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The High Risk of Human Trafficking

by StrongHearts Native Helpline

It’s no secret that poor and underprivileged children can end up homeless, on the streets and defenseless. When this happens, they are vulnerable to exploitation and hidden in plain sight are sex traffickers waiting and watching for the arrival of their next victim. Traffickers prey upon the homeless who are often found in encampments, on city streets and in impoverished neighborhoods. Predators know who to look for and where to find them.

In a Minnesota based study on sex trafficking, Native women, children and Two-spirit people were found to be victimized with more frequency. As marginalized people, they are perceived to be easier targets and all too often they have already been abused in homes where domestic violence is prevalent. Sadly, some victims were even born into a life of sex trafficking. They’ve learned that this is life and how they survive.

Jessica Smith, a victim-survivor turned advocate has first-hand knowledge of being a victim of sex trafficking in Minnesota. She knows what it means to be trafficked both as a child and as an adult. And, she knows that the only way to help these victims is to get them off the streets and into stable housing. She works for a survivor-led non-profit organization called Breaking Free in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“As children, we see our Mothers being trafficked and we look up to them,” said Smith explaining the connection to intergenerational trauma. “I got into it because I saw generations of it and thought it was normal.”

Smith added that it is through her own personal experience that she and other Native women like her could identify perpetrators.

Garden of Truth Documents Continued Historical Trauma

“It’s important people understand that sex trafficking is perpetrated by people outside of our [Native] communities. Whether it’s domestic violence, rape, murder, prostitution or sex trafficking, the vast majority of perpetrators against Native women and children are not Native men,” said Smith. “We found that to be true in the Garden of Truth.”

In the “Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota,” 105 Native women who were prostituted participated in a study that delves into the abyss of sex trafficking. They answered four questionnaires about issues such as family history, sexual and physical violence, homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and dissociation. They reported their use of domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, rape crisis centers, and substance abuse treatment. And, they indicated their experience with racism, colonialism and the benefits of Native cultural practices.

“We see the contemporary ramifications of our [Native] history and the carrying forward the kinds of attitudes where Native women, youth and Two-spirit people are often [targetted], particularly by white men and viewed as this is what you exist for,” said Christine Stark who worked in cooperation with the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition (MIWSAC) and the Prostitution Research and Education (PRE) to co-author the Garden of Truth.

Unresolved Trauma

The testimony of these 105 Native women speaks directly to the issues of being homeless, having been sexually assaulted and suffering traumatic brain injuries. These victim-survivors also identified with suffering unresolved trauma as a result of colonization.

Statistical analysis revealed:

  • 99 percent were currently or previously homeless.
  • 92 percent had been raped and wanted to escape prostitution
  • 84 percent had been physically assaulted in prostitution.
  • 79 percent had been sexually abused as children by an average of 4 perpetrators.
  • 72 percent suffered traumatic brain injuries in prostitution.
  • 71 percent had symptoms of dissociation.
  • 52 percent had post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a rate equal to combat veterans.

Perpetrators and Their Victims

The Garden of Truth also found that perpetrators consisted primarily of white men followed by African American men and to a lesser degree by Native American men. Sex traffickers use common tactics that include: trickery and coercion as well as emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

The top vulnerabilities identified as contributing factors include:

  • An unstable living situation
  • Previous experience with other forms of violence (sexual/domestic)
  • Identified as a runaway and/or involved in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems
  • Poverty and/or economic need
  • Addiction to drugs and/or alcohol
  • Substance abuse by a caregiver or family member

“We saw in the Garden of Truth, that domestic violence, incest and other forms of sexual violence are all intermingled,” said Smith concluding that victims of human trafficking and sex slavery are in need of survivor-led advocacy. “We need someone to understand that we were raped, beaten, and made to sell our bodies. We did not choose this life. It was chosen for us.”

Nationwide Help For Native Americans and Alaska Natives

At StrongHearts Native Helpline, we recognize the importance of education and strive to identify and expose the roots of injustice. We acknowledge that human trafficking began with colonization and continues through force, fraud and coercive control. We understand that the burden of historical trauma is shared with all people of color who suffer the impact of domination, subjugation and exploitation. We hope that by shedding light into the darkest shadows of history, we can begin to see a brighter path to healing.

StrongHearts Native Helpline is a culturally-appropriate and anonymous helpline for Native Americans impacted by domestic, dating and sexual violence. StrongHearts advocates offer peer support and advocacy, personal safety planning, crisis intervention and referrals to Native-centered domestic violence service providers.

Human Trafficking Hotline

Serving all individuals who reach out for their services regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, age, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or any other factor protected by local, state, or federal law, The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 1-888-373-7888, hearing impaired dial 711, text 233733 SMS text lines and live online chat available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

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