MINNEAPOLIS — Researchers have completed a unique study of sex trafficking in Minnesota that could set the stage to develop the country’s most in-depth model to combat the trade.
The University of Minnesota’s Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center used a qualitative approach to better understand the patterns of sex buying in Minnesota, interviewing more than 150 social service personnel, law enforcement officials and prosecutors in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
“This was not a prevalence study,” said Lauren Martin, the study’s lead researcher, in an interview Tuesday, Aug. 1. “This was about getting a lay of the land in Minnesota to better understand all the different markets and how sex buyers approach those markets, with a qualitative view.”
Several representatives from law enforcement, social service and women’s rights groups were on hand Wednesday to announce the findings of the report, which was funded by the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.
“You produced a critical body of knowledge that is key to disrupting and dismantling the (sex trafficking) market altogether,” Mary Beth Hanson of the Women’s Foundation told researchers at a Wednesday press conference, noting ending demand for sex buying as the foundation’s focus. “We have to engage boys and men as leaders and partners in this movement, and all of us must commit to a future where girls and women are safe and valued.”
Martin said several key patterns were established in the study. Demographically, sex buyers are predominantly middle-aged, married, white men from across the entire state, which is representative of Minnesota’s population.
Buyers often don’t purchase sex near their home; rather, they tend to travel 30 to 60 miles to help protect their anonymity. This travel tends to be done during the work day, either before or after work or during a lunch break.
But while sex buyers may have tended to fit a certain demographic, Martin said law enforcement officials were quick to point out it’s not just middle-aged white men purchasing sex. Interviewees also shared stories of women and people of color being arrested in sting operations.
“Our interviews, particularly with law enforcement… (they) said they were surprised with the level of demand (for sex purchasing) they saw during sting operations,” Martin said. “When they posted ads, they would have lots and lots of calls, which they said was surprising, especially in small towns.”
Additionally, Martin said the report shows a desire from sex buyers — who are often men with professions that provide expendable income — to use money and power to control the sexual encounter. Sex buyers are often willing to travel further and spend more to create sexual scenarios that create a more dangerous, humiliating or violent setting for trafficking victims.
“This report is full of disturbing realities on how some responsible members of our society are willing to exploit vulnerabilities,” said Lauren Ryan, director of the Safe Harbor program from the state Department of Health. “We see the trends in this report, trends and intersections with racism, ageism, violence and sexism within the commercial sex industry. This shows it is not just about a desire to purchase sex, it is about a desire in some to cause harm and use payment to justify that harm.”
Drew Evans, superintendent of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, said the agency has doubled the number of investigations into sex buying and trafficking this year compared to this point in 2016, and the BCA has added eight more agents to focus on sex and human trafficking.
“We find that this report really solidifies our understanding, as law enforcement, of what we have seen while conducting these investigations,” Evans said. “(Sex buyers) come from all walks of life, there’s no particular person who fits the mold of a buyer of sex in this state and we need to come together to change the culture in our state.”
Hanson said the Women’s Foundation has two campaigns to help foster culture change ahead of the Twin Cities hosting the Super Bowl in February, an event that could provide an influx of traffickers and buyers in the state. Don’t Buy It will encourage boys and men to not engage in sex buying, while I Am Priceless will target girls ages eight to 12 — prime targets for would-be sex traffickers.
Meanwhile, Evans said law enforcement agencies across the state are ramping up efforts to identify and apprehend sex buyers and traffickers.
“If you’re a sex trafficker, we are all going to be working together in law enforcement, and we’re coming after you,” he said. “We might not catch up with you today, or tomorrow, but you can rest assured we are pursuing the people who are trafficking our girls and women in our state.”
To read the full report, go to the Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center’s website.