The Ugly Truth: The Sexual Exploitation of Our Youth
“My first time on the streets, I was approached at a bus stop. The pimp was nice, buying me things and letting me stay with him. He had a lot of girls coming and going. The second time I was taken to a house with windows covered. There were six or seven girls there naked, some had been there for days or months. I was injected with drugs and was forced to work even when pregnant. This house was on the North side. I was able to fake a stomach ache and my pimp dropped me off at the hospital.”
These haunting experiences come from a victim of sexual exploitation, shared during a survey with Beth Holger-Ambrose that was eventually published in the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse in 2013. Having worked in the field for 18 years, formerly with the Minnesota Department of Human Services and now as the executive director of The Link, an organization working with youth dealing with homelessness, truancy, and the juvenile legal system, Holger-Ambrose has heard countless accounts of sexual exploitation of youth, when someone under the age of 18 engages in commercial sexual activity.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, commercial sexual activity occurs when anything of value or a promise of anything of value (such as money, drugs, food, shelter, rent, or social status) is given to a person by any means in exchange for any type of sexual activity. A third party may or may not be involved.
Holger-Ambrose will tell you, the personal story shared by a young woman in her survey is by no means the only one. One study estimates as many as 325,000 children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico are at risk each year for becoming victims of sexual exploitation. Of those, a vast portion are taken advantage of while experiencing homelessness, with numbers ranging from study to study, one of which estimates 30 percent of shelter youth and 70 percent of street youth are victims of commercial sexual exploitation.
These youth may engage or be coerced into prostitution for “survival sex” to meet daily needs for food, shelter, or drugs. Other terms that may be used to talk about sexual exploitation are “child prostitution” and “youth sex trade.” Many sexually exploited youth face realities of drug use, homelessness, past trauma, and other factors which have lead them into the survival sex trade. Other youth may have no such history and may have been lured, tricked, or forced into being sexually exploited.
Commander Robert Thomasser oversees the St. Paul Police Department’s human trafficking department, and he makes no bones about it: anyone can fall victim to sexual exploitation. Rich or poor, becoming involved in “the life,” as it’s called, can entice youth of any background.
“Sexual exploitation can occur in any community,” he says. “When people think of the topic of human trafficking, they think of this image of a third world country, probably a young girl in chains smuggled on some boat or something. What we are trying to do is break down that stereotypical image and say that this can happen to any child. Regardless of their financial background, their religious background, their sexual orientation, anything. Everybody is vulnerable to this.”
Speaking from her personal experience, Holger-Ambrose notices higher rates of GLBT youth falling victim to sexual exploitation than their heterosexual counterparts. Citing homelessness, running away from home multiple times, and being in the foster care system as the biggest risk factors, Holger-Ambrose says, “Unfortunately, since we see higher rates of LGBTQ youth in the population of homeless youth, then we also are seeing similar rates within the youth who are being sexually exploited.”
The Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force, operated out of the Minnesota Department of Health, also notes that GLBT youth are an over-represented sub-population within victims of sexual exploitation. Various studies have found that between 20 and 40 percent of unaccompanied homeless youth identify as GLBT, compared to three to five percent of the general youth population, while one local Minneapolis study found that nearly one third of sexually exploited youth self-identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Research from the Family Acceptance Project has shown that the average age that an individual “comes out” as GLBT has lowered over time. In the 1970s people were coming out in their early 20s and today the average age that a youth comes out is 13. This younger age means that the youth is most likely still living with their parents or other caregivers who may or may not be accepting of the youth’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Too many GLBT youth still face significant challenges during adolescence and early adulthood, fighting discrimination, misconceptions, and abuse by peers, family members, and others in their communities. The Family Acceptance Project’s research also shows that one out of every four youth that come out may be forced out or kicked out of their home by their parents or caregivers. Additionally, transgender individuals experience greater difficulty in finding employment due to transphobia, which can also contribute to an increased risk of sexual exploitation. In fact, a recent study of transgender youth found that 67 percent had engaged in sex work.
According to the Polaris Project, one of the largest resources for sexually exploited people, of the large population of homeless youth who identify as GLBT, 46 percent ran away because of family rejection, they are 7.4 times more likely to experience acts of sexual violence than heterosexual peers, and are three to seven times more likely to engage in survival sex to meet basic needs such as shelter, food, and toiletries.
Holger-Ambrose has seen a myriad of reasons for youth to engage in sex work. “Sometimes they are becoming involved because they are literally on the streets homeless and they need a place to stay,” she shares. “Someone approaches them and says, ‘I can provide this for you, just come with me to this party, give a couple blow jobs, it’s really easy, and then you don’t have to worry about a safe place to stay anymore.’ Sometimes it’s because literally the youth have no where to stay and someone says they will provide that for them, at a price.”
But needing a place to stay isn’t the only avenue into the life. Holger-Ambrose remembers one 16-year-old who identified as cisgender male and gay. “He was way out in the far out suburbs and felt very isolated, didn’t know a lot of other gay people,” she remembers. “We have heard those stories a lot about isolation. This young person felt very isolated and was on internet chat rooms and online like most young people his age are, and unfortunately he was approached online by a man in his late 60s in Texas who groomed him online.”
That older man created an online relationship with the youth, groomed him (built an emotional connection with the young man to gain his trust for the purposes of sexual abuse or exploitation), and then flew to Minnesota and trafficked the boy back to Texas with him. “Because he groomed him and told him how special he was and how amazing he was, that older man basically got him to sleep with him and got him to sleep with other ‘friends,’ but he profited off of that and earned money off of that.”
GLBT people have historically faced discrimination and oppression. Stigmatization and rejection continue today, putting this population at an increased risk for depression, suicide, substance abuse, homelessness, being victims of bullying and other forms of violence, including sexual exploitation.
Whether it is bullying and isolation, as was the case for the 16-year-old Holger-Ambrose worked with, or personal conflict with family and friends, Commander Thomasser says it almost always stems from sort of trouble in the young person’s life.
“Maybe they’re having trouble at home with a parent, they’re having trouble at school, they’re hanging out with the wrong crowd, but for whatever reason they have needs that aren’t being met and then these people step in and take advantage of these folks,” he says. “Does this occur in the LGBT community? Of course it does, because just like every other community there are vulnerable kids and young adults. So if it’s anything that would cause a person to turn to somebody else in a trusting way, and that person that they turn to has got evil intentions, these things occur.”
The reality is, once someone becomes involved in the life, it is difficult for many individuals to reach out for assistance, but this is especially true for individuals who fear that they will be mistreated or not believed because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The Polaris Project found that GLBT youth are overrepresented in detention for prostitution-related offenses and report higher levels of police misconduct than their straight peers.
Furthermore, gay and transgender youth may not have access to anti-trafficking services because they are unaware of services in their area, the community lacks resources (e.g. bed space, funding), or they are concerned that providers are not GLBT friendly.
The trouble with exploitation, especially when the victims are young people without easy access to resources or a place to stay, is that it becomes a cycle of dependency making it difficult for the young person to leave the life. Ryan Berg, the program manager for the ConneQt Host Home Program with Avenues for Homeless Youth says usually multiple service providers will be working on the trauma involved with the experience. Which means, depending on the level of trauma, it varies between a short turnaround to needing a great deal of time and a real safe, affirming space for the youth to get back on their feet.
Holger-Ambrose mentioned that the time it takes to get out of exploitation could also relate to how long they’ve been involved in the life. “I worked with youth that first got trafficked when they were as young as 10 or 11, and then I meet them when they’re 16 or 17,” she shares. “So then they’re several years deep into the life. Sometimes I’ve seen youth who are able to — once they connect with supportive services — get out that same week. They don’t want to be in the situation. But I’ve also seen youth that take several years of going back and forth. They might leave the life for a couple months and then something triggers them to go back in, maybe it’s a crisis where they need bail money for somebody, or whatever it is.”
That kind of back and forth can take as long as four or five years, according to Holger-Ambrose. But not everyone makes it to support services or police. Retired New York City detective James Rothstein says, for the most part, there is no getting out. “You end up dead,” he says. “You’ll see a lot of suicides. But many of them are killed, they disappear, nobody knows who they are.”
“What happens is this: they are used until they have no value anymore,” Rothstein continues. “Then usually they get to the point where they help recruit other kids. And then by the time they get into their mid-20s, many of them then themselves become perpetrators.”
One respondent to Holger-Ambrose’s survey gives a perfect example of the dangerous nature of trading sex for survival. “I had a pimp and would have to get high to turn tricks,” she shares. “It’s painful, disgusting, and makes me depressed. I’ve been raped, stabbed, jumped out of a moving vehicle while it was still moving, robbed, been shot at, left for dead once, and have had my head busted two times.”
For a crime that impacts every community so prevalently, anyone involved with the prosecution of perpetrators or treatment of victims agrees that sexual exploitation is not talked about enough. It is a heavy topic to discuss. Sexual exploitation and trafficking takes place in the shadows of the Twin Cities, according to Mandy Multerer, co-founder of My Sister, an apparel company whose mission is to raise awareness on the topic.
“People don’t want to know or think that it’s even happening in their area,” Multerer says. “Especially Minneapolis, you may live in an area where it’s happening all the time and you just don’t know about it.”
She says all it takes is a drive down Lake Street to witness sexual exploitation in action. “You can see the patterns of walking and then their pimps and traffickers might be around the corner and you could see them in their cars,” Multerer said. “The FBI actually identified Minneapolis as one of the top 13 cities for child sex trafficking, so that’s really important for us to talk about, but it’s really a problem in every city and every state.”
According to Multerer, one of the biggest misconceptions about Minnesota being so high on the FBI’s list is the idea of Duluth as a hub for trafficking. “That’s not necessarily a port where people are getting imported and exported,” she says. “More so it’s a port for people serving the boat workers type of thing.”
And Holger-Ambrose doesn’t get behind the stereotype of youth getting recruited at the Mall of America. Instead, she says, “More youth get recruited by peers, family members, or online way more often than someone being approached at the Mall of America.”
As someone who works specifically with GLBT youth, Berg notices that the places that youth go for comfort can actually be dangerous. “Bars and clubs are kind of sacred spaces for queer and trans folk, but also those spaces can be hunting grounds for those that want to exploit others,” he says. “Even though these spaces can become havens for young people who are grappling with identity and looking for community, it’s also a space to be hyperalert and vigilant of your surroundings. It becomes a space where young people can become vulnerable to exploitation.”
Some of the largest misperceptions, however, involve the identities of the victims and perpetrators. According to Commander Thomasser, most people would believe sexual exploitation is a problem for young girls, and he is quick to dispute that. Although more female-identified youth come forward, male-identified youth make up a large portion of victims as well, with research showing that youth that identify as boys or girls are exploited at equal rates. “It’s as much a problem for young men as it is young girls,” he says. “And so if they think this is a suburban male predator going after young girls, it’s far broader than that.”
And even then, it’s commonly believed that male victims identify as gay, which isn’t always the case. “Some boys in the life will actually use the term gay for pay,” Holger-Ambrose says. “Just because someone is involved with sexual exploitation and they’re having sex with somebody in exchange for money or anything else, it doesn’t necessarily define what their sexual orientation is. Boys that are involved with the sex trade or sexual exploitation often get typecast as all being gay, which isn’t always true.”
Similar stereotypes exist surrounding the perpetrators, with most people thinking that it is male traffickers. Commander Thomasser divides perpetrators into two categories: those responsible for recruiting the victim into the lifestyle (the trafficker) and those who are buying sex, or engaging in the commercial sex aspect (the John).
Johns tend to be middle-aged males of all races, according to Commander Thomasser, who says he doesn’t arrest a lot of women for seeking commercial sex for money. Although, he admits, there are probably women who engage in that as well and just aren’t caught. But when it comes to traffickers, he says they can look like anything and be anyone. “The idea that we are now prosecuting women for exactly the same behavior as men shows that that sort of stereotype is getting broken down,” he says.
Service providers notice similar trends as the St. Paul Police Department. At The Link, Holger-Ambrose says regardless of the youth being exploited, the buyer is almost always a male. The trafficker, however, runs the gamut of gender, race, and other identities. She says, “There’s a lot of stereotypes that only males are traffickers or pimps but we actually see female pimps whether it’s a relative, like an older sister or older friend or mothers — people hate to think that, but it’s true. Sometimes it’s a relative, sometimes it’s a friend, but there definitely are female traffickers, female pimps, as well as males.”
Since identities of traffickers are somewhat fluid, the key to assisting victims is knowing the warning signs, which can be difficult. Rothstein has a saying: “There are as many things to look for as there are grains of sand on a beach.” But he says you will always notice a change in lifestyle for the young person. “You can spot it, you watch a change.”
According to Commander Thomasser, the warning signs are evident, but parents and friends need to pay attention to the young people. “Sometimes they’ll notice that their kids are maybe hanging out with people who are older than them,” he says. “Is that in itself a warning sign? No, but it could be one thing that goes with some others.”
Other things to watch out for include if the young person is coming home with nice gifts — nice clothes, a new phone — things that are beyond their normal reach, that might be a clue that someone is giving them these things to entice them into what they’re looking for long term. He says, “Looking for signs when they come home that something is going on where they may be interacting with others while they’re away and living beyond their means or really don’t need the household any longer because someone else is taking care of them. Those might be some signs to pay attention to.”
Unexplainable absences are also a red flag, according to Holger-Ambrose, especially if the youth normally shows up for school or a job consistently and then they are suddenly missing for chunks of time. “If they’re kind of missing and they don’t have a good explanation of where they’re going, that’s a big one,” she says. “They kind of go AWOL, like three or four days they’re missing here and there, that would be a red flag because that could be a sign that their trafficker is taking them around to different states or different locations on a party circuit or something like that.”
“If they have a tattoo that they don’t feel comfortable explaining to you, sometimes traffickers will get their name or a barcode or something like that, not always but sometimes,” she continues. “Also, if a young person is talking about making a lot of money or going to fancy parties or something like that, but then don’t seem able to actually keep the money, that might also be a red flag.”
After looking at the warning signs, Thomasser and Holger-Ambrose agree that the best thing to do is reach out for help, even if you aren’t completely sure someone is being exploited. The St. Paul Police Department is always looking for the public’s help in finding crimes where and when they are occurring.
“If someone thinks or suspects, they don’t even have to know for sure, if you just think this person might be being sexually exploited,” Holger-Ambrose says, “you can refer that person to a regional navigator (a regional first point of contact in Minnesota for someone being exploited), or you, yourself, as a concerned citizen, could call our regional navigator and just talk through the situation and get some advice and resources. If anyone is directly connected with a youth they think is being trafficked, the best thing to do would be to connect them with the regional navigator in the area.”
It can be difficult for victims of trafficking to disclose their situation and reach out for help. Many victims do not identify as victims of trafficking, fear the repercussions of reporting their situation, or simply do not know that help is available. For the safety and well-being of the victim, Minnesota passed the Safe Harbor Law in 2011, decriminalizing prostitution for youth under 18. Holger-Ambrose, who helped create the law, says prior to the law’s passing, youth were getting picked up and arrested for prostitution and then put in juvenile detention.
“Basically treating them like a criminal even though someone else was trafficking them and profiting off their exploitation, and then they were getting released right back to their trafficker,” she says. “Before Safe Harbor, they were all going to juvenile detention, which I can only imagine how horrible that is after you’ve been raped multiple times in hotel rooms for someone else to make money and then to be arrested and placed in juvenile detention — it’s just the most horrific response. So what’s really nice is that, now, the response is to provide them with supportive services and to have the youth have a choice in that and if they do need a safe space to stay, refer them to a therapeutic and supportive service type of shelter or housing program versus juvenile detention.”
Some service providers, however, offer housing and assistance for youth up to the age of 24, which is crucial according to Multerer. “When we talk about youth it definitely is up to that age because a lot of the youth that have been exploited started when they were really young,” she says. “So then they don’t have that education and foundation at 18 to just cut them off and send them away.”
The message Holger-Ambrose wants to send is that young people who have been victimized by sexual exploitation or involved with the life are incredibly resilient and are able to successfully transition out of it when they have the right kind of support in their life.
“People who have been victims of sexual exploitation are amazing, resilient people that have a lot of dreams and goals for themselves just like everybody else,” She says. “The experience of sexual exploitation shouldn’t define them or put a label over them. It’s only one experience they’ve had in their life. We just have to, as a society, see them in a more positive way and give them opportunities to follow those other dreams they have for themselves.
That’s a sentiment echoed by Berg, who says that education is an important role in combating exploitation. Berg encourages everyone to do some research and be aware of the services that are available for young people lured into the life.
“Sometimes as a society we’ve been guilty of victim blaming,” he says. “So we need to recognize the fact that these young people have been targeted, have been exploited, and need support. If it is a young person that has resorted to, for example, prostitution, that we realize they are victims of circumstance and of systems and folks that are exploiting them.”
“They’re victims and survivors and not criminals,” he continues. “When we label young people who experience exploitation as criminals, we dehumanize them and separate them; it’s easier to just let things go on, business as usual. But they need to be treated with dignity and respect and provided with the services they need. It’s really about recognizing that they’re human beings with lots of complexity, and they shouldn’t be criminalized.”
If you believe you are working with a young person who may be a victim of trafficking, you can reach out to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. The toll-free hotline is available to answer calls from anywhere in the country, 24/7, in over 200 languages. Call 888-373-7888 or text 233733 to talk to a specially trained Hotline Advocate to get help, connect to local services, or get more information about human trafficking.
For more information or to get advice about sexual exploitation, reach out to these resources. If you are in need of immediate help or are in danger, please call 911.
Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force
Avenues for Homeless Youth