Buyers of sex across Minnesota tend to be middle-class, married white men, and they live in all parts of the state.
In an effort to shed some light on the least understood part of the underground sex trade, University of Minnesota researchers for the first time have studied the demand for commercial sex in Minnesota and who the typical client is.
A 121-page report, released Wednesday and completed by the U’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center, fills a gap in research having to do with buyers.
While the report doesn’t try to quantify the issue, it uses a national study to estimate that 26,000 Minnesota men — 1 percent of the state’s men — may have purchased sex in the past year, while 380,000 men — 14 percent — have done so at least once.
“As Minnesotans, we need to be looking in our community and what’s going on,” lead researcher Lauren Martin said. “It’s [buyers] who are really part of mainstream society; it’s leaders in our community sometimes.”
Researchers, who combed through court records and media reports and interviewed more than 150 experts statewide, found that most sex buyers in Minnesota seek quick and anonymous sex with young-looking girls or women.
Buyers tend to travel 30 to 60 miles, often buying sex before or after work, during the lunch hour, on business trips or in the course of traditional male activities such as hunting trips.
And they seek it out in various places — from hotels and private homes, to a Lakeville truck stop and ice fishing houses on Lake Mille Lacs.
The report is part of a broader statewide shift toward reducing the demand for sex trafficking. For years, law enforcement officials focused on arresting women and girls. That changed with the Safe Harbor law, passed in 2011 and fully enacted in 2014, which decriminalized sexually exploited youths under 18 years old and boosted services for victims. This year, the Legislature approved the final funding piece in a $13.3 million five-year plan.
Now agencies from Duluth to Mankato are taking a harder look at johns as well as pimps, though the report estimates that only a fraction of buyers — likely less than 1 percent — ever get arrested.
“We’re not out there every day, all day,” said Assistant Stearns County Attorney Shan Wang, who has prosecuted sex buyers. “It’s pretty rampant ... it really is all times of day.”
‘All across the board’
For the U report, researchers studied state court records from 2010 to 2015, media coverage from 1995 to 2014 and online sex ads. They interviewed more than 150 law enforcement officers, prosecutors and social services workers in Minnesota and border cities in Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Johns live all over — rural towns, suburbs and cities — and tend to be married, between 30 and 50 years old and from middle and upper socioeconomic backgrounds (for example, 84 out of 103 men arrested for prostitution-related offenses didn’t use a public defender). They are mostly white, reflecting the state’s population. While some men of color and women also buy sex, they do so at much lower numbers, the report said.
Most buyers use the internet, particularly sites such as Craigslist.com and Backpage.com, but there’s also a growing use of social media and computer applications. Most men request 30 minutes of sex, determine the kind of sex they want, and pay a bit more for extras, like sex without a condom. Most buyers don’t distinguish between trafficked women or not, and some specifically seek out juveniles.
Stings over the past few years have netted a former football coach, sheriff’s son and police chief, all of whom were trying to buy sex from minors, a felony. Adult stings have resulted in arrests of a state commissioner, suburban teachers and pastors. Of about 30 arrests in Plymouth in the past two years, buyers included members of the military, truck drivers and prominent attorneys.
“There is no typical person who buys sex — it’s all across the board,” said Plymouth Sgt. Eric Fadden, who runs a special investigative unit that works stings with other west metro police. “It’s disturbing in my mind when they’re trying to solicit girls the same age as their daughter.”
Wednesday’s report — which can be found online at uroc.umn.edu/sextrafficking — follows one done by the U in 2014 on trafficked girls in Minneapolis. The center has researched sex trafficking during past Super Bowls in preparation for Minneapolis hosting the game in February and discounts assertions that the big game results in a dramatic spike in sex trafficking.
The research was funded by the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, which is heading up a 40-member committee with Hennepin and Ramsey counties to put together a plan to prevent and combat sex trafficking before, during and after the 2018 Super Bowl. It’s part of the second phase of the Minneapolis nonprofit’s campaign to reduce demand for paid sex, called Minnesota Girls Are Not For Sale.
Like drunken driving, police and prosecutors have intensified enforcement of the law and people are getting the message, Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall said. She said that Stearns County, which has the highest number of sex ads in Minnesota outside the Twin Cities, has arrested and prosecuted more than 100 buyers in the past few years.
To decrease the demand for sex, Kendall said, more efforts are needed to prevent girls from ending up in prostitution while cracking down on both pimps and johns.
“This is not a victimless crime,” Wang said. “It’s buyer beware.”