A new finding that one in 70 young people in Minnesota have been sexually exploited has state advocates and public health officials calling for more education to teach teens and for support programs to help victims.
State leaders suspected that teens have been forced to trade sex or sexual favors for money, food, alcohol or shelter, but they lacked proof until the question was asked in the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, said Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health. An analysis of the survey results, released Monday, was a “wake-up call,” she added, to do more to protect vulnerable young people.
“With this data in hand, today can mark the beginning of a renewed commitment … for all of us to work toward zero tolerance of sexual exploitation of young people in Minnesota,” she said of the first-of-its-kind analysis of sexual exploitation of students.
The survey has queried Minnesota students every three years about everything from vegetable consumption to texting habits to smoking, but the 2019 version was the first to ask about sexual exploitation. Of the 80,000 9th- and 11th-graders who took the survey, roughly 1.4% said they had been exploited.
The rates were higher for vulnerable groups: 6.4% for youth with unstable housing in the past year, 8.1% for youth who had ever lived in foster care, and 12% for youth who were surveyed while in juvenile detention.
Researchers from the health department and the University of Minnesota examined the results and found roughly equivalent levels of male and female students reporting exploitation.
“This goes against conventional wisdom about who is most likely to be sexually exploited,” said Lauren Martin, an associate professor of nursing at the U who led the analysis. “So this is very important information for our state.”
Transgender youth reported a sexual exploitation rate of 5.9%.
The researchers estimated that at least 5,000 Minnesotans aged 15 to 19 have traded sex for something they needed or wanted. That likely is an undercount, they added, because the student survey doesn’t account for dropouts, who are more vulnerable.
“We are beginning to be able to count what we were not able to count before, but what we knew was happening,” said Beatriz Menanteau, supervisor of the state health department’s violence prevention programs unit. Menanteau added that this is the first statewide student survey in the U.S. to ask this question.
The yes/no responses gave researchers no idea about the perpetrators, but Martin said they are often adults in positions of power over vulnerable youth, or even young people applying peer pressure.
Advocates said the numbers suggest a broader need for training programs, such as Not A #Number, that teach young people to value themselves and have empathy and respect for others.
“Just being young alone makes them a target for people to take advantage of them,” said Jenny Miller, a local YMCA youth intervention services coordinator who has conducted the training.
Minnesota has a “Safe Harbor” law designed to support teens who report exploitation, rather than to exacerbate any feelings of shame or guilt. State safe harbor grant programs also help protect youth and remove them from settings in which exploitation occurs.
Other responses in the survey show a population of high school students in Minnesota under strain. Students reporting long-term mental health problems increased from 18% in the 2016 survey to 23% in the latest survey. Sexual exploitation can be a cause or consequence of mental health struggles, Malcolm said.
“Certainly conversations around sex are not always easy,” she said, “but it is incumbent on each of as adults … to educate our children about healthy relations and the dangers of sexual exploitation.”