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Breaking ‘the life’ cycle: Sex traffic survivor speaks out

More than 300 professional social workers and caregivers are attending the two-day 2014 Evergreen Conference: Promoting Positive Youth Development at the Sanford Center. On the first day, the keynote speaker was Joy Friedman with Breaking Free, who spoke on Keeping Youth Out of Sex Trafficking. MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER

BEMIDJI -- Hoochie, slut, tramp, prostitute -- victim.

Joy Friedman has heard all the words. She has lived “the life.” Friedman is a sex traffic survivor. She was raped, beaten and held captive by her boyfriend and two of his friends at age 15 and entered into a 22 year cycle of prostitution, violence and drugs. But don’t call her a prostitute, she was a victim.

Friedman spoke Thursday during Evergreen’s ninth annual conference to promote positive youth development at the Sanford Center. Her focus? Keeping youth out of sex trafficking.

“If you think this is just starting for your little city out here, in Bemidji … when you think it’s not here, honestly it’s been here,” Friedman said.

Friedman, born and raised in Minnesota, said the best way to expose exploitation in a community is to keep talking about it. As long as there is a “John” fueling the demand for sex sales, there will be sex trafficking.

“Prostitution and sex trafficking are one in the same,” Friedman said. “There are some barriers getting out of the life and barriers of how they get in that may be different but no one in their right mind, internationally or domestic, chooses to be violated sexually on a day to day basis.”

Friedman, 50, got out of the life when she was 37-years-old, after she had been beaten with metal pipes and baseball bats, thrown down stairs, surrounded by 15 guys and left for dead. She had two abortions and a drug addiction. And she was branded a prostitute.

“You don’t lose the victim piece and grab a new name,” Friedman said.

The average age that a girl enters into prostitution is between 12 and 14. Friedman said domestic girls, those in the United States, will turn up to 10 tricks a day. International girls are forced to do more, about 40.

Friedman’s boyfriend, the man who raped her and became her first pimp, brought her to an escort service. She then started stripping when she was 16. For 10 years she travelled from coast to coast. Strip clubs, although legal, are frequented by pimps and instrumental in sex trafficking.

“The thing about stripping is it’s a form of prostitution, and our girls are being sex trafficked through it because it’s a gateway,” Friedman said.

Friedman said pimps seek out troubled youth and foster children are often targeted. She said foster parents need to be screened closely to prevent exploiters from easy access to already troubled children because “new age pimps” are getting into foster care.

Becky Schueller, executive director of Evergreen Youth and Family Services, said there is exploitation in Bemidji.

“What we’re hearing here is recruitment through modeling jobs,” Schueller said.

Media sexploitation has lended glamour to the sex trade with movie prostitutes like Julia Roberts Cinderella story in “Pretty Woman,” she said.

“‘Pretty Woman’ is not prostitution,” Friedman said. “The movie ‘Monster,’ a true story, is as close as it can get to the reality.”

Friedman said parents need to listen to their children and communicate. Pay attention to behavior changes, ask questions and believe in respect, but not privacy. She suggests showing them documentary films on the topic instead of shielding them from the truth.

“Sex is going to happen,” Friedman said.

Breaking Free

Friedman got out of the life with the help of Breaking Free, a St. Paul based organization that helps women rejoin the mainstream world. Six months after she arrived, she was working for the organization.

Breaking Free is a non-profit organization based in St. Paul that was established in 1996 by Vednita Carter to serve women and girls in systems of abuse, exploitation, prostitution and sex trafficking. Since it began, the program has grown to serve approximately 500 girls and women age 16 or older each year.

Breaking Free hosts quarterly graduation ceremonies for those who have successfully completed the Sisters of Survival program. Friedman said the number of graduates has increased from about 10 girls to more than 20 each quarter.

Although 80 to 85 percent of prostituted women are born and raised in the United States, others are brought to the states to be sold. Breaking Free has helped girls from China, Venezuela, Mexico and the Philippines.

Freeman said despite being metro-based, Breaking Free will help any woman or girl regardless of location. She acknowledged it happens to boys too, but Breaking Free is designed to help females.

“This is real and this is in our neighborhoods,” Friedman said.

Minnesota Legislature recently decriminalized prostitution for minors. Friedman pointed out that when a girl turns 18 she is blamed for “choosing” the life and labelled a prostitute.

“When do we lose the title?” Friedman asked. “Because when you turn 18 ‘Joy’ got taken out and ‘prostitute’ got replaced. My name was Joy through every inch of everything I ever endured. My name is still Joy.”

Profile of a Sex Trafficking Victim

95 percent are chemically dependent

More than 90 percent have a criminal record

85 percent are victims of child sexual abuse, rape or incest

83 percent are victims of assault with a deadly weapon

75 percent of victims were physically abused as a child

71 percent of women have PTSD

60-90 percent are without safe housing

57 percent are victims of kidnapping

Information provided by To contact Breaking Free visit their website or call (651) 645-6557.

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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