Law enforcement officials and nonprofits across Minnesota are taking aggressive new action to crack down on customers of prostitution — often white, middle-aged and married men — and boosting programs aimed at keeping teens out of the sex trade.
Advocates want to shift from police intervention to prevention, after years spent toughening prison sentences for pimps and overhauling how the state treats sex trafficking victims.
The new effort coincides with the attention Minneapolis will receive hosting the 2018 Super Bowl, an international event that will draw thousands of wealthy visitors and what experts say is a likely small surge in sex trafficking.
But advocates say criminal sexual enterprise has taken root in the state and will remain long after the Super Bowl leaves town.
“The demand is there constantly. This happens every day, every hour, every second of the day,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, one of the leaders of a Super Bowl anti-sex-trafficking committee.
So law enforcement agencies and nonprofit groups are using the big game to bring fresh urgency and funding to anti-sex-trafficking initiatives, moving up the timing of programs already in the works.
Prevention programs aimed at teenage boys and at-risk kids will begin in the metro area this fall. A public awareness campaign to discourage men and boys from buying sex will begin this month in Duluth.
From Minneapolis to Mankato, stings aimed at men who solicit girls and women for sex have intensified — with even departments in smaller cities now taking steps to get offenders.
That’s what Marc Chadderdon was doing one recent weekend in a darkened St. Peter motel room. The veteran police officer, dressed in khaki shorts and T-shirt, looked more like a football coach than the leader of an undercover sting, an unusual exercise in the city of 12,000.
Two minutes after posting an ad on Backpage.com as a 24-year-old “sexy, sweet brunette,” his cellphone dinged. In six hours, nearly 500 texts and calls buzzed in.
“Just think about how many guys must be looking at this,” said Chadderdon, an investigator with the Nicollet County Sheriff’s Office, which started doing stings with other local departments two years ago. “Across the whole state there’s been a huge push.”
The Super Bowl effect
Anti-trafficking efforts last month got a boost when a 40-member committee, led by Hennepin and Ramsey counties and the Women’s Foundation, unveiled a plan for the Super Bowl. It includes coordinated stings and training to help bus drivers, hotel workers and 10,000 Super Bowl volunteers identify victims.
Authorities aren’t expecting a massive spike in trafficking during the Super Bowl. While leaders in other cities have declared the game the largest sex trafficking event in the United States, or even the world, Lauren Martin said that’s overblown.
Martin, a researcher with the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center, said that research shows the Super Bowl correlates with a rise in commercial sex ads. But the influx is short-lived and comparable to increases at other large events.
The bottom line: Demand for sex isn’t a one-time event.
Nevertheless, the anti-sex-trafficking committee’s Super Bowl plan dovetails with the $2.5 million second phase of the Women’s Foundation’s campaign to reduce demand, dubbed “Minnesota Girls Are Not For Sale.” The campaign began in 2011 after an uptick in the number of girls being trafficked.
A comprehensive U study released last week found that buyers typically travel 30 to 60 miles for sex, often before or after work, or while on business trips or male-focused vacations like hunting trips. Based on a national study, 26,000 Minnesota men — 1 percent — may have bought sex in the past year.
Seven men caught trying to buy sex recently listened to Jenny Gaines discuss being on the other side.
“When you left you took a little piece of me — my self-worth,” she said. “I had to be high to be with you guys. I hated every second of it.”
The men were court-ordered to attend and pay $750 for the “John School” hosted by the St. Paul nonprofit Breaking Free, which provides housing and services to adult victims.
The first-time offenders were from suburbs and small towns, from Eden Valley to Eden Prairie. One was a chef, another a retired schoolteacher.
Gaines, who spent 28 years in prostitution and now works for Breaking Free, described how pimps target and recruit vulnerable women and girls. An often violent initiation is followed by enslavement, with some women unsure they can leave. “I felt trapped,” she said.
Three other survivors, all raped at a young age, shared similar stories. The men listened in silence to each.
“Every guy that comes here will never be the same,” said Terry Forliti, a survivor who runs Breaking Free. “Women who are prostituted, we don’t have a choice in this.”
In a survey of 750 men in the program, most sex buyers were between 30 to 60 years old. More than 70 percent were white, and half were married. Nearly 70 percent had kids and almost half made $50,000 or more a year.
While it’s difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the eight-hour program, men said in a survey that it changed perceptions, with more ending up disagreeing that women freely choose to go into prostitution.
The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), with additional agents across the state, arrested 235 traffickers and child sex buyers in 2016, up from 39 arrests in 2014. Eighty-one adult sex buyers were also arrested in 2016.
The sex trade “really has no boundaries,” BCA Superintendent Drew Evans said.
The Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault is working with communities statewide to develop protocols for responding to sex trafficking. Metro-area agencies are responding as well.
In Washington County, where Assistant County Attorney Imran Ali said the number of Backpage ads have risen 30 percent this year, prosecutions of traffickers have risen. The county has a special dispatch team investigating possible child sex trafficking, and is using cellphone forensics to go after buyers.
In Hennepin County, a prosecutor and investigator are working full time on sex trafficking cases in a pilot program this year. It’s the only county with a full-time coordinator to help sexually-exploited youth.
Not everyone supports the new measures to decrease the demand for sex.
According to the leaders of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Minneapolis — which provides legal training for sex workers and raises money for those facing criminal charges — the new efforts could further push work underground and stigmatize workers. They say that rescue organizations, law enforcement officials and researchers all wrongly assume that sex workers have no say in what they do and that everyone is a victim.
Authorities say some women may work independently, but many more women and girls aren’t in the industry voluntarily or are trafficked by a third party. Men and boys are trafficked but at much lower numbers, state data show.
Surprised by stings
The phone rang in the St. Peter motel room. A 46-year-old man had just left his Mankato construction job and said he had a “donation” — $125 for a half-hour of sex.
Two years ago, law enforcement agencies in southern Minnesota weren’t enforcing laws against prostitution at all. But now, with special training and funding from the state and the Women’s Foundation, the agencies have done 18 stings and arrested 90 people, most of them sex buyers.
Officers in bullet-resistant vests watched from a hidden camera as the construction worker arrived. “Do you have the donation?” the female officer asked him. Yes, he said. Three officers stormed in.
The man said he had never been arrested before and that his marriage was on the rocks. Before going home to his wife and sons in a Mankato suburb, he had logged in online.
Through the thin motel walls, another man was heard knocking next door. Tall and white-haired, the 66-year-old Lakeville man had left a business meeting and said he just wanted to “live out a fantasy.” Next, a 30-year-old Waseca man was arrested.
Several men texted that they were wary of stings in southern Minnesota. One man texted a screen shot of a news story on the stings. Another asked for a photo of the woman’s vagina to make sure she wasn’t an officer. Many others requested anal sex and offered to pay extra for oral sex.
Beyond making arrests, the southern Minnesota agencies are giving school programs on the dangers of social media and sexual exploitation, and investigating runaway reports for any link to exploitation.
“You can’t arrest your way out of this,” Chadderdon said. “I think this is a preventable deal.”