The Life: Sex Trafficking of Native Women

Mary G. was born from the boats. Her children were born from the boats too, all fathered through her liaisons with male customers. She has never known anything else. Like generations of Native girls and women before her, Mary and her family are inextricably tied to prostitution in the great port city of Duluth, Minnesota. Long before the term sex trafficking entered the public lexicon and began appearing in headlines, Native women like Mary and her mother Ruthie were lured into prostitution. Largely driven by poverty and homelessness as well as an underlying racism that sanctioned the sexual degradation of Native women, generations of them have sold themselves to survive. 

For years the citizens of Duluth, as in so many other cities, looked the other way at the disreputable exchanges between prostitutes and seamen. They were discounted as part of the cities rough-and-tumble harbor culture and reputation. And prostitution, the world’s oldest profession, was seen as a benign vice, a victimless crime, an example of “boys being boys.” 

Like most Native women around the Great Lakes, I have heard the shameful term boat whore whispered since I was a child. We all knew about women who disappeared to “work the boats” and more important, we knew it was not a topic for discussion. Perhaps internalizing the inexplicable collective shame of being Native women in white America, we cringed when hearing about boat whores, fearful that their experience and reputation might somehow infect us, too. The story of the boat whore has been like a queer kind of natural disaster that visits destruction on the powerless yet holds them responsible. 

Until now. 

Advocates such as Melissa Farley, founder of Prostitution Research & Education, maintain that prostitution and the sex industry create a demand for women that is being fulfilled by sex traffickers. According to Farley, there is little difference between sex trafficking and prostitution. Prostitution is typically depicted as an activity of choice while sex trafficking involves force and coercion for the participation of innocent girls in the sex trade. 

Farley believes that the attempt to separate the two is illogical, creating a false distinction between innocent victims of trafficking from those who choose prostitution. Farley points out that no such line exists, since most prostitutes enter that life between the ages of 12 and 14, far too young to make such a momentous decision. Prostitution and trafficking are expressions of sexual violence. The vast majority of individuals being bought and sold for sex must answer to a pimp figure who not only benefits from their sexual exploitation, but also dictates every aspect of their lives, says Beatriz Menanteau, a staff attorney with the Women’s Human Rights Program in Minnesota. 

Further debunking the notion that prostitution is always a matter of choice, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women reports that 92 percent of women engaged in prostitution said they wanted to leave prostitution but couldn’t because they lack such things as a home, job training, health care, counseling and treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. 

Mary’s campaign against sex trafficking began when a pimp lured her daughter “H” into prostitution at age 14. H is now 19. “She was 14 when the first pimp got hold of her. She’s with another one now. He posts her picture online to get johns,” Mary says. 

When H began coming home with expensive clothing and a cell phone, Mary suspected that she was being prostituted. Nothing she said, however, could break the hold H’s pimp, J.D., had on her. 

H tells Mary that J.D., 38, loves her. Mary notes, however, that he beats H. and throws her out when her bouts with mental illness erupt. J.D. promised to marry H but threw her out again after stealing the $50,000 per-capita money she received from her tribe at the age of 18. 

Despite all that, H insists that she loves J.D. and tells Mary, “Mom, that’s just the way it is with pimps and hos.” 

Mary has sought out activists and police in an effort to help H, and to call more attention to sex trafficking. Putting her shame aside, Mary speaks out publicly about her family’s experiences. “All for the love of H,” she says. 

“J.D. threatened to kill me if I talked,” Mary says. “He said he knew how to get rid of people by putting them in a vat of acid.” 

Mary is walking through her fear because the stakes in this fight are high. She is a mother bent on saving her daughter who—for Mary—is still the little girl who couldn’t sleep without her hands entwined in Mary’s long black hair. 

Mary is not alone. Increasingly, advocates and law enforcement are spreading the word that the world’s oldest profession is anything but benign; it is a form of sexual violence that disproportionately targets the poor and girls and women of color. Breaking Free, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based organization that provides services to victims of sex trafficking and prostitution claims that more than two-thirds of those working in prostitution in Minneapolis are women of color. This information is based on data regarding their clients they serve. Nationally, available information from sources such as Donna Hughes, professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island in her fact sheet, Race and Prostitution in the United States, suggest that women and girls from racial minorities are disproportionately represented in the sex trade. She notes that in 2002, 55 percent of girls under 18 who were arrested for prostitution were African American. She also says that only 39 percent of women arrested for prostitution in 2001 in New York City were white. 

Farley and other advocates are working to reframe the public discussion surrounding prostitution and sex trafficking by changing the language and clearly identifying prostitution as a form of sexual violence. “Prostitution is a systemic issue rooted in oppression, abuse, exploitation and, often, racism,” she says. 

Indeed, in their report, Shattered Hearts: The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of American Indian Women and Girls in Minnesota, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center reports that nearly all of their clients who have worked as prostitutes had been sexually abused in their homes as children. Studies such as The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico by the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, indicate that physical and sexual abuse at home are among the primary risk-factors for youth entry into the sex trade. Therefore, Native women and girls—who suffer the highest rates of sexual assault of any ethnicity in the country—are especially vulnerable to traffickers. 

According to the Shattered Hearts report, homelessness is the most immediate reason that Native girls enter the world of sex trafficking and prostitution. Typically, Native girls run away from abusive homes, end up homeless and become easy targets for pimps who offer food and shelter in exchange for sex. 

The sex trafficking of Native girls and women is a story 500 years in the making, says Sarah Deer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She is a professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul and has done extensive legal work and research about violence against Native women. Deer is also a member of Amnesty International USA’s Native American and Alaska Native Advisory Council and has testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. 

Duluth is a microcosm of a historical dynamic that has framed Native women as more sexually available than others. Deer says the sexual exploitation of Native women began with their initial contact with Europeans and continues to this day. She describes their sexual subjugation as a product of European and American colonization—warfare, slavery and relocation all played significant roles in the destruction of Indian nations and the subsequent commercialization of Native women’s bodies. She quotes a letter written by U.S. Indian Agent W.L. Lincoln in Montana in 1885: 

“There is but little said in their favor regarding their moral standing, and for this there is no doubt but that the Government is largely to blame… When I first came here, the soldier had also come to stay. The Indian maiden’s favor had a money value and what wonder is that, half clad and half starved, they bartered their honor…for something to cover their limbs and for food for themselves and their kin.” 

All of these factors combined with the upsurge in demand for prostitutes to create a perfect sex-trafficking storm for Native girls and women. 

Although reliable data regarding the overall number of girls and women who have been trafficked into prostitution are difficult to find, law enforcement personnel report a large increase in the number of prostitutes since 2000, particularly those who are underage. In the recent Current TV Vanguard documentary “**Hot SexXxy Young**,” FBI Special Agent Martha Parker notes that trafficking or pimping girls and women has become popular among criminals who used to sell drugs. According to Parker, criminals know they are less likely to be arrested or prosecuted for trafficking and the overhead is far less than that required for selling drugs. “No overhead, little risk and a lot of money to be made,” she says. Underage girls are especially prized because they can be more easily manipulated. Oakland, California police officer James Saleda tells the filmmakers that prostitution in the area has definitely grown, and that there has been a dramatic increase in underage prostitution. “It’s getting bigger all the time,” he says. 

Law enforcement officials quoted in the documentary agree with Duluth police that the Internet has contributed to the increased demand for prostitutes as well as the increased “supply.” Online sites make it less risky for both prostitutes and buyers to find each other without having to walk the streets and risk drawing attention from authorities. Since they don’t overtly advertise sex for sale, escort services, both online and by phone, also provide a popular quasi-legal means for prostitutes and buyers to connect. Police note that the Internet also aids the movement and coordination of prostitution. Lieutenant Scott Drewlo of the Duluth police notes that national and regional “tracks”—circuits—have emerged. Regionally, pimps coordinate meet-ups between prostitutes and buyers at rural bars and strip clubs, especially during hunting and fishing season. Police note that Las Vegas and cities on the West Coast are among the major stops on today’s prostitution “track” that seems to be growing in organization and sophistication. 

The mechanism of trafficking and prostitution has changed since the days when Mary worked the boats. Before the 9/11 attacks, for instance, she and other prostitutes could easily board international ships and stow away for days at a time as they worked the crew. Today, security at international ports is tight and few seamen are allowed to leave their ships. Unchanged, however, are the ugly techniques of mental and physical violence used by pimps to control their victims. 

“Once you get involved with that world, you are tortured and tormented. They brainwash you, so you don’t have a chance at life,” Mary says. She wants young people to know about the dangers of sex trafficking and has invited me to her home to hear her story. 

Mary, Ojibwe, is a grandmotherly figure wearing a shapeless, colorful flowered dress. She meets me at the door of her little house and escorts me into her sun-drenched living room. Pleasantly cluttered with photographs, the room is not unlike those of many of my relatives. We sit down to chat, and I make a mental note that she seems an unlikely figure to tell such a powerful story of going from boat whore to survivor to activist. I feel at home here in her cozy house that overlooks the bright, clear waters of Gichigami (Lake Superior) and find it vaguely disturbing that she seems so familiar. I see that, like me, she is a sister, an Anishinaabe-ikwe and a survivor. 

Mary, now 51, tells me that like her mother, she worked the boats and was trafficked into prostitution. Mary says she and her 21 siblings were all conceived through her mother’s liaisons with seamen, but her entry into “the life” was an accident. At the age of 15, she was broke and homeless, standing on the street with a girlfriend in Duluth when a Pakistani man approached them. “He was nice to us, telling us about his country. He invited us on board his boat and hailed a taxi. That was the first time I had ever ridden in a taxi,” she recalls. 

Thus began her life on the boats. She would meet seamen in Duluth whose ships were docked at the port and accompany them back to their ships, where she would have sex with them and other crew members in exchange for food, money, drinks and a place to stay. Often she would remain on the ships as they sailed from one port to another. 

Life on the boats was, sometimes, a nonstop party. “They pulled out all the stops for us on that first night; they had a Greek party for us with food and champagne,” she recalls. 

“That was my living; I was homeless,” she says. She talks about those early days with a measure of fondness. “I got attention from handsome, dark-skinned men. I didn’t like white guys very much. I got nice food and drinks and learned about different countries.” 

According to Mary, the seamen treated her better than her white foster parents, who had packed her off for good to an alcoholism-treatment center: “They put all my stuff in a bunch of garbage bags and just got rid of me.” 

She pauses and looks away as she says, “They were really bad people.” 

Advocates say that Mary’s ability to normalize her life as a child prostitute is common among Native girls who have been frequently exposed to sexual abuse and violence. Research in the Shattered Hearts report also found that Native girls and women who exchange sex for food and shelter don’t consider the acts to be prostitution. They are simply doing what they have to do to stay alive, engaging in survival sex. 

Mary is quiet for a long time. At last she begins talking again, “I’ve been to some places, let me tell you!” 

After a few years working the boats, her addiction to alcohol grew and she fell into the hands of an older white woman and her husband who pimped Mary out of their bar. The woman was a former prostitute and knew well how to manipulate Mary, threatening to turn her sons over to social services when she complained. Mary “took care” of the bar’s customers in exchange for food, lodging, child care and alcohol. “I just drank all the time. Drank like a fish when carrying my kids, all of them were born on hangovers,” she says. 

Toward the end of her days in the life, Mary was desperate, often trying to kill herself. “I used to burn myself with cigarettes,” she says. 

I chose not to push Mary for an exact time line or details of her story. Rather, I let her reveal herself in her own way, and a way that I hoped would honor her. 

It seems that she got very sick and had to enter a nursing home for several months; this effectively ended her time as a prostitute. “Those people [the couple with the bar] ran me; they took my money, they took everything,” she says. 

According to Mary, traffickers are trying to do the same thing to young Native people today. 

Sandi Pierce, a researcher who worked on the Shattered Hearts report and officer Drewlo say the story of Mary and her family is typical of Native girls who get lured into prostitution or trafficking. “The pimp tells them, ‘You’re so hot, you could be a dancer or a model,’?” says Pierce. 

For the first time in their lives, the girls receive attention, flattery and positive messages about themselves from a pimp who also showers them with flashy gifts and clothing. Before long, they are emotionally and financially beholden. “It’s an old story,” says Drewlo. “Unfortunately, the method of ‘turning a girl out’ hasn’t really changed that much in the last 2,000 years.” 

What are beginning to change, however, are the laws on trafficking. New federal, state and international trafficking laws have been enacted that are based on the premise that sex trafficking involves individuals profiting from the commercial sexual exploitation of others. Unlike federal law, Minnesota’s antitrafficking law, however, does not require proof that the adult victim was lured into trafficking by force, fraud or coercion. Victims need only demonstrate that others are profiting from their sexual exploitation, notes Menanteau. 

Despite these changes, however, no one in Duluth has yet been charged or prosecuted under Minnesota’s new sex-trafficking law. Although there may be evidence that a criminal is involved with trafficking, victims must agree to testify against them for a successful case. St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin observes that until the justice system can ensure victims that they will be safe, they will not agree to testify against their traffickers. “We don’t have the resources to provide them with the support that they need,” he says. 

Advocates note that there is a significant lack of federal or state funding for helping domestically trafficked or prostituted women. According to the Shattered Hearts report, monies allocated by the Violence Against Women Act cannot be used to support services for victims of sex trafficking. 

Both advocates and police cite a distrust of law enforcement among Native girls and women and note their fear that they may be arrested if they ask police for help or that their traffickers would suffer no real consequences even if they agree to testify. 

As an example, Drewlo describes what he calls “the big boat case” of 2000, in which a 14-year-old Native girl was sold to the crew of a ship by a gang in Duluth. According to Drewlo, organized crime in the form of gangs has played a large role in trafficking girls in and around Duluth for years. The girl was locked in a cabin on the boat for days while the crew raped her repeatedly. She managed to escape when the ship was in port in Cleveland and made her way back to Duluth, where she contacted police. In the end, however, she was too frightened to testify and disappeared. “We have no way of knowing how many times this sort of thing has happened,” he says. 

Mary knows all too well how hard it is to get justice through the system: “I’ve told the cops about J.D., but unless H agrees to testify against him, there’s not much they can do.” 

She says that when she tries to convince H to get away from J.D., her answer is, “Look at you—you did the same thing!” 

“I tell her, ‘Yes—but I never had anybody. You have me.’?” 

Mary has gone for months without hearing from H, suffering every mother’s fear that her lost child may be dead. “Sometimes it hurts so much,” she says. 

We sit quietly as the late afternoon sun lengthens the shadows in the room. Mary looks up and her face brightens: “You know, for a long time I didn’t care about anything, but now I’m getting my groove back. 

“I’ve tried every which way to try to save H except helping myself. Now I have decided to do that.” 

Mary is now focusing on caring for her diabetes and mental health and spreading the word about the dangers of sex trafficking. “I want to help the kids understand how dangerous this life can be,” she says. But before it’s all over, I would like to try to be happy.”