Sex trafficking lands in the headlines when a high-profile figure is implicated. Yet survivors and advocates here know that trafficking is a reality in our state every day of the year.

Because trafficking thrives in the shadows, exposing the truth about who pays for sex and why individuals across our state are most vulnerable brings light to conditions we have every opportunity to prevent.

When sex trafficking charges against GOP strategist and donor Anton "Tony" Lazzaro were announced last week, we were grateful for the quick response of legislators to denounce the alleged crimes and redirect Lazzaro's donations to our state's shelters and services for survivors of trafficking. In this case, we know that because the victims of trafficking were minors, they will not be treated as criminals, but instead as survivors deserving of trauma-informed care and services through Minnesota's Safe Harbor Law and No Wrong Door program.

And yet, once they reach the age of 18, many more Minnesotans face the same risks and vulnerabilities without the same protections. We must increase investments to support all victims of trafficking and advance the support of the Safe Harbor Law for all ages.

At the Women's Foundation of Minnesota (WFMN), investing in a state where women and girls are free from all forms of violence is a cornerstone of all we do. To ensure the Safe Harbor Law passed in July 2011, we paid the costs that enabled its passage, and have worked alongside front-line advocates and survivors to change laws, create a state-funded infrastructure and drive a sea change in how Minnesota responds to sex trafficking across our state.

For all that has changed, trafficking, exploitation and gender-based violence continues across our state, disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous, Latina and LGBT women, girls, boys and children.

We have made progress in the last 10 years, but more resources are needed to put an end to this horrific crime. We must also change the narratives that keep sex trafficking shrouded in myths and denial. To prevent trafficking, we must recognize that all Minnesotans are deserving of safety, dignity and respect.

With 23 programs for young people and young families at risk of or experiencing homelessness, trafficking and involvement in the juvenile justice system, the Link is advocating at the Capitol every year with young people, survivors and partners in the field to ensure continued funding for Safe Harbor, support the Homeless Youth Act, and advocate for juvenile justice reform. Meanwhile, demand for services and support continues to grow while housing, safety and security has been in jeopardy.

During the pandemic, staying home has not meant staying safe for everyone. While violence and victimization increased at home during the pandemic, there were fewer safe places for young people to go. As critical social services were reduced or moved online, young people were often isolated without support.

We know who is most at risk here. While we advocate for funding to support survivors, we must look at what makes young people most vulnerable to trafficking, especially those whose economic conditions, housing and home lives do not feel safe.

Every day the Link sees that Black and Native youths are overwhelmingly impacted by these conditions. If young people can access safe and stable housing anywhere in our state, they won't be vulnerable to traffickers or see trading sex as a means for survival.

Women, girls and youths with unstable housing, who run away and are involved in the foster care system, juvenile detention and are experiencing sexual abuse become especially at risk for exploitation. WFMN's 2020 Status of Women & Girls in Minnesota shows that LGBT youths are overrepresented among homeless youths, and 42% of homeless women experienced sexual abuse as a child, conditions which make them more vulnerable to trafficking.

When we look at who is buying sex, however, we know that perpetrators look like the population of Minnesota. WFMN's 2017 report Mapping the Demand shows that sex buyers are predominantly middle-aged, white, married men from across the state.

Without enough beds and services to meet the need, women, girls and LGBT youths will continue to be disproportionately victimized. Until we dedicate the resources needed to make all Minnesotans safe, we will continue to be shocked when we see the truth of this crime in the spotlight, and it will continue every day of the year.

Men and boys are part of the solution. Speaking up is one step into ending the culture of silence around buying sex that enables both prominent and ordinary Minnesotans to exploit and traffic young people every day without consequence.

If you are being hurt or abused: Minnesota's Day One Crisis Hotline 1-866-223-1111 or the Link's Safe Harbor Regional Navigator Line 612-232-5428 assist you to get help, get safe and get support. Advocates trained in supporting victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking can help you find a shelter and services in your area.

Youths, families and service providers can find assistance and resources at

Gloria Perez is president and CEO of the Women's Foundation of Minnesota. Beth Holger is CEO of the Link MN.