A new report, “Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota,” offers personal insights into the growing problem of sex trafficking of Native women. Based on interviews with 105 Native women in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Bemidji, the report links poverty and frequent violence—including child sexual abuse, rape and beatings—to their journey into prostitution.
The report, released in late October by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition and Prostitution Research and Education, is the first study to detail the personal experiences of Native women who have been prostituted and trafficked in Minnesota. “Prostitution is only now beginning to be understood as violence against women and children,” says Melissa Farley, founder of Prostitution Research and Education, who co-authored the report. “It has rarely been included in discussions of sexual violence against Native women. The 105 women in this study did not choose prostitution. Instead, prostitution chose them, through a combination of harms perpetrated against them and a lack of escape options.”
A majority of the women experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Almost all have been homeless at some point, and 97 of the women say they want to escape prostitution but believe they have no other options. About half the women interviewed were controlled by pimps or traffickers.
“Homelessness is connected with prostitution,” Farley says. “If you don’t have a place to spend the night, and the temperature is below zero, you tolerate the sexual assault in exchange for shelter. Nearly all of the women in this study were either currently or previously homeless. This is among the highest rates of homelessness that I’ve seen in 15 years of researching prostitution and trafficking.”
The report’s findings confirm earlier studies by Amnesty International and the U.S. Department of Justice that found Native women experience the highest rates of sexual assault in the United States. “Native women are at exceptionally high risk for poverty and sexual violence, which are both elements in the trafficking of women,” says report coauthor Nicole Matthews, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition. “The specific needs of Native women are not being met.”
“Even though 92 percent of the women we interviewed said they wanted to escape, once in prostitution, once trafficked, it is not easy to escape,” Farley says. She adds that Native women in prostitution are marginalized because of a lack of opportunities and education, because of race and ethnic discrimination, poverty, previous physical and emotional harm, and abandonment.
“Women who have the fewest real choices available to them are those who are in prostitution,” Farley says. The critical question to ask with respect to the women we interviewed is not, ‘Did she consent?’ The question is, ‘Has she been offered the real choice to exist without prostituting?’ We hope that this research will increase the choices that will help Native women to exist without prostitution. That’s what they told us they want: to get out, to heal, to provide a good life for their children.”
Many of the women surveyed said they owed their survival to Native cultural practices and most wanted access to Native healing approaches integrated with mainstream services.
The report recommends that health-care practitioners apply a holistic healing approach to Native women that embraces traditional healing and includes a decolonizing perspective that analyzes historical trauma, violent crimes, family violence, child abuse and neglect, discrimination, unresolved grief and mourning. The most pressing needs of the women interviewed for the report were for housing, individual counseling and job resources.
“In order for a woman to have the real choice to exit prostitution, a range of services must be offered,” says Matthews. “However, there are very few services especially designed for Native women in prostitution.”
The report, jointly authored by Sarah Deer, Guadalupe Lopez, Christine Stark and Eileen Hudon, calls for increased state and federal funding for transitional and long-term housing for Native women and others seeking to escape prostitution, along with funding for Native women’s programs, including physical and mental health care, job training and placement and legal services. It also urges state, local and tribal officials to reexamine policies toward victims of prostitution and trafficking—for example, arresting and prosecuting the sex buyers rather than the victims of prostitution.
Garden of Truth was produced with support from the Patrick and Aimee Butler Family Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, and Tides Foundation, and is available on the web at Miwsac.org.