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Study: At least 5,000 Minnesota teens have traded sex for payment

Updated: January 27, 2020 05:19 PM

Minnesota's first estimate of youth sexual exploitation indicates 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, according to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).

MDH said the data shows exploitation of high school students is happening all across the state, and boys and girls are almost evenly impacted.

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The 2019 Minnesota Student Survey had a new question from MDH to help give officials a better understanding of the prevalence of sexual exploitation among youth in the state, and researchers from the University of Minnesota School of Nursing helped analyze the data. The researchers based the estimate of 5,000 students on the youth population and the results from the survey question to ninth and 11th-graders. Of those who responded to the question, 1.4% answered "yes."

"This alarming study shows there are many young people all across the state who need protection from sexual exploitation," said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm. "We must do more to connect with youth through our Safe Harbor program, educational programs and other efforts providing them with financial security and safe homes."

Lauren Martin, associate professor at the U of M and researcher on the project, said the study likely underestimates the number of exploited youth because of possible student reluctance to answer the question "yes," and the student survey only counts those who attend school and those at school on a given day. Youth who are not in school are more likely to face sexual exploitation.

Some groups of young people are more likely to be affected by trading sex and sexual exploitation, according to the survey. For example, youth in juvenile correctional facilities, foster care and unstable housing all reported higher levels of sexual exploitation. Youth of all gender identities and races reported sexual exploitation.

"If we can identify these young people in school who are at risk of trading sex, caring adults such as school nurses, social workers and teachers can intervene and help with services and support so that they can get out of that risky situation," said Barbara McMorris, associate professor at the University of Minnesota.

Minnesota's Safe Harbor program is a multi-agency statewide initiative designed to meet the needs of sex-trafficked and sexually exploited young people through age 24. Safe Harbor works to give young people the tools they need – housing, education and support from trusted adults – to leave sexual exploitation and human trafficking and live healthy lives.

Between April 2017 and March 2019, Safe Harbor grantees served 1,279 youth and young adults, MDH said.

If you or someone you know is sexually exploited or taken advantage of, you're urged to visit the Safe Harbor Minnesota webpage or call the Day One Hotline at 1-866-223-1111.

Safe Harbor has also been working with community partners across the state, such as the YMCA, to educate trainers in the Not A #Number program, a child trafficking and exploitation prevention curriculum designed for youth. You can learn more about those youth-oriented trainings by contacting Health.safeharbor@state.mn.us.

The study, Trading Sex and Sexual Exploitation among high school students, was conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota's School of Nursing, School of Social Work and Medical School.

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