The humid room, nestled above the garage, is designated as the meeting space for the Sisters of Survival group.  Here, women of all ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses speak about their traumatic experiences as sex trafficking survivors. In this room I listen to stories of women who have been violently forced to comply with the demands of their traffickers. I hear women explain how they are constantly haunted by these experiences. One woman expressed that although she had been out of the life for several months, she could no longer look a man in the eyes on the street. Another woman said that no matter how many times she bathes (often resorting to bathing in bleach) she cannot expel the feeling of permanent dirtiness from that period of her life. As I listened to the members of Sisters of Survival speak, I noticed similarities amongst the women. Many women experienced severe beatings. Others have attempted suicide. Many women developed serious drug or alcohol addictions and mental health issues, due to the distress of being trafficked.

Breaking Free is the organization that hosts this support group. It is located in St. Paul, Minnesota, and these women go there to receive support and assistance as they transition into a new period of their lives. Breaking Free is a direct service provider and ensures that their services are victim-centered, trauma-informed, and operate within a culturally appropriate, age, and gender-specific context. It is through Breaking Free that I became aware of the reality of sex trafficking in Minnesota. I was privileged to befriend these incredible women and listen to their stories about their experiences as victims/survivors of sex trafficking. These stories of violence, oppression, exploitation and coercion, although unique to the individual, are common within the reality of sex trafficking. Too often these realities are unknown or unheard.

Several of the women I spoke with often described their entry into this life as something they believed to be their choice, accompanied by a convoluted glamorization of the lifestyle. However, upon further reflection, many of the women entered into that life as a result of deprivation. Neglect, trauma, abuse, mental health issues, financial crises, drug addiction, and manipulation were among the many factors as to why these women fell into the lifestyle. These women often resorted to survival sex in order to receive necessities such as food, shelter, and protection. Several women told me that Johns often believed that the money they were giving the women was truly helping them, not understanding that they were monetarily supporting a demand that propels the industry of sex trafficking.

The criminalization of sex trafficking victims is a national problem, and Minnesota is not exempt, although anti-trafficking legislation is improving. State policies usually penalize adult victims of sex trafficking. Typically, victims who are arrested are not only accused of selling sex but are found in violation of other laws such as possession of illegal drugs or driving while intoxicated. However, the judicial system rarely connects these factors to human trafficking, as it is very common for victims to develop drug or alcohol addictions as a means of coping with their situations. On the other hand, Johns receive a disproportionately small amount of legal punishment for purchasing sex. Johns are often older, wealthier, white males. They can avoid incarceration by paying fines, should they even receive any. Not only does this continue to oppress the victims/survivors, but also it communicates to Johns that there is little punishment for purchasing a person.

Law enforcement in St. Paul is making great strides toward decriminalizing victims. Breaking Free has partnered with the Ramsey County Police Department, and many arrested victims are now being sent to Breaking Free’s Sisters of Survival group to receive counseling and services. They have also established a “John School” which educates Johns about the harmful reality of buying another person. Although there has been an improvement as far as law enforcement in St. Paul is concerned, there are still injustices within that system. There are still victims/survivors that report being exploited by police officers before being arrested in sting operations.

Despite the difficulties these women have faced, they endure. With the help of the dedicated workers and supportive services at Breaking Free, these strong women have overcome incredible obstacles and continue to develop themselves in many ways. Many of the women are pursuing further education, such as a GED or a graduate degree. Many of these women support families and are working to establish permanent employment in order to afford better housing. While many of the women are still working to overcome addictions, mental health disorders, violent relationships and poverty, it is clear that these women feel empowered by their experience with Breaking Free and gained new resources to aid them. These women inspire resilience.

Selling sex was not a career decision for these women, and many more will fall unwillingly into the trap of sex trafficking. The women at Breaking Free did not dream of selling their bodies. Many times victims do not realize their horrible reality until it is too late. One woman explained to me that, for many years, she viewed her work as a prestigious method of independent living: gaining access to VIP sections of clubs, purchasing expensive clothing, and even creating a sense of self-worth and attractiveness that was attached to this life. Her initial perception was that her life was something glamorous and prestigious. It wasn’t until she broke free that she realized how deeply traumatizing her situation was, leaving her with many physical, emotional, and mental wounds. Too often our culture glamorizes prostitution and denies its oppressive significance. It is time to recognize truth about sex trafficking; it does not empower everyone but instead uses a system of oppression to exploit and harm individuals.