Ed Heisler often promises “interesting things.” As 2016 wraps up, the executive director of Men as Peacemakers (MAP) doesn’t disappoint.
The latest from MAP is a bold new campaign being piloted during this season of frenzied consumption that reminds us of what should never be for sale:
Women and girls.
The Don’t Buy It Project focuses on commercial sex trafficking and includes a new website, interactive online training and a curriculum guide for men’s groups, as well as free public awareness tools and resources.
But the core of its messaging is a 60-second public service announcement featuring women and men speaking their truths against a stark background.
“He told me he loved me, that I’d only have to strip for a little while and then we’d start a life together,” says a soft-spoken young woman, wrapped in a teal sweater, her gaze focused on the ground.
“I mean, she’s 18,” says a man in his 40s, staring at the camera dressed in a stylish moss-green shirt. “She’s making her own decisions, right? I’m sure she likes it.”
Don’t buy it.
MAP program director Sarah Curtiss said the campaign, getting a test run in northern Minnesota before its release statewide in 2017, is an attempt “to engage men’s heads and hearts to make it so that sexual exploitation isn’t normal.”
She added, “There isn’t a lot focused on that.”
MAP (menaspeacemakers.org), whose mission is to prevent violence against women and children, has long turned its lens toward innovative, out-of-the-box thinking. The group was formed 20 years ago, after a series of domestic homicides in Duluth brought together 55 men to ask what they could do to end the violence. MAP’s efforts since have led to education and engagement in bars, hotels, locker rooms and schools.
In 2015, MAP collaborated with Duluth college students to create safer environments at college parties. Together they devised a model called BEST (Be Equal, Safe and Trustworthy), which helps students shape party environments that promote respect and prevent sexual assault.
Party hosts, for example, are encouraged to consider safe spaces, sufficient lighting and clear communication of house rules, as well as practicing bystander intervention when something harmful appears to be occurring.
Heisler emphasizes that while some men are responsible for dangerous behaviors against women, most men are allies. In these sons and brothers and guy friends, he sees a growing and inspiring number of change agents.
“That’s why we’re not focusing on the guys who have gotten arrested, or trying to figure out what classes you put them through after they’ve been arrested,” he said.
“We do prevention work. We want to stop the harm before it happens.”
The harm is mind-boggling. The U.S. State Department estimates that 2 million women and children are victims of human trafficking every year, making it one of the world’s fastest growing crimes, and one of the most lucrative, bringing in as much as $150 billion annually.
The average age of a victim in her first encounter is 13. Boys and men, too, are victims. In one New York study by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, roughly half the victims were boys 17 and under.
‘We want you here’
While Minnesota is moving aggressively to combat sex trafficking, more than 4,000 youths still are homeless on any given night. More than 20 percent of them have been sexually exploited while homeless.
Thanks to the state’s Safe Harbor for Youth Act, those under 18 who engage in sex trafficking are treated as victims who need to be protected.
Don’t Buy It Project casts an even wider net. The public service announcement features culturally diverse women, young and middle-aged. TV spots and bus signs carry the tagline: “People Are Not Products. Men Are More Than Consumers.”
Funding for the project comes, in part, from the Women’s Foundation/MN Girls Are Not for Sale and the Mardag Foundation. In addition, the Bush Foundation this year awarded MAP a three-year, $124,000 community innovation grant to support all of its programs.
But men are really resonating with the Don’t Buy It Project, which includes a 20-week curriculum to help them better understand sex trafficking, and the role that poverty, racism and sexism play in perpetuating it.
“These conversations are not always readily available to them,” Curtiss said. “This is about engaging men and saying, ‘We have an expectation of you and, also, we want you here.’ ”
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