'Violence is the norm' in sex trade

"Garden of Truth" report, just released, calls lifelong violent abuse a major factor in prostitution among American Indian women.

American Indian prostitutes in Minnesota report a high incidence of being physically and sexually abused as children, multiple rapes and being homeless -- major factors in how they ended up in the sex trades, according to a new study out Thursday.

Compiled by the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition, the "Garden of Truth" report provides a glimpse into the often violent lives of the women, a group that former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Thomas Heffelfinger calls "the most victimized segment of the entire U.S. population."

"The incidence of sexual violence against them has been and continues to be unacceptably high,'' said Heffelfinger, who has been active in Indian affairs.

Funded in part by the Women's Foundation of Minnesota, the report, which included information from more than 100 women, is the first study to collect the personal experiences of American Indian prostitutes in the state and seek solutions from them. Interviews were conducted in Duluth, Bemidji and the Twin Cities.

Ranging in age from 18 to 60, the women had been prostitutes for an average of 14 years.

"Some of these women were hearing for the first time that trafficking is a form of sexual violence," said Nicole Matthews, director of the coalition. "To them, violence is the norm."

Concrete figures don't exist for any demographic group being sexually trafficked, but service and outreach providers in the Twin Cities see the population as especially vulnerable, said Suzanne Koepplinger, director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center in Minneapolis. For example, a recent study of women on probation for prostitution offenses in north Minneapolis found that American Indian women make up only 2 percent of the state population while they accounted for 24 percent of the probationers.

Of the women studied, nearly half had been used by more than 200 sex buyers in their lifetimes. About 80 percent had used outpatient substance abuse services.

Many of the women reported they had no idea what they were getting into. Eighty-six percent said there was deception involved in their route to prostitution.

One of the coalition's interviewers, Guadalupe Lopez, said she was struck by how many of the women did not at first see themselves as being preyed upon, but rather that "being asked by your boyfriend to sleep with three other guys is just a part of life."

The findings mirror what the U.S. Department of Justice has consistently reported: About one in three American Indian women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime.

But the likelihood of perpetrator prosecution is much lower, over reservation jurisdiction issues, lack of resources and a cultural reluctance to contact authorities.

"Perpetrators know it's less likely they'll be prosecuted," Matthews said. "It's virtually an open door to assault women and not be held accountable."

The problem has caught the attention of lawmakers, including Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. A member of the Judiciary and the Indian Affairs Committees, Franken said he is committed to updating the Violence Against Women Act "to more effectively address the needs of women in Indian Country." The act is up for reauthorization this year.

The report recommends culturally specific programs to help American Indian women who are trafficked that take into account the importance of ancestry, spirituality and the lingering effects of racism. For example, resuming a life outside of prostitution is often a greater challenge for these women, especially those who grew up on reservations, because they might be shamed and shunned when they return.

"A young woman who leaves Red Lake for the Twin Cities and gets put out on the street didn't just leave Crookston, she left a tightly knit place where everybody knows everybody else," Heffelfinger said. "It's more difficult for her to go back home again to lead a normal anonymous life than it is for someone just entering the mainstream."

The report can be read at www.miwsac.org.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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