As a $32 billion-a-year industry, human trafficking is on the rise and in all 50 states. Of the 29.9 million victims world wide, 4.5 million are sexually exploited, with nearly 300,000 Americans under 18 lured into the commercial sex trade every year, according to Ark of Hope for Children.

The Central Minnesota Sexual Assault Center defines commercial sexual exploitation is any sexual activity that is traded or exchanged for something of value, such as money, housing, transportation, among others, often for the purpose of survival. Trafficking, a subsection of any commercial sexual activity, is where there is a third-party involved that profits, facilitates or aids in the commercial sexual exploitation of another individual.

Traffickers can be of any age, race, sex or socio-economic class. On the other hand, the exploiters are typically white middle-aged males between middle to upper class, who have a family and are clean with no record, according to Rebecca Kotz, St. Cloud Sexual Assault Center Trafficking Services Coordinator.

Many predators prey on victims that tend to be homeless or poor, have mental health concerns, disabilities, members of the LGBT community, individuals of color, women and children.

This problem is not just on a national level; it is a main street concern. Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and St. Cloud Sexual Assault Center are spreading awareness about human trafficking through presentations and posters to inform the public about predators, and also helping victims by providing support and resources.

Kotz has been building a rapport with the St. Cloud community for the past three years, offering support and counseling for victims of human trafficking.

The center covers a four-county area. Traffickers target St. Cloud, but as law enforcement cracks down on trafficking, predators are moving outward into rural communities along I-94.

“Last year, our facility helped 73 new victims of sexual exploitation – mostly teenagers and adults ranging in age from 18 to 45. Those were just the ones that had came forward,” Kotz said. “It barely scratched the surface.”

Becoming a victim

As poverty and homelessness rise, people become victims – desperate for basic necessities like shelter, food and clothing.

“Sadly, exploiters take advantage of that and pay the victims for sex to meet their basic needs. However, it isn’t always about the physical aspect of victimizing an individual,” Kotz said.

According to Kotz, 70 to 90 percent of people victimized in the sex trade were sexually abused as children. 

Many victims who are sought out by their adult predators are manipulated; built up and broken down mentally and physically, left vulnerable and emotionally attached, unable to leave. Some victims cannot leave their abuser because they do not have the resources or support to make it on their own. If they were to return, the consequences would be beatings, starvation or death, said Kotz.

“Traffickers and pimps traffic victims for money and economic gain, using power and control as the means.” Kotz said.

Identifying a predator

Traffickers are everywhere.

Predators can be strangers that lure victims in, but more often these predators are family members, close friends or a significant other that has established a relationship with the victim.

“Abusers pick their victims carefully. Some of them work gradually and the victim stays with them for a number of reasons – they see no way out and do not have a safety net to make ends meet,” Kotz said.

Combating exploitation

Kotz, along with members at the facility, are teaming up with law enforcement to crack down on predators and help victims heal and escape. 

“We have such a responsibility to take action,” Kotz said. “We are always willing to counsel individuals, help with safety planning, support groups, filing for protective orders, referrals to other agencies, criminal justice advocacy, training for professionals and offering training to the community. It is important that the public is informed because anyone can have contact with a victim.”

The facility helps victims who have the means to leave their abuser and are ready to develop a safety plan. The counseling center also provides victims, who at the time cannot leave their abusers, with supplies such as hygiene products and counseling – training them in risk reduction to keep themselves safe.

“During our counseling sessions, we assist survivors in developing self-esteem, building healthy relationships, and demystify predators’ tactics,” Kotz said. “These sessions help women leave their abuser and keep them from going back when things get tough and confusing.”

Kotz also does a lot of presentations at universities and high schools about human trafficking to help prevent the problem before it starts. She also participates in a program that educates convicted predators. 

“Some men really break down after hearing a victim speak and realizing what their victims went through,” Kotz said. “In the demand reduction program for men, we teach them about the rape culture, pornography and how media shapes behavior.”

  “Young boys typically watch porn for the first time between the age of 8-11 years old,” Kotz said. “When I look at our culture, I think how can this not be happening? We have been shaped to think that what happens to these victims is normal and OK. People think victims choose this life, but they have been groomed and brought up thinking that their life is normal. That is where victim blaming comes in.”

One of the most important things about Kotz’s job is prevention – addressing the root of the issue and talking to men about accountability, making non-exploitative choices, and changing the culture that normalizes sexual assault.

“By presenting to the community, schools and past offenders, we are able to spread awareness,” she said. 

MnDOT installing posters statewide

MnDOT is trying to bring more awareness to human trafficking by installing posters in 41 rest areas across the state. These posters will help educate the traveling public about human trafficking and to encourage citizens to report suspicious activity. The posters include guidelines on how to recognize signs of human trafficking and potential victims and a toll-free hotline to report any suspicious activity. 

Human trafficking often involves travel, including the transport of victims from a base of operations to locations of exploitation.

“According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Twin Cities is one of 13 U.S. cities with a particularly high rate of child prostitution, and Minnesota has one of the highest number of human trafficking cases in the nation,” said MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle. “MnDOT’s responsibility for maintaining the quality and safety of multiple modes of transportation, including highways, airports, rail lines, transit systems and commercial vehicles, provides unique opportunities to see and stop human trafficking activities.”

To learn more about this awareness initiative, request training or download posters, visit MnDOT’s website (mndot.state.mn.us/humantraffickingawareness/index.html).

How to help, spot red flags

There are several indicators people can look for if they suspect a victim is being trafficked.

“Signs are going to be different for every situation,” Kotz said. “But some can be if you know someone who is in a relationship who is controlling, someone who only pays in cash, a victim that is struggling with homelessness and all of a sudden has a lot of money, or someone who lives in a motel and has lots of motel keys or is chemically dependent.”

Kotz recommends that if a bystander suspects a victim is in immediate danger to call law enforcement. 

“If the victim happens to be a friend and denies that anything is wrong, refer them to a sexual assault center for help,” Kotz said. “It is important to help and support them while not pressuring them until they are ready to get help. The last thing you want to do is imitate the trafficker by trying to control them.”

For more information regarding human trafficking and help for victims, visit www.cmsac.org.