Minnesota's Hennepin County and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office recently released a report titled Voices of Safe Harbor. Sharing the stories of over 70 survivors, it's both a look into what it's like to be a victim of sex trafficking, as well as a crash course in what we can do to prevent sex trafficking and youth exploitation. Every year, approximately two million children are exploited in the global commercial sex trade. Combined with adults, that makes for 20.9 million people globally exploited for sexual servitude, and forced and bonded labor. The statistics are beyond startling, but we don't very often get such deeply personal accounts from survivors themselves.
Participants in the Voices of Safe Harbor report spanned the ages of 12 to 46. Their stories teach us valuable lessons about what we can do to prevent sexual exploitation, as well as what victims need as they go through the healing process. This education and assistance is something we clearly need, as evidenced by the success of the first year of the Safe Harbor Program, which drew over 150 minors looking for help.
Many respondents stressed that prevention starts in the family, with trust, love, support, and communication being absolutely vital to a youth's self-esteem, and their understanding of what healthy relationships and sex are. These familial bonds are heavily involved in laying the foundation of the future.
“Abuse and situations like that, if there’s abuse in the house and they’re being abused [they might run away]. It’s a long story for me.”
In some cases, respondents learn about sexual exploitation directly from their relatives. “Some families encourage it, it’s a cycle, their mother and grandmother did it," explained one participant. Another explained that she once knew a girl whose mother encouraged her to do it, and now that girl is missing. "A lot of times families have never had that help. Certain moms and dads ... just pass on whatever was taught to them when they were younger and they think it’s normal. They just need that outside perspective telling them that’s not normal and they played a part in why their kid has done some things they’ve done," explained one survivor.
It's evident here that family influences, both positive and negative, can truly impact exploitation and how we combat it. Creating a positive, healthy environment with open communication — where youth feel respected and valued — can change everything. As one participant put it, "People in their life who believe in leading by example ... It starts at home."
Another point of prevention that respondents stressed was more community support and education, teaching and showing children what a healthy relationship is. Surveys have shown that there is quite possibly a lack of adults to talk to who children feel they can trust.
Relationship classes, counseling, and mentoring are ways we can provide what might be lacking in the family, as well as counter abuse that is romanticized by the media. "I wish I would have known that I went through abuse and I wasn’t taught about relationships when I was young," stated one participant. Many of these victims have explained that they didn't know what an unhealthy relationship looked like, and didn't even realize that they were in one.
And the education shouldn't be limited only to relationships and sex. Youth who are potentially at greater risk for the lifestyle need to be taught another lifestyle — parenting courses, how to manage money, finding a safe place to live, improving your credit score, and so on. "... I feel like what could help is a program that is focused on the youth of this demographic that taught them life skills and survival skills ... how to fend for themselves, there are tons of reasons why someone could be in this situation."
While there are social services here to help — law enforcement, attorneys, etc. — many respondents reported feeling marginalized and disrespected by them, only deepening the problem of sexual exploitation instead of preventing it.
“Talk to them as a person, not a docket number.”
It's estimated that the average starting age of sexual exploitation is 12 to 14 years old, and these are some of the most formative years of a child's life. The respondents of Voices of Safe Harbor have more than clarified that there are indeed ways we can reduce and prevent the occurrence of sexual exploitation and trafficking.
Image: Mariella Lopez Cabrera/Flickr