Duluth, MN (Northland's NewsCenter) - Not to long ago, a lot of people believed prostitution was a "victimless" crime, a simple transaction in which money was exchanged for sexual favors.
Now we are learning that could not be further from the truth.
The prostitution of underage girls, also known as "sex trafficking" is a pervasive, systemic problem that has life long consequences for its victims and its happening here in the Northland.
A survivor of sex trafficking who we’ll call Payton was born into the life.
“My dad was a pimp and I don't want to say my mom was a prostitute, but she was trafficked. And then my aunties ran an escort service,” she told us.
As a little girl she was taught to answer telephone calls from men looking for sex. Payton also frequently found herself in the position of trying to protect the adult women in her life.
“My cousin and I would go to places with our aunts and sit in the car. If they weren't out in 30 minutes we called 911,” she explained.
Payton was determined not to enter into the family business but in her early twenties she met the wrong man and found herself out on the streets.
“I was taken to Texas and thrown on the street basically and was forced to bring back money.”
Some girls are forced into prostitution at a much young age.
The mere mention of Child Prostitution can result in shock and denial.
Not here in Duluth, you say? Think again.
“The kids that are coming to Life House absolutely are trafficked, many of the girls are trafficked,” explained Kim Crawford the Executive Director of Life House Duluth.
According to the Women's Foundation of Minnesota the average age of a girl forced into prostitution is 13, some as young as 11.
More than 50% are runaways living on the street.
Candy Harshner, the Executive Director of the Program to Aid Victims of Sexual Assault says poverty and past abuse are among the common threads that bind these girls.
“Many of the girls that are being trafficked have been brought up in homes where there is domestic violence or where they have been sexually abused as children,” Harshner told us.
A November 2010 study by the Women’s Foundation found on any given weekend night in Minnesota, 45 girls under age 18 are sold for sex.
“The people who are victimizing young girls and women are people who are experts at it and know what to look for,” explained Harshner.
“These guys are predators they are rapists, you know that is what they are. But we are so careful about our language, but the reality is that is who they are,” added Crawford.
These days most sex trafficking of girls has moved from the streets to the internet.
When asked about what they do some victims of trafficking like “Payton” refer to it as survival sex.
“Survival sex is what I did. So...to eat, to live...there was always someone willing to have sex with me so I could get what I needed, my basic needs met,” she told us.
Eventually Payton couldn't take it anymore. She escaped the horrors of sex trafficking and its associated violence by running away.
She found safety at a battered woman's shelter.
But according to Kim Crawford of Life House underage girls looking to escape have few options.
“Duluth has a horrible shortage of age appropriate housing. On any one given night we have somewhere between 75 and 100 kids that are homeless. In our community we have 23 beds,” she said.
As sex trafficking moves from the streets to the internet it's becoming much harder to police.
Monday night (5/14) we will examine this growing problem and tell you about local efforts to create a future where "Minnesota girls are not for sale."