During a lunch-and-learn series event April 24 in the Watonwan County Human Services building, Hannah Fisher, in her third year with CADA in Mankato, disabused her audience of some notions they likely had about human trafficking.

For example, “We think it’s somewhere else [...] but it happens in some form or another in every community,” said Fisher, a sexual violence program team leader. “I work with sexual exploitation victims in Mankato all the time, it is happening in our area.”

She also shared some stunning statistics, courtesy of The Covering House, which seeks to provide refuge and restoration for girls who have experienced sexual exploitation or sexual trafficking.

Human trafficking generates $9.5 billion annually in the United States, and roughly 300,000 children are at risk of being prostituted in America, she said. More disturbing, the average age of entry into prostitution for a child victim in the U.S. is 12-14, and one-in-three teenagers on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours.

In addition, there’s a shortage of beds in America for these victims, Fisher said. “We’re getting better; more and more beds are popping up, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”

There’s also nothing glamorous about prostitution, despite what popular culture might promulgate, Fisher said. Often called “the world’s oldest profession,” Fisher prefers to tweak that to “the world’s oldest oppression.”

While there may be some prostitutes in the industry completely voluntarily, Fisher said she’s yet to meet one, arguing most--if not all--cases of prostitution are really sex trafficking. “You cannot consent to be exploited.”

On the continuum of sexual exploitation is “survival sex,” exchanging sex for something the victim needs--food, shelter, safety of their children, their own safety, etc., Fisher said. This is especially prevalent in homeless populations.

Fisher also wants to change some of the terms associated with sex trafficking to better reflect reality.

For example, “pimp” sounds almost powerful, and “madam” sound quasi-prestigious, but a more accurate term is “trafficker,” she said. “Prostitution” is really “sex trafficking,” and a “prostitute” is a “survivor” or “victim.”

International sex trafficking certainly occurs, but it’s much more common in large metropolitan areas and port cities, she said. For example, Duluth, as an international port, has “a fair amount of sex trafficking.” (Fisher worked with victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking in Duluth before coming to Mankato.)

Much more common in cities like Mankato, or even St. James, is domestic sex trafficking, which looks like traditional prostitution, she said. These rings can be as byzantine as large-scale webs, or as small as a husband or boyfriend exploiting his wife or relative.

Sex exploitation covers more than just forced sex, of course, Fisher said. Even sexting can be sex exploitation.

The Washington Post last week citied new research from Indiana University saying as many as one in five sexters are actually coerced into sending sexual texts by threats or manipulation from their partner. Additionally, Michelle Drouin, a developmental psychologist, said, “Coercion into sexting caused more trauma, for both men and women … than coercion into actual physical sex.”

Watonwan County Human Services Director Dave Christianson said he’s alarmed by the way “kids are getting more comfortable with technology and taking (explicit) pictures,” and then disseminating them. This can become desensitizing, and it can be part of the “grooming process” toward more sexual exploitation.

“I’ve always known (having those photos) was child pornography, but I didn’t link that (before the April 24 talk) to being the grooming part,” he said. “Parents need to be careful with their kids.”

Indeed, Fisher said “finesse pimping,” where the “pimp” uses grooming and manipulation, is much more common than “gorilla pimping,” where the pimp uses physical violence and the threat of it to get his way. Sometimes, the victim doesn’t even think of himself or herself as a victim of sexual exploitation--like in many instances of “survival sex.”

Additionally, the cold, hard truth is that people can be sold over and over, Fisher said. Unlike drugs, which can only make a profit once for the seller, people are “a renewable resource.”

Barriers to escape are myriad, she said, from being trauma-bonded, to fear that no one will believe the story, to addiction--addiction rates among people in this life are staggeringly high. Sometimes, these drug addictions are actually forced onto the victim--they’re shot up to make them more pliant.

Finally, exploitation and racism often go hand-in-hand, with certain populations much more exploited than others, she said. Though Native Americans make up only about two percent of the population in Minnesota, roughly 35 percent of the sexually exploited victims in Minnesota are Native Americans.

Christianson and many Human Services staffers attended Fisher’s talk, and he said human trafficking “is one of those things you don’t think about in rural America,” but Human Services in Watonwan County has already dealt with a case. A discussion like this helps open eyes so that staffers in Human Services know signs to look for when they’re out in the field to see if someone is being trafficked or exploited.

He also admitted the ease of purchasing sex through an online advertizing site like Backpage “stunned me a little bit.” “You could just be sitting in your hotel room and...there it is.”

In globalization, women are moving more than ever before, Fisher said. While there are positives to that, like more opportunities, the downside to than enhanced migration is a burgeoning sex trade.

While labor trafficking also falls under the human trafficking umbrella, Fisher devoted most of her time Friday to sexual exploitation. Under the federal definition, sex trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, or transporting of a person for the purpose of a commercial (money is exchanged) sex act.

The victim must also be induced by force, fraud, or coercion, she said. However, that doesn’t need to be proved if the person is under 18.

Minnesota, on the other hand, doesn’t require proof of coercion, force, or fraud, she said. “We live in a state that has said selling people is unacceptable.”

In August 2014, No Wrong Door legislation went into effect in Minnesota, she said. No Wrong Door is Minnesota’s implementation of the Safe Harbor Bill, which decriminalizes anyone under the age of 18 who is being sexually exploited and increases penalties for people who purchase youth for sex or sexual acts.

“This is a big shift in our thinking,” she said. It’s a great practice, because it allows people to come out, to talk about it, and to expose it.

No Wrong Door is a unique model which places regional navigators throughout Minnesota to help educate professionals about sexual exploitation of youth, as well as improving services to youth victims of sexual exploitation, she said. Minnesota was ranked 13th in the United States for sex trafficking of minors.

Work is also being done on the federal level. In fact, the United States Senate last month passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act 99-0, a bill to strengthen penalties against human traffickers who force their victims into slavery and prostitution.

For the rest of this story, please see the April 30 print edition of the St. James Plaindealer--still on sale now.