While readers of the London-based Economist may be familiar with its pro-prostitution stance, this largely European perspective about the economic value of the “free market” of prostitution is not one that Minnesota shares.
So imagine my surprise to see “Tech opens up possibilities for prostitution” in the Star Tribune (Aug. 24). Why our state’s leading newspaper, which has publicly supported state efforts to address child sex-trafficking, would reprint this article is as mystifying as it is disappointing.
Advocates, survivors and researchers have worked hard to ensure that Minnesotans understand that prostitution is not a choice that anyone makes, but a form of violence against children and women. And contrary to the Economist’s blanket characterization of anyone who does not share its view, I am neither a puritan nor a do-gooder. Rather, I am a leader of a philanthropy (Women’s Foundation of Minnesota) and a statewide campaign (MN Girls Are Not For Sale) who has learned from survivors and law enforcement that more than 80 percent of women being prostituted were forced into the industry as children.
This is hardly just “work,” as the Economist claims, where eager wage-earners blossom on personal websites. It is a brutal system of exploitation and abuse that starts with children.
Consider a letter that arrived at my office in June. It was written in big loopy letters reminiscent of my daughter’s middle-school handwriting. “Hi, I have a tip about a girl who may be being prostituted in Uptown (Minneapolis) … a young-looking girl, probably 16 or younger. ...”
I passed the letter along to a sergeant at the Minneapolis Police Department. His response? “I believe this is a viable and legitimate lead. We have opened an investigation and will try to identify and contact this girl. I’m so thankful that the community feels confident bringing these reports to you. It saves lives.”
It wasn’t always like this. Thoughtful Minnesotans first needed more information about this crime, so deeply hidden from most of us. When they learned that the selling and buying of our children for sex was a growing, burgeoning business across the state, Minnesotans stood up for children, and acted.
In 2011, our state passed the Safe Harbor law, which built a statewide model to ensure that any child under 18 can find refuge, protection and the opportunity to heal. The law ensures that trafficked children are treated as victims of a crime, not criminals. It mandates that victims have safe housing and trauma-informed care. And it makes sure that police forces and front-line youth workers receive training.
Safe Harbor passed because of the cross-sector leadership of policymakers, county and city attorneys, police, advocates, survivor leaders, business leaders and philanthropy uniting to make it happen.
Next, we turn our attention to ending the business models that drive the child sex trafficking market. This September, in partnership with the University of Minnesota and Othayonih Research, we will release first-of-its-kind research that maps the business market of child sex trafficking in Minneapolis.
The leadership and political will to disrupt this market are present. Our local U.S. attorney has made investigating and prosecuting these cases a priority of his office; our county attorneys continue to lead on this by vigorously prosecuting traffickers and buyers, and many in law enforcement have made investigating and ending this profitable industry their life’s mission.
The public continues to have an important role to play, too. When you see something suspicious involving a child, call 911. When you’re talking with a candidate, ask them to support a fully funded Safe Harbor. When you’re making year-end gifts, support a shelter for victims of sex trafficking. And at your child’s school, ask what they’re doing to protect our children from recruitment and predators.
Contrary to the arguments the Star Tribune amplified with its reprint from the Economist, I am confident that Minnesotans remain too savvy to believe that prostitution is a safe, free-market career choice.
We have chosen not to let the brutal violence of child sex trafficking happen here. In Minnesota, we will ensure that there are pathways to prosperity for all our children, and not pathways to predators. Let’s hope other states continue to follow our lead.
Lee Roper-Batker is president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.