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Survey: Thousands of MN high school students have been sexually exploited

A new survey found that at least 5,000 high school students in Minnesota have traded sex for things like money, food or a place to stay.

ST PAUL, Minnesota — For the first time, Minnesota public health officials have data showing that the sexual exploitation of high school students is happening all across the state. 

A survey found that at least 5,000 high school-age youth in the state have traded sex in order to receive money, food, drugs, alcohol, a place to stay or something else of value. 

"This confirms, frankly, what community leaders on the ground have known for awhile. This is happening here in Minnesota and it is harming our young people," said Jan Malcolm, commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Health. 

Every three years, students anonymously take the Minnesota Student Survey. The survey looks at the health and well-being of the state's students. For the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, 80,000 students at public schools across the state took the survey. But the question on sexual exploitation was only given to students in 9th and 11th grade. 

"That question was: Have you ever traded sex or sexual activity to receive money, food, drugs, alcohol or anything else? To our knowledge... Minnesota is the first state to ask this kind of a question on a statewide survey and to develop a statewide prevalence estimate," said Lauren Martin, associate professor in the University of Minnesota School of Nursing. 

Researchers at the U of M analyzed the data and found that about 1.4% of students answered "yes" to trading sex. They believe that's an underestimate considering the survey is only given on one day and students may have missed school that day for a variety of reasons. 

"We've noted slightly higher rates in northern Minnesota compared to the metro area. We found that girls and boys are involved in trading sex at roughly the same rate. 1.3% girls and 1.2% of boys and young men," Martin explained. 

Researchers found that young people who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming had much higher rates with 5.9% answering "yes." 

In terms of race, American Indian students reported the highest rate at 3.1% followed by African American students at 1.7%, Hispanic and Latinx students at 1.5% and white students at 1.2%. 

"Youth and juvenile correctional facilities, 12% answered yes to that question. Students who have ever been in foster care, 8.1% answered yes. Students who have experienced sexual violence, 7.7% answered yes. Students with unstable housing, 6.4% answered yes," Martin said. 

Martin went on to say that, "These data show that high school students who are already experiencing other hardships and traumas, such as homeless, sexual violence, foster care, poverty and racism, are more likely to report that they have traded sex." 

At the same time, survey results showed these same students have hopes and dreams of going to college, a vocational school, or joining the military. 

The state's Safe Harbor program works to give young people the tools they need to leave sexual exploitation and human trafficking. In the state, sexually exploited youth are not seen as criminals but as victims in need of services. 

"Now with this data, we know even more and we can continue to build and improve our system's response and work to prevent sexual exploitation and human trafficking," said Beatriz Menanteau, supervisor of the MDH Violence Prevention Programs Unit. 

Between April 2017 and March 2019, Safe Harbor served more than 1,200 youth and young adults. 

Safe Harbor has also been partnering with community partners across the state, such as the YMCA, to train others in the Not A #Number program. 

"Not A #Number is an interactive, five-module prevention curriculum designed to teach youth how to protect themselves from human trafficking and exploitation through information, critical thinking and skill development," said Jenny Miller with the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities. Miller, a program executive with YMCA's youth intervention services programs, conducts Not A #Number trainings. If you are interested in learning more about these trainings, contact Health.safeharbor@state.mn.us. 

Because it's only one question on the survey, a lot of details are unknown. For example, are the perpetrators in these situations adults or other teenagers? While we don't know the answer, Martin said past research suggests that it's most likely both. There are also situations when peers work together to figure out ways to survive. 

Those involved will now use all this data to help reach more youth by taking a public health approach. 

"We can use this information to guide our programs to reach the youth that we may not have been previously reaching," Menanteau said. 

If you or someone you know is being sexually exploited, visit Safe Harbor Minnesota. You may also call the Day One Hotline at 1-866-223-1111. 

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