COMMUNITY VOICES | Breaking the silence on prostitution in Twin Cities


It’s hard to put an end to a problem that few people know of, let alone talk about. And that’s precisely why the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) is working hard to raise public awareness about sex trafficking and the prostitution of women and children in the Twin Cities through a series of public discussions aimed at putting an end to the practice.

Lauren Martin, who joined UROC in 2010 as director of research, has been studying sex trafficking since 2006 after being hired by North Minneapolis’ Folwell Neighborhood Association for a two-year project examining the problem.

Martin developed the proposal in partnership with community members after talking with people about what they were experiencing. “I had just finished my Ph.D. and was in between jobs when a friend asked me if I could do some filing at a North Minneapolis non-profit,” she recalls. “I said ‘sure’ and once people in the community got to know me, they told me there was a problem with prostitution and they wanted me to help figure out solutions.”

Looking back, Martin remembers thinking her work on the subject would be temporary. But as she interviewed people who been exploited and hurt, as well as advocates and police officers who were trying to help them, she realized she’d become personally invested in the research. “After so many people have trusted me with their stories, I can’t just walk away,” she says. “That’s what engaged research is all about, connecting with people and communities and putting what you learn into action.”

Out of the darkness

In 2006 and 2007 Martin interviewed more than 150 people who had traded sex for food, shelter or other reasons, and during those talks she noticed one overwhelming theme. “Everyone talked about the shame, stigma and judgment they endured in their lives because of sex trading and trafficking,” she recalls.

“People had been kicked out of their families, even churches, because our society tends to blame people who trade sex regardless of the reasons for doing it.” And it is this atmosphere of shame and isolation, Martin says, that creates the perfect environment for exploitation because, “What could be better for a trafficker than finding someone who is very disconnected from systems of support and full of shame?”

Trading children and adults for sex is a highly profitable market, and as long as the practice remains shrouded in silence, traffickers will have free reign to prey on vulnerable people. So in addition to producing reports on Martin’s research, UROC partnered with the University’s Center for Integrative Leadership and North Minneapolis’ Kwanzaa Community Church to host public discussions on the impact of sex trafficking and prostitution on urban communities and how to end it. Part of UROC’s Critical Conversations series, the first event was held on October 18 and was so successful, it was followed by a second discussion on the same topic on January 24.

The audience for both discussions included “a pretty amazing cross-section of people,” including survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution, North Minneapolis residents, members of community organizations, police, University faculty and students, Martin says. The third event in the series will be held at UROC on Thursday, March 14 at 7 p.m. and will focus on the juvenile sex trafficking and law enforcement, in particular how communities can assist in the investigation, arrest and prosecution of perpetrators.

Panelists include Sgt. Grant Snyder of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Child Abuse Unit and Senior Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Anne Taylor. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required because space is limited. Register online at, or call 612-626-8762.

Taking action

For Martin, breaking the silence around sex trafficking is a concrete way to take action to stop it. And engaged research partnership with the community on this issue has produced other positive results. Kwanzaa Community Church, for example, opened the Northside Women’s Space, a safe place for women and girls involved in the sex trade to come together and talk about what they’re going through. “It sounds easy to start something like this, but it’s not,” says Martin. “This is essentially the community stepping forward to say: ‘We have space for you because you are part of us and we are here.’”

Another successful outcome of Martin’s research is Gaining Independence for Females in Transition (GIFT), a new model for helping women on probation for prostitution-related offences. Developed in partnership with the Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation, GIFT’s mission is to offer people a probation experience that will help them gain strength and move forward with their lives. “The model is really working, and we are seeing women leaving probation in a better place than when they came in,” Martin says.

As for the future, Martin will continue her research on sex trafficking as part of UROC’s ongoing partnership with the community around this issue. Recently, she and Richard Lotspeich, an economist at Indiana State University, were commissioned by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center to write a paper analyzing the benefits and costs of providing early intervention to juveniles involved in the sex trade. “We found that sex trading is so harmful to juveniles, it exacts a huge cost on the state over time,” she says, explaining that for every $1 invested they estimate the state will get a return of about $34. “To us, that seems like a very strong indication that it is in the best interest of Minnesota tax payers to fund early intervention and prevention.”

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.