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Human Trafficking Awareness Month: The 1,2,3

January is right around the corner. January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Many programs are beginning to host events or engage in other efforts this month. If you are looking for ideas or are feeling overwhelmed with what to do for Human Trafficking Awareness Month, read on. Below are three simple steps you can follow to ensure your Human Trafficking Awareness Month is informed and also includes prevention. This month features a guest writer, Noelle Volin. Noelle is MNCASA’s Trafficking Policy Coordinator and Staff Attorney. She will start us out with step one in our journey.

Step One: Be Aware

“That Doesn’t Happen Here.”

by Noelle Volin, Trafficking Policy Coordinator/Staff Attorney

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month and a great opportunity to educate community leaders, service providers and systems professionals, and the general public about sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Minnesota has made radical changes to the way our state treats victims of sexual exploitation, from importantlegislative changes, to the development of a statewide services model, the engagement of the hospitality industry, and helping communities across the state build an on-the-ground systems response  that will meet their specific needs.

Nevertheless, one of the most common – and most frustrating – conversations that many in this work continue to have is the conversation that starts with “That doesn’t happen here.”  If your first reaction is, “Yes it does!” then you are not alone, and your frustration is understandable.

But let’s take a step back.  Maybe they have a point.  Maybe “that” – the typical narrative or story used in most training and awareness materials – actually isn’t the way sex trafficking and sexual exploitation are happening in your community. 

Consider the following examples:

Typical Narrative Minnesota Narratives
A sex trafficking victim finally escapes when one of her traffickers, a 35 year-old black man, beat her so severely she required medical attention. The trafficker and his accomplice, another black man, would approach women in an SUV, comment on their attractiveness then recruit them with talk of starring in music videos and movies before bringing the women back to their apartment.  At the apartment, the two traffickers would coerce the women into prostitution with enticements and physical violence. A 66 year-old white male, and assistant county attorney, recruited victims into prostitution and operated a website connecting wealthy buyers with victims. 


A homeless youth engages in “gay for pay” – a form of survival sex by which young heterosexual men have sex with older men in order to earn cash for food and other basic living expenses.


A young male student tells his girlfriend that if she really loved him she would have sex with some of his friends in exchange for drugs and entrance to an exclusive party. 


The Trouble with the “Typical” Narrative

In the beginning of the global movement against human trafficking, most of the narratives used to spread awareness about sex trafficking tended to depict an international component – either trafficking took place overseas, or the victims were transported to the US from other countries. 

Since then, narratives have evolved to reflect an understanding that trafficking is both an international and domestic problem.  But even the more recent portrayals of domestic sex trafficking often fail to address the complexities and nuances of sex trafficking as it occurs in rural, suburban, and tribal communities compared with their urban/metro counterparts, and overlooks contributing factors such as sexism, racism, economic disparity, homophobia, and other forms of systemic oppression.

Narratives around sex trafficking and sexual exploitation have a significant impact on victim identification (including the ability of victims to self-identify!), services eligibility, investigative methods, outreach and education, and the overall systems response.  If we reduce sex trafficking to a single narrative, we inhibit our ability to recognize sex trafficking and sexual exploitation as it is currently occurring in our communities –including survival sex, peer recruitment, cases involving adult, male, or transgender victims, and intersections with domestic and sexual violence.

Using a Better (and More Accurate) Narrative

The key to building awareness about sex trafficking and sexual exploitation is to share an accurate narrative – one that actually reflects what is happening in the community.  

Here are some key questions to ask when developing awareness materials and planning events:

  • Are you using the right definitions?  The definition of trafficking under Minnesota law does not include a requirement of “force, fraud, or coercion.”  A person can be trafficked “by any means.”  And, sexual exploitation does not require a third party pimp or trafficker. These aspects of Minnesota law are different from federal law.
  • Do your images reflect reality? Pictures depicting bound hands, taped mouths, chains, and other obvious forms of “captivity” and abuse, images of the “sympathetic” victim (young, white, female wanting to be rescued), and portrayals of traffickers that play to racial stereotypes, do not necessarily reflect how sex trafficking and sexual exploitation occur in your community and can distract and confuse both service providers as well as victims.  Ensure that imagery used in education and awareness materials accurately reflect what victims (adults, children, male, female, or transgender individuals, U.S. citizens or noncitizens) and perpetrators (both buyers and traffickers) look like in your community.
  • Are you consulting the experts?  Survivors, regional navigators, and services providers who work with victims of sexual exploitation will be able to help you share a narrative that accurately reflects what they are seeing on the ground in your community.  These stories may be different from the “typical” narrative, but are just as compelling, and more importantly, will help to open your community’s eyes to the way sex trafficking and sexual exploitation are actually happening at the local level.
  • Does your narrative also address demand?  Too often, buyers – and the attitudes and beliefs that contribute to demand culture – are left out of the narrative.  In order build a better response to sex trafficking and sexual exploitation, narratives must address the role of demand and must be willing to acknowledge that buyers – typically men who have the means to exploit individuals using their positions of power, economic or otherwise – are coming from within the community.  

Step Two: Support Service Providers Who Work with Survivors

If you are currently wanting more information or resources when it comes to services for people being sexually exploited or trafficked, reach out.

No Wrong Door is a comprehensive, multidisciplinary, and multi-state agency approach. It ensures communities across Minnesota have the knowledge, skills and resources to effectively identify sexually exploited and at-risk youth. Youth are provided with victim-centered trauma-informed services and safe housing. To learn more about the network being implemented in Minnesota to support victims, see Regional Navigators, Housing, andProtocol Development and Training.

If you or someone you know is being sexual exploited or trafficked, please contact your Regional Navigator or contact the Day One Hotline to learn more about services available in your community at 1-866-223-1111.

Step Three: Prevent

Just as we can prevent other forms of sexual violence, sexual exploitation can be prevented. In addition to supporting sexual health promotion (such as utilizing curriculum like FLASH and teaching about healthy relationships) there are also resources more specific to sexual exploitation:

  • Men as Peace Makers will be launching a new prevention campaign in 2017 that works to engage men as allies and partners against all forms of sexual exploitation.
  • We can educate the public on how pornography feeds a culture where sexual exploitation is normalized.
  • Read Voices of Safe Harbor: Survivor and Youth Input for Minnesota’s Model Protocol on Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Youth to learn more about what youth are asking for in order to stay safe; which includes information on healthy relationships and sex.