Column #137. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Dec. 1, 2018; in print Dec. 2
“Sexual assault can happen to anyone, anywhere; regardless of age, ethnicity, economic status, lifestyle, religion, culture, sexual orientation, or gender."
These words, from the “Overview” section of the Central Minnesota Sexual Assault Center website (cmsac.org), provided the context for a presentation I heard in late October by Peggy LaDue, the center’s executive director.
The focus of the presentation was human trafficking and prostitution. The St. Cloud area is in many ways a “regional center.” I learned we are identified by survivors and local law enforcement as a “training hub” for prostitution, and that CMSAC serves 70-100 victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking each year.
At LaDue’s suggestion, I spoke with Rebecca Kotz, the center’s trafficking services coordinator. Kotz began to get involved in advocacy while in college when she became aware of how pervasive sexual violence is.
“What do you most want my readers to know?” I asked her.
First, forget what you’ve “learned” from movies.
“Pretty Woman” (1990) glamorizes and normalizes the sex industry. Nobody “forces” Vivian Ward into the relationship with wealthy businessman Edward Lewis, and she and Lewis end up living "happily ever after.” Media portrayals of prostitution and the sex industry often depict women who choose the life, make lots of money and say they feel “empowered.”
When Kotz started working with women in the sex industry, she discovered the truth is entirely different. In nearly every case it’s not choice, not lucrative and in no way empowering. It’s exploitation.
In “Taken” (2008), former CIA agent Bryan Mills tracks down his teenage daughter Kim and her friend Amanda. Albanian sex traffickers kidnapped them while they were in France on vacation. Such things happen, but they are uncommon.
Trafficking, including in our area, rarely involves random abductions or stranger kidnappings. The vast majority of victims/survivors are sold and bought by people much closer to home. Traffickers are usually people they know, trust, care about, even love — such as boyfriends, husbands, friends, family members and respected authority figures.
So: Despite what you see on the screen, prostitution is not glamorous and most trafficking is not arbitrary.
Second, judgment is not warranted and serves no purpose.
Fortunately, Minnesota has a Safe Harbor law, under which any Minnesota youth age 17 or younger who engages in (regardless of whether they agree to it or are forced) the exchange of sexual activity for money or “something of value” is considered a crime victim, and will not face prostitution-related charges. Youth age 24 and younger are eligible for safe housing, advocacy, counseling and support services.
The partial decriminalization model (commonly known as the "Nordic Model”) is the legal analog to moral non-judgmentalism. This paradigm is advocated by survivors of the sex industry and prostitution — it is a social justice-based approach that doesn’t blame the victim, offers support services and holds exploiters accountable.
In nearly all cases, the person being prostituted or trafficked, whatever their age, is on the edge of survival. The promise of “something of value” — money, a place to stay, food, clothes, rent, transportation, drugs, alcohol, medication — is literally irresistible.
When you have to survive, you’re going to agree to things you don’t want to do. If I really understand “why people do that,” my sense of superiority evaporates. And I realize that their seeking help requires an almost superhuman bravery.
So: Survivors aren’t subject to my appraisal. Admiration, not verdict, is appropriate.
Third, pornography is far more prevalent and way more insidious than is commonly thought.
Pornography is full of violence. Women are objectified and degraded. For too many men, pornography has become sex education. What CMSAC hears over and over again from men who have purchased prostitution is their desire to imitate what they have seen onscreen.
The common demographic is a white middle- to upper-class man with disposable income, who pays someone who can’t say no to the acts with which pornography has filled his imagination. Buyers can be more violent than traffickers.
The main reason there is trafficking and prostitution is that many men are raised to believe they are entitled to sex, and if they pay for it it’s OK. Demand is what drives any kind of product. In this case, the “product” is women and children, and it’s a brilliant business plan. The trafficker or pimp has a product that can be used over and over again, and pornography is free advertising.
So: Pornography feasts on — and feeds — sexism, rape culture and sexual objectification.
I asked Kotz: When you hear “What can I do to help?” what do you say?
First, parents: Overcome your discomfort in talking to your kids about sex and healthy relationships, and about the harm of pornography. You don’t want the internet to be their sex educator, but if you’re silent, it will be.
Second, professionals in all lines of work: Learn to recognize red flags and how to work with survivors.
Third, everyone: Learn the truth; volunteer with CMSAC (there’s thorough training) and donate supplies and/or money. The center’s services are free. Your gift can help keep it that way.
“Sexual assault can happen to anyone, anywhere.” That means us, and it means Central Minnesota.