Though the phrase “human trafficking” often evokes images of women being stuffed into wooden crates and being shipped halfway around the world, a masters student at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Christine Stark, says trafficking is more prominent in the U.S. than many realize, particularly for Native American women in northern Minnesota.
Known as the Lake Superior sex trade, Stark says women, teenage girls and boys, and even babies are being sold on ships in the Duluth, Minn. harbors and being sent to Ontario, Canada.
Indigenous women from Canada, specifically Thunder Bay, are also being sold on ships headed for Duluth.
“Duluth is surrounded by reservations, and [sex trafficking] is very prevalent among Native American women,” said Shunu Shrestha, Duluth’s trafficking task force coordinator, adding that not only does trafficking occur on reservations, but women are trafficked to Canada and other parts of the U.S. using the many ships that dock in Duluth daily.
According to a 2011 report from a local CBS news affiliate, there are about 1,000 ships that dock at the Duluth harbor each year. Some women are sold to crews for months at a time and are left off the boat when the ship returns to the Duluth harbor months later.
“The majority of women who are trafficked in Canada are indigenous women and girls. So it’s not that you have people being trafficked across international borders in shipping containers or something like that,” said Kazia Pickard, the Director of Policy and Research with the Thunder Bay-based Ontario Native Women’s Association.
Stark called attention to the issue of so-called “boat whores” last month when she penned a commentary piece for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which included the revelation that “the Duluth harbor is notorious among Native people as a site for the trafficking of Native women from northern reservations.”
“The women and children — and I’ve even had women talk about a couple of babies brought onto the ships and sold to the men on ships — are being sold or are exchanging sex for alcohol, a place to stay, drugs, money and so forth,” Stark said. “It’s quite shocking.”
Michèle Audette, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Ottawa branch, said children are often sold into the sex trafficking industry by their parents. “I listened to some families where, because of their addiction to drugs and drinking, every two weeks they were trafficking their own children,” she said. “I was so shocked.
Though some families may sell their friends and loved ones into the sex trade industry, many organizations point out that much of the trafficking is organized by criminal gangs.
According to Sandra Diaz, a member of the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s national task force on sex trafficking, traffickers in Canada get earn around $280,000 a year for each woman or girl they’ve trafficked. The amount for a teenage boy was not available.
Pickard added, “The reason that indigenous women and girls are sometimes trafficked has to do with all of these ongoing issues like poverty.
“Another one of the large risk factors for indigenous women and girls is the lack of housing … women will sometimes engage in survival sex, not of their choice, in order to have somewhere to live,” she said.
According to several reports, Native American girls and women are the most vulnerable groups that are being trafficked into prostitution. As Stark pointed out in her article in the Star Tribune, a Canadian study examining conditions for Native populations who were prostituted found that 98 percent of the women surveyed reported they had been or were homeless before they got involved in the sex industry.
Sex and racism
Though most pimps and johns are White or African-American, Native women are largely targeted for the sex trafficking industry — and have been for more than 500 years.
Sarah Deer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is a professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. She said that Native women have been sexually exploited for centuries, as European settlers used warfare, slavery and relocation to destroy Native nations and colonize the land.
In the Star Tribune, Stark wrote that one Native American woman she interviewed, a sex trafficking survivor, said her pimp was a wealthy, White family man who paid her bills, rent and expenses for her children. But during the weekend, the woman said the pimp “brought up other white men from the [Twin Cities] for prostitution with Native women … he had her role play the racist ‘Indian maiden’ and ‘European colonizer’ myth with him during sex.”
But it’s not just Minnesota that has a sex trafficking epidemic. Trafficking or prostitution is reportedly the fastest growing black market crime in the U.S., according to the Department of Justice.
Part of the increase, according to Suzanne Oliver, founder of Love Justice, is that “people think prostitution is a choice of life and that it’s acceptable in today’s society.” But most women are not in the sex trade industry by choice.
“When a person is held against their will and being threatened, they will do it just to stay alive,” Oliver said.
Unfortunately for sex trafficking victims in Duluth, safe housing specifically designed for victims does not exist there, which, according to Duluth resident and sex trafficking survivor Gina, allows pimps to hunt down women and force them to work.
“Women won’t walk away [from prostitution] because there is no guarantee of freedom without safe housing,” Oliver added.
Another factor that keeps the industry alive and well is the demand. Gina says she would get hundreds of phone calls a day from men and says she serviced about 100 men a week.
“Without a decrease in demand, supply will just continue to grow,” Shrestha said. As a result, the task force has begun to focus its attention on awareness of the harm sex trafficking causes to men, since men are the primary purchasers of sex.