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Duluth leaders call for end of sex trade

DULUTH, Minn. -- Nearly 80 people showed up for Duluth's annual program to end sex trafficking Monday, and to look around it was clear a lot of men remain late to arrive to the issue. Of the roughly 80 attendees at Trepanier Hall, the vast majori...

DULUTH, Minn. -- Nearly 80 people showed up for Duluth’s annual program to end sex trafficking Monday, and to look around it was clear a lot of men remain late to arrive to the issue. Of the roughly 80 attendees at Trepanier Hall, the vast majority were women.

It’s been that way for the event’s five years.

“We need to get the attention of more men,” said Shunu Shrestha, the trafficking program coordinator for Program for Aid to Victims, a downtown agency aimed at ending sexual violence.

To hear the lineup of speakers tell it, men are far more likely to be the perpetrators of sex assaults and the purveyors and purchasers involved in sex trafficking.

If there was a positive note at the day’s event, it was that some influential men have taken notice and are starting to help shed light on the issue, as the city’s women have for years.

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Jeff Korsmo, the new executive vice president of operations and administration at Essentia Health, spoke to the crowd about the latest efforts to raise awareness of trafficking warning signs among its frontline workforce. Twenty minutes of training, he said, raises the comfort level of health care workers in their dealings with victims.

“We can make a difference,” he said defiantly, calling Essentia Health “united in the fight” to end trafficking.

Police Chief Mike Tusken offered a poignant rebuke of the sex trade and committed to more training with the intent to raise awareness of telltale signs across the police force. Tusken spoke with candor about how the sex trade locally is difficult to police. It often starts in back pages and on the internet - easily concealed and costly to surveil from a policing perspective. But not all of the perpetrators are getting away, he said.  

“So many of our investigations result in drug convictions,” he said, adding that drugs are “so totally interwoven” into the sex trade that it’s easier to build cases and make arrests in the “low-hanging fruit” of the drug trade.

Drugs aren’t the only detail enmeshed with the sex trade. Runaways fuel the trade, Tusken said, noting that one-third of the city’s 275 runaways in 2016 were Native American girls - a figure that resonated within the home of the American Indian Community Housing Organization.

Emboldened by decades of “boys will be boys”-style rationalizations, the sex trade faces a month of awareness-raising throughout January in Duluth and surrounding communities.

“This is a big feat,” said Daryl Olson, a sexual assault specialist with AICHO. “We are changing a century of behaviors and power structures.”

She noted the cocktail of poverty, trauma and oppression that press girls and women into the clutches of pimps, many masquerading as boyfriends who turn out females for profit.  

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Mayor Emily Larson said sex trafficking is written into the city’s narrative - a topic from which it cannot run away. She read a proclamation calling for the end of sex trafficking in Duluth, and spoke of the healing that follows.

“It does create scars,” she said, “that require a community of love.”  

Related Topics: CRIMEPOLICE
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