Human trafficking epidemic should concern MN Catholics

“Aren’t these girls from other countries?” asked a guest at a recent Minnesota human trafficking awareness party being covered by local news. It’s a common question with an often unexpected answer: No, most aren’t. They are runaways from American Indian reservations. Victims of “boyfriends” who turn out to be pimps. Girls desperately trying to get out of the poverty trap.

According to various reports, Minnesota is consistently in the top 10 most-active states for human trafficking. One organization that monitors juvenile sex trafficking indicated that there was a 50 percent increase in trafficking numbers in Minnesota in 2010. These are children who pass us on the street, children we come across daily. Their age is usually between 12 to 14 years old.

Minnesota has a human trafficking problem and it’s time for Catholics to take action.

Shining a spotlight

In the 2011 special session, the Minnesota Catholic Conference lobbied for and helped push through a public safety bill that takes steps to protect commercially exploited children through a new “safe harbor” law. This law, among other things, increases penalties against offender “johns” and directs our public safety to create a victim-centered response to sexually exploited youth.

Now, Minnesota must create the infrastructure to support the effort. This isn’t a small task. It was recently reported that there were only two beds dedicated to traumatized victims in the state of Minnesota. This legislative session, MCC will be supporting efforts to educate legislators on the need for funds for housing and other services. But the education needed on this issue runs deep and wide, and goes well beyond the walls of government.

Changing the paradigm

The vast majority of girls who end up in the sex industry come from homes where there has been sexual abuse, physical abuse, trauma, and domestic violence. Vulnerable women, who are offered help or “services” to get them out of difficult living situations or poverty, often do not even vaguely suspect what awaits them. So there is a critical need to educate and warn potential victim populations.

But if there wasn’t demand, there wouldn’t be a need for supply. Sex trafficking isn’t just about “poor little girls and bad guys,” it is woven together by a complicated web of social concern that spans migration, racism, classism, poverty, gender-based violence, bioethics, and fundamental family and life issues. At its core is the need to better recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.

This is where understanding and educating others on Catholic teaching regarding the dignity of the human person can, ultimately, help us combat the problem.

In an address to the 2002 international conference on slavery and human rights, Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote: “The disturbing tendency to treat prostitution as a business or industry not only contributes to the trade in human beings, but is itself evidence of a growing tendency to detach freedom from the moral law and to reduce the rich mystery of human sexuality to a mere commodity.”

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI echoed another condemnation of sexual slavery by Pope John Paul II in his “Letter of Pope John Paul II to Women”: the “hedonistic and commercial culture which encourages the systematic exploitation of sexuality and corrupts even very young girls into letting their bodies be used for profit.”

Men who seek acts of prostitution create the demand for sexual slavery. A culture that broadly promotes the commodification and objectification of persons — whether through pornography, unregulated egg and sperm donation, or stifling and minimizing the life-giving reality of sex — perpetuates a demand for sexual slavery.

As long as we, as Catholics, support the false cultural dichotomy between “bedroom” issues and social justice, we will not be effectively taking on the fundamental social causes of sex trafficking.

Human trafficking is a priority for MCC, as it touches on fundamental issues of human dignity and the common good. In the coming months, we anticipate sharing best practices about what Catholic organizations in Minnesota, like Catholic Charities and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, are doing to help respond to this crisis.

In the short term we encourage parishes, families and individuals to visit the “Program” section of Catholic Charities USA for toolkits and resources on how to help identify, prevent, and educate others on human trafficking in your community.

Jessica Zittlow is communications associate with the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which coordinates the Catholic Church’s  public policy activities on behalf of the bishops of Minnesota.

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