and families of victims.

All of us, beyond being aware, can watch for signs of trafficking in order to report it and stop it. Parents, landlords, educators, emergency-room workers, mall employees, and hotel and motel workers especially can watch for warning signs that include the use of 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.

“We all have a role to play in preventing exploitation and trafficking,” said PAVSA. “Enhancing awareness of the crime and committing to prevention is paramount.”

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 and put a stop to it. It's a reminder that ought to come around more frequently than every January.



NEED HELP?

Anyone looking for help or information regarding human trafficking can contact:

  • The National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888

  • The StrongHearts Native Helpline at 844-762-8483

  • The Duluth-based Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, or PAVSA, which has a 24/7 HelpLine at 218-726-1931

  • Mel Alvar, safe harbor regional navigator at PAVSA, who can be scheduled for virtual training on trafficking in Minnesota by emailing alvar@pavsa.org.



GET INVOLVED

The theme for Human Trafficking Awareness Month in the Duluth area this year is “Spilling the realities of trafficking: Vulnerabilities, intersectionalities and communities.” For details on events go to:

  • facebook.com/duluthmntraffickingawareness