BRAINERD, Minn. -- Ramsey County prosecutor and DFL state representative Dave Pinto told a gathering in Brainerd Tuesday that neither a film like "Pretty Woman" nor "Taken" are representative of the serious problem of commercial sexual exploitation.
Instead, Pinto said traffickers seek "highly vulnerable" targets and spend time grooming and breaking them down.
"This is a little more complicated than we might have thought," Pinto said. "Traffickers are very, very motivated by money. ... They target, they trick, they turn and then they traumatize (victims)."
Pinto presents programs on the issues of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation all across Minnesota as part of the state's Safe Harbor initiative, training more than 1,500 law enforcement officers to date. He's prosecuted numerous traffickers in Ramsey County and said those efforts are just some of several initiatives across the state--including those in the Brainerd lakes area.
"Your community has been a real leader around the state," Pinto said to the Crow Wing County Board, other elected officials and local advocates in the first of a series of meetings in the city, presenting to the Rotary Club of Brainerd, area law enforcement officers and for a community forum with nearly 50 people attending in the evening.
The presentation also included the perspectives of Hayley King, a woman who survived commercial sexual exploitation, and Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted, who offered an overview on local efforts to combat trafficking.
Pinto said traffickers are attracted to human trafficking because of some of its advantages over drug trafficking--there's less risk of being caught, they can resell the "product" over and over and the product can be replaced more easily.
Traffickers identify those vulnerable to coercion: the young, the drug addicted, the homeless, the runaways, the pregnant, those in foster care and those who have experienced sexual molestation or physical abuse. Pinto added young people of color and those in the LGBT community are particularly at risk, but any young person lacking relationships, support or engagement with school or work is vulnerable. And this can happen anywhere, Pinto said, including rural communities often thought of as immune to these types of problems.
"Any community that has runaways or internet access has sex trafficking," he said.
Pinto mixed documentary clips, 911 call audio and excerpts from books in hisl presentation, offering a multimedia approach to accompany the first-person account shared by King.
King said her work in the industry began as a legal nude escort in San Diego and evolved over the course of six years to include sex acts in exchange for money. Since leaving "the life," as so many involved in commercial sexual exploitation refer to it, King brought her experiences to working at the Heartland Girls' Ranch in Benson. She worked specifically with a youth population who'd experienced exploitation.
King said at the group home she worked with a young girl from Brainerd who was vulnerable to exploitation because of an addiction to methamphetamine. She became addicted after a neighbor supplied the drug to her for free, and then expected the girl to have sex with him in exchange.
"She got hooked on it very quickly and had no money to buy it," King said. "She ended up doing all sorts of really unpleasant, painful things." The girl then ran away to another state, immersing herself into the commercial sex industry.
The harm, King said, is both external and internal--ranging from mutilation to lifelong diseases, from the loss of self worth to mental health consequences leading to severe depression or death. She added that many of those who are in the industry have such low self esteem that it is difficult to distinguish between selling one's body for sex or selling a piece of garbage.
Both Pinto and King sought to extinguish the thought that buyers of commercial sex are not culpable in the system of sexual exploitation. Pinto said buyers feel entitled to the women's bodies and without the demand, sex trafficking would not persist.
"It's an artificial distinction between johns and pimps," Pinto said. "They are both exploiters."
King said many of the men who purchased sex from her were "nice guys," but she was even more uncomfortable with these buyers than those she knew were sadistic or abusive.
"I hated the 'nice guys,' but I could never put my finger on why it is so unpleasant to be with them," King said. "When they pay you, they pay you to smile and be believable and have it be real to them, and it's nauseating."
Buyers were buying much more than an hour of her time, she explained. All of her time was dedicated to booking her next "trick," going on calls or showering afterward--and it was generally spent alone.
"If you were going to open up to anybody about your own life, nobody would want to be your friend," King said.
She said this forced her to live on the margins of society and created more and more barriers to leaving the life, including a lack of social skills, no resume or job references, a lack of typical intimacy skills and many others.
Exsted spoke on the local efforts to crack the problem of commercial sexual exploitation, noting his department witnessed a marked decrease in responses to its fake advertisements since it began sting operations in May of 2015. The buyer stings are the beginning stages of addressing the problem, which is wide-ranging and takes a tremendous amount of resources and time, he added.
"Probably every hotel in our city of Baxter, on any given day, you probably could find some kind of sexual act going on with money exchanged," Exsted said.
One goal Exsted identified was for area law enforcement agencies to find and arrest traffickers in the area, of which there is much anecdotal evidence of their existence. In February of 2015, the Rochester Police Department arrested a man who was later convicted for attempting to bring an undercover officer to Brainerd to work for him selling sex. Exsted said this arrest jumpstarted local efforts and revealed an area where a spotlight was needed.
"We haven't found a trafficker yet, but we've been told by our partners across the state to be patient," Exsted said. "We're just going to continue to fight the fight here."
Lutheran Social Services of Brainerd recently became the host organization for a regional navigator, which is a position intended to connect survivors with resources established through state law. It also developed the Saving Grace program, which offers specialized foster care for youth victims.
King ended her presentation by reminding everyone that all of those involved--traffickers, buyers and the exploited--are people, something that often gets lost in the discussion, she said.
"I very much believe in helping people be raised well, growing up to not buy," King said. "Women are people, you can't just buy whatever you want because you have the money to. For girls to grow up and be raised to have confidence so that they don't get into it. I feel like helping people is a great angle to come at this with, rather than only focusing on shutting down what's happening."