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Minneapolis sex trafficking functions as a tightly run industry, study finds

Sex trafficking in Minneapolis has its own brutal business model, one that relies on manipulation, intimidation and violence to recruit and then trap young, vulnerable girls into the sex “trade,” according to a chilling report released Monday by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) and at the St. Paul-based Othayonih Research.

The 118-page report describes in detail how sex trafficking functions as a tightly run industry, with sellers (the pimps) and buyers (men from all walks of life). It’s also an industry with its own “marketplaces,” which are often organized parties or other types of social events, where the “merchandise” — the young women — are shopped for and sold.

Past studies have investigated other factors about sex trafficking — where it takes place, for example, and what puts girls at risk for becoming part of it — “but nobody has ever looked at the structure of it as an industry and a business operation,” said Sandi Pierce, president of Othayonih Research, in a phone interview with MinnPost.

“We wanted to get a snapshot of what the operational structure looks like,” she added.

Violence as a business strategy

For the study, Pierce and her co-authors, including Lauren Martin, director of research for UROC, interviewed 89 individuals who work in law enforcement, youth advocacy or health care and are knowledgeable about juvenile sex trafficking activities in Minneapolis. They also analyzed Minneapolis police reports and Hennepin County Court records from 2008 through 2013, as well as media reports about sex trafficking that were published from 2007 through 2013.

“We were surprised by the degree to which violence is used as a strategic function of the operation,” said Pierce.

Many of the pimps lure the girls through promises of glamour and by making them feel special and pretending they love them, she said. The pimps then gradually isolate the girls and psychologically manipulate them.

“Violence then becomes the major breaking strategy,” she added. The violence, whether rape, gang rape or beatings, is used by the pimp as a “trauma bond” to trap the girl into believing that she deserves to be sold for sex.

“It’s a pattern we saw again and again and again,” said Pierce. “We found it in every socioeconomic strata of society. We even heard about high school boys doing this in the suburbs.”

University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center/Othayonih Research
Racial representation, poverty, and purchasing power of individuals in MPD cases. Sex buyers, facilitators, and victims in cases investigated by suburban law enforcement are not included in these data.

‘Same process we saw in slavery’

Another common feature of the sex trafficking “business model” are the parties or other types of social and recreational gatherings that are specifically designed to let men select the “product” they want.

These events include “male adventure activities,” said Pierce, such as motorcycle outings and boat trips on Lake Minnetonka.

“What we found really striking was how the girls are sorted into tiers — into those that are the most marketable and those that match certain [male] preferences,” said Pierce. “That’s an industrial process. It’s also the same kind of process we saw in slavery.”

The girls were often sorted into the different categories after an “audition” rape.

Also striking — and deeply disturbing — is the attitude of the male buyers during these sex trafficking events. “These are guys from all walks of life. These are not a bunch of psychotic predators,” said Pierce. “They see this as normalized behavior.”

“But it’s male entitlement,” she adds. “It’s men who have certain attitudes about women and who feel entitled to have sex in the way they want it and when they want it.”

Metro area recruitment and transaction locations
University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center/Othayonih Research
Metro area recruitment and transaction locations

Three main operational models

The report also outlines how the sex trafficking industry, like other industries, includes several types of operational models. There are the “small businesses” — single pimps with a few or perhaps just one girl under their control. Then, next in size, are the informal pimp networks.

Within these networks, “each pimp maintains his own operation and when needed, they pool resources and share responsibilities, such as recruitment, “breaking” (through rape and gang rape), and monitoring/watching victims, transport, marketing and organizing private sex parties,” the report says.

The largest sex-trafficking operations follow a “corporate model.” The business is run by older men with hierachies of control and responsibilities. These organizations “have the biggest reach and influence on the overall market,” says the report.

Young girls, older men

Other key findings from the report include the following:

  • The girls in this study ranged in age from 9 to 17. The average age was 15. The traffickers were aged 17 to 55, while the buyers of the sex were aged 23 to 65.
  • The girls were targeted, often by young men working for older traffickers, at a wide variety of places, including schools, libraries, malls, parks, bus stops, youth centers and juvenile detention centers.
  • The most commonly targeted girls were those who were homeless, who were using drugs or alcohol, who had a history of abuse or neglect, or who had no supportive relationships with stable adults.
  • Pregnant teens and young mothers were particularly sought out. “The pimps go to parks where young mothers are taking their toddlers outside,” said Pierce. “They tell the girls they can help them get housing or that they’ll pay for their diapers.”  Once a young mother has become part of the sex trafficking business, her pimp will often threaten to call social services and have her child taken away if she doesn’t do what he wants.
  • Most of the girls and the pimps in this study came from high-poverty neighborhoods in Minneapolis, and were disproportionally people of color. Sex buyers came from all neighborhoods, but the largest proportion of them were white.

The report, “Mapping the Market for Juvenile Sex Trafficking in Minneapolis: Structures, Functions, and Patterns,” was funded by the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. It can be read in full online.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Lawrence Funderburke on 09/11/2014 - 10:59 am.

    Claiming whites make up ‘most’ of the buyers seems misleading, no? 27% isn’t quite a majority.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/11/2014 - 10:59 am.


    This is simply amazing…and sickening. It certainly makes a case for heavier prosecution of the pimps and johns, while re-allocating resources that had been used to prosecute prostitutes toward rehabilitative services.

  3. Submitted by Susan Perry on 09/11/2014 - 11:36 am.


    Thanks for pointing that out, Lawrence. I’ve corrected the wording in the article to reflect that the study found that whites make up the largest proportion (but not the majority) of buyers.

    • Submitted by Lawrence Funderburke on 09/11/2014 - 12:44 pm.

      Such an eye-opening report. This is happening right in our backyards. The transparency of articles like this certainly elevate the discussion and awareness.

  4. Submitted by Shannon Bullock on 09/11/2014 - 01:36 pm.

    I grew up in Plymouth

    That recruitment location on the intersection of Hwy 55 and 494 is most likely either the Days Inn/Perkins or the Red Roof Inn. A lot of people are shocked when they first find out that Plymouth has a sex trafficking problem, but I saw enough to know it’s out of control. Those two motels are where the vast majority of it happens. The cops have been battling it for years, but it doesn’t seem to have slowed down the demand.

    Oh, and all the johns who buy sex with underage girls and exploited women? We know who you are too. Just being in the parking lot of those motels gives you away. Especially when you leave again 20 minutes later. I’m tempted to start snapping license plate pics and posting them on Twitter. This is a community problem and we have to start taking on some responsibility for it.

  5. Submitted by mark wallek on 09/12/2014 - 09:39 am.

    Check out the mall

    I have heard many many times that the Mall of America is a major center in this industry. Years ago, on Hennepin Ave. there was a business called “Rifle Sport,” an arcade upstairs above Shinders. This was the old nexus point for the “slave trade.” Now apparently it’s the Mall of America. One wonders why so little progress has been made combatting this over the years. I’ve always assumed it had something to do with who exactly is involved, and the positions they occupy in society.

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