Myriad speakers focused on a variety of aspects during a Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking of Youth informational event at St. James High School May 20, but the main thesis of the evening, something every speaker hit at least once, was that sexual exploitation and trafficking is happening even in small, rural communities like St. James--these crimes are not the sole province of urban centers like the Twin Cities.

Many people think of St. James as “Mayberry, “that we don’t have crimes, that bad things don’t happen, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” said Mark Carvatt, St. James chief of police. “We do have crimes, and bad things do happen here; hopefully, this (event) will open your eyes a little bit.”

                                                                        Surviving “The Life”

Terri Forliti and Jennifer Gaines--both from the Breaking Free organization that helps women escape what they termed “the life,” i.e. prostitution--were both in “the life” themselves, Gaines said. “I’ve been through all these little towns” during her nearly three-decade stretch being sexually exploited, which began after she ran away from home at age 14. Her parents had divorced, she took it hard, and she blamed her mother, who imposed structure and lots of rules.

“I made it impossible for her to control me [...] really, my mom loved me,” Gaines said. After running away, she was picked up by a trafficker within two days--indeed, one in three teens will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.

He reminded her of her father, he was fun, and rules didn’t apply to him, she said. He was also 21.

He kept pushing her to engage in prostitution, but she was adamantly against it; the grooming process took months, she said. He told her he respected women who were selling themselves on the street, and that he thought she was brave enough to do it, too.

“His opinion mattered to me, I didn’t want him to leave like my dad left, I loved him,” Gaines said. “He was psychologically smart, playing with my mind.”

Eventually, he told her he owed money to gangsters, $400, and if he didn’t pay, they would kill him, she said. But, if she would engage in sexual acts with three men, he could get the money.

She agreed, because she didn’t want him to be killed, and he promised her he’d be in the next room, and she could call for his help during the proceedings if necessary, she said. The three men went at her “hard,” she called for her man, but he never came to her aid. After it was over, and she felt broken, he praised her, telling her, “Nobody has ever loved me like this.”

She grew to think she was “born to do this,” she said. And, armed with only a sixth-grade education, plus four children, a handful of DUI’s, and a handful of convictions for other crimes, “I didn’t think I could ever get out.”

“I wanted to die,” she said. But, Breaking Free was her out, and she continues to work there.

                                                                         Law Enforcement Response

Carvatt said his department has dealt with runaways in this community who eventually turned to prostitution, and they’ve seen girls--and yes, they’re young enough to be called girls, not women--who grew up in poverty and began “turning tricks” with local neighbors to make pocket change. They’ve arrested individuals for possession of child pornography, they’ve arrested people for sex with minors, and they’ve witnessed houses where adults are engaging in sexual activity with minors.

Also on hand May 20 were Marc Chadderdon, an investigator in the Nicollet County Sheriff’s Office, and Tom Rother, a detective for the Mankato Police Department. The two of them discussed a joint sting operation they conducted in Mankato in November 2014, and how they were astonished at how many “johns” they ensnared.

“The sting really opened my eyes,” Rother said. “It was overwhelming.”

They worked with a woman who has been engaging in prostitution in the Mankato area for a decade. In her phone, she had 400 phone numbers of “clients.”

They were all ages and demographics, from business owners and farmers, to college students and even an officer for the department of corrections. The internet, especially a site called Backpage, is used extensively, and individuals might come from 50 or 60 miles away to a Mankato hotel for a girl, or the girl might come from Mankato to the buyer in a small, rural town like St. James.

“The hotel managers in Mankato seemed to know it was happening,” Rothko said. “They were like, ‘Where have you (police) been (all this time)?”

When they first posted on Backpage to initiate the sting, “The phone rang off the hook,” Chadderdon said. Going forward, their plan is to continue to monitor social media for this criminal behavior, as well as working with law enforcement in other parts of the state, because people are more mobile then ever, and women are trafficked all over the state, region, and country.

So, who is buying sex?

According to statistics compiled by Breaking Free, a majority are white, 52 percent are married, 66 percent have children, 49 percent have female children, 81 percent had no criminal history, over half had not used drugs or alcohol in the previous three months, almost none had visited a strip club within the previous three months, nearly all had viewed pornography, and 61 percent had paid for sex before.

Men are conditioned to believe this is acceptable, and they learn to “dehumanize” the people they use for sex, said Hannah Fisher, a sexual violence program team leader and coalition to end sexual violence coordinator for Mankato’s CADA unit. “Once sex is bought, you have a right to do whatever you want” to the victim, is the belief.

                                                                 Technology and the Internet

Gaines added that the photos used to entice buyers on Backpage are usually inauthentic, and the ages are usually false, too. Older women lie to make themselves younger, and, if the age is listed as 18 or 19, that victim is usually a minor.

Carvatt discussed the internet’s pernicious role in sex trafficking, especially social media. He advised parents to know the passwords their children use online, as well as keeping home computers in an open room.

“I’m a big advocate of parents knowing exactly what their kids are doing on the internet,” he said. Most parents don’t know the passwords of their children, and they’re afraid to ask.

He also said children clearing their browser histories is portentous. “If your children are clearing their history, they’re hiding something.”

Gaines agreed that the internet has made sexual exploitation and trafficking much easier and more pervasive, likening ordering sex to ordering a pizza. “The ads are everywhere, it’s a hidden crime.”

Indeed, the notion promulgated by popular culture for centuries of women walking the street and leaning on lampposts with lusty, come-hither looks is an anachronism in most of the country, Fisher said. There’s nothing glamorous, nice, or romantic about prostitution; often referred to as the world’s oldest profession, she prefers to call it the world’s oldest “oppression.”

It’s Fisher’s contention that, “You cannot consent to be exploited,” and barriers to escape are myriad, 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.

“We become addicted to drugs to cover our pain,” Forliti said. “We can’t do the act if we’re not high.”

Blackmail is also a barrier to escape, Forliti said. Often, the possessor will gain early possession of explicit photos or video of the victim, and then threaten to release the incriminating material, which keeps the victim in the perpetrator’s grasp out of fear of embarrassment.

                                                                             A New Perspective

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, Fisher 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.

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.

Forliti, who spoke with the energy and passion of a tent revival preacher, said Mankato was added to Backpage just last year to meet the area’s demand, and that without demand, there is no prostitution. That’s why she, and Breaking Free, are in favor of the “Nordic Model,” used in many Scandinavian countries, which puts the focus on the buyer, not the female being trafficked.

For decades in America, it was the women who would be arrested on prostitution charges, but the buyer would basically go free, she said. That script needs to flip, and that is happening with things like the Safe Harbor Bill.

“We need to focus on the buyer, focus on demand,” Fisher said. Stopping the problem before it starts is paramount.

According to 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.

Juli Fast, a regional navigator for the Southwest Minnesota Crisis Center, has jurisdiction over 18 counties, and much of her work focuses on youth and schools. She even has a dedicated hotline devoted solely to teens in danger of being sexually exploited and/or trafficked.

She said sexual exploitation and trafficking right now is where domestic violence was 30-40 years ago. Hard as it is to believe, now, back then domestic violence was a taboo topic; it simply wasn’t spoken about in public, it was looked on as a private matter.

However, “we’re in the beginning stages of” turning sexual exploitation into a topic with the same level of awareness as domestic violence, she said. “This is a heavy topic, and it can seem overwhelming [...] (but) we will get there; this is a social and community issue, not an individual issue.”

Though most victims who fall into a life of sexual exploitation do so at an early age--12-14--Forliti was an exception to the rule, starting at 37. Drugs were her gateway, as they are for so many.

Drugs were “glamorized” in the 1970s, but once she stumbled onto that road, it all went sideways, including years of sexual exploitation, Forliti said. She even put up her mug shots for all to see last week, a gruesome time-lapse that was like watching a live-action portrait of Dorian Gray.

She was beaten too many times to count, and had guns pointed at her head on many occasions, she said. “Knowledge is power, awareness (of this topic) can prevent you or a friend from becoming a victim.”

Also 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. “Survival sex is a reality for a lot of youth, this is happening.”

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.”

Ryan Anderson can be reached at randerson@stjamesnews.com and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan