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'Conversations that Matter'

Human trafficking is an issue that permeates Minnesota, which is ranked 13 in the United States for sex trafficking cases, with 213 girls sold per month. Ira Gelb/Creative Commons

The conversations that make a difference are often some of the most difficult ones to have, but shying away from topics just because they're sensitive won't yield any results. That's why the first-ever "Conversations that Matter" event, set for Sept. 26, centers around the difficult topic of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

"Our Women's Leadership Council was surprised to see it was happening locally," said Mary Phillipe, the executive director for United Way of Wadena and Otter Tail Counties.

In fact, the state of Minnesota is ranked thirteenth in the United States for the number of human trafficking cases annually--and those are just the ones that are discovered.

"Every month, from what we know, 213 girls are sold in Minnesota," said Jeanine Thompson, regional youth advocate for Someplace Safe.

In Otter Tail County alone, the number of cases is still in the double digits: 19 last year alone, with 12 of them involving children under the age of 18.

And women aren't the only victims--Otter Tail county saw six sexual exploitation cases involving male victims, four of them involving males under the age of 18.

"The demand side of it is something that needs to be addressed," said Thompson. "If there was no demand, we wouldn't have it."

And the internet adds it's own ease of access to the issue.

"Pornogrophy is running rampant," said Thompson. "It makes it easy. You can just go online and post a video. You don't even have to leave your own home."

Seventy-five percent of victims are also sold online, making the issue difficult to track and even harder to stop.

"They just kind of order them like pizza," said Thompson, referring to how easily the internet has made it for perpetrators to find someone to sexually exploit.

'We have a long way to go'

Someplace Safe works daily to spread the word about human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and they also provide services to those who have fallen victim.

Those services could be anything from helping victims find housing to referrals to counseling services, many of the resources that will also be available at the "Conversations that Matter" event.

"Obviously, we won't know, in the audience, who is potentially a victim," said Phillipe, adding that the resources will be there though.

There will be a panel of experts, including individuals from the healthcare industry as well as law enforcement to talk about what people can do to help victims and the rights of the victims in these cases, since in some cases the victims themselves can be charged with human trafficking crimes.

In fact, until Safe Harbor Laws were passed in 2011, victims, no matter their age, were being charged for crimes in sexual exploitation and human trafficking cases.

"Now, anyone under 18 is becoming decriminalized," said Thompson.

Though, victims 18 to 24 years old can still be charged.

"That never really made sense to me," said Thompson, "that the victims were being charged and the Johns (exploiters) were being let go."

But victim blaming is still an issue with sexual exploitation, and the stigma is part of what keeps victims in the industry.

Thompson says it can be tough for people to accept sexual exploitation victims back into their communities because often times people don't understand why victims "don't just leave."

"(Victims) get groomed," explained Thompson, adding that many times, perpetrators will exchange drugs and alcohol for "services," which then gets the victims addicted to drugs, causing them to become dependent on their perpetrators. '"It's the stockholm syndrome issue."

Another tactic perpetrators will use is fear.

"They tell victims they're going to get into trouble," said Thompson. "(Or) they find out information about their family and friends, and they threaten them."

So victims stay and, if victims don't receive help, the statistics say they will last about seven years in the industry and then die by suicide, by overdose, by murder, or by sexually transmitted disease.

"What I want people to understand is help is available," said Thompson. "There is a way out."

Someplace Safe can be an initial resource for people or, anyone looking to become more informed about how to help victims of sexual exploitation can attend the "Conversations that Matter" event on Sept. 26 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Bigwood Event Center. Tickets for the luncheon are $15.