FARGO — Initially, Lisa Hanson tried to avert her eyes, head and heart when it came to human trafficking.
She didn’t want to face that sex-trafficking happens right under our noses.
Or that 80 percent of ‘johns,’ or buyers, are married with children or the fact that the interstate-surrounded Fargo-Moorhead area offers prime access for this lucrative, back-alley business.
But when, through her women’s ministry at Atonement Lutheran Church, a friend encouraged her to bring in a speaker who worked at safe houses for trafficked victims in both Nepal and Minneapolis, everything changed.
“Seeing pictures of these little girls with their pimps standing behind them … my heart shattered into a billion pieces,” Hanson says.
She began researching the issue, and was startled to realize the prevalence of sex-trafficking in our community.
“These predators, these johns, are our coaches, teachers, neighbors, garbage men, whatever,” she says.
Often, those who “buy” the product — from having sex with someone being trafficked to watching trafficked victims being violated online — have become hooked through pornography.
“We live in such a highly-sexualized culture, so it comes at them at all angles, and it’s hard for men to break that off,” Hanson explains.
Often, she says, drug traffickers turn to sex trafficking, which can be even more more profitable. “You can use the girl over and over, whereas drugs are a one-time thing,” she says.
Some of the most prominent areas for sex-trafficking include truck stops and strip joints. In the past, Hanson notes, during large events here, like the Big Iron agricultural show, there have been spikes in numbers of girls sold for sex on websites known for sex-trafficking solicitation.
“These kids don’t have a voice,” Hanson says of the victims. “They’re forced to do this. They’re in sexual bondage.”
In 2013, she founded the ministry Voice for the Captives and recently helped institute Next Step ND, which provides financial and emotional assistance for those leaving “the life.”
Voice for the Captives aims to abolish sex-trafficking through education, awareness and the love and power of Jesus Christ.
“People often think it’s a third-world country issue, and that men who buy are homeless or dealers on the street, and that’s not true,” she says. “I also want parents to understand how these people are getting ahold of your kids, and how you need to be talking to them.”
Social media’s role in luring young people to sex-trafficking prompted Hanson to host a web-streamed session at Atonement later this month to offer parents tools.
But predators find many ways to bring in new victims. “The traffickers will pay boys or girls in the school to befriend people and get them from point A to B,” she says.
And it’s not just girls who are at risk; one in four or five boys are trafficked, Hanson says. “So many parents don’t want to talk about this, but as much as we hate shattering our kids’ innocence, if we don’t, we’re setting them up to be victims,” she says.
At 19, Danielle John, whose mother struggled with addiction, ran away from her home in Duluth and became ensnarled in what is essentially sex slavery for five years.
Her trafficker, now in prison for life, had as many as six to 12 women under his control at any given time. When she became pregnant by him, he kept her away from the baby, knowing the bond could empower her to leave, John says.
“I had all the risk factors we look for,” she says. “I came from a single-parent household, had no father figure and I was always searching for that love.”
Having her basic needs met by her trafficker was appealing, she says, and she gained a sense of family through the other “wives-in-law” who shared her home.
“I was promised this fantasy,” she says, but the dream never materialized, and abuse cycles took hold.
Now 30, and embracing a life of sobriety and hope here, John is a single mother of three who speaks out on sex-trafficking issues. She also assists others through work as a survivor-leader and educator at Youthworks of North Dakota.
She’s made amends with her mother, who’s now sober and faith-filled, and has been working on her own ongoing healing while discovering the true joys in life, like “building gingerbread houses with my son.”
With a prevention-focused mindset, John hopes to do more speaking at schools about internet safety and healthy boundaries.
“It’s learned behavior, so ultimately, as a community, we’re raising (what could be future) pimps and traffickers,” she says. “We’ve got to stop that.”
John works with Melissa Williams, human traffic navigator for the eastern part of North Dakota. Williams is the go-to person for human trafficking education; she helps former victims connect with resources, such as assistance for employment, medical needs, transportation, housing or daycare.
“A lot of people think the Bakken brought this here,” Williams says. “While they do have high numbers there, the highest trafficking is actually happening here in Fargo.”
She reiterates that those being trafficked often do so out of fear or coercion. “With exploitation, two people are involved, one taking advantage of the other,” she explains. “With trafficking, a third person benefits… a mother might pimp out her daughter to the landlord so they don’t have to pay rent that month.”
Williams says sex-trafficking has become, through pornography, “embedded in our culture,” a culture in which “women being purchased as a product has become normalized.”
Hanson knows the depth of it, but can no longer look away, urging everyone to see those trapped in this life for who they are — the vulnerable and poor among us.
“We are Christian-based, and though we don’t push that on anyone,” she says, “if we get the chance to tell them about Jesus, that’s what I want to do, because ultimately that’s the only one who will be able to heal them.”
If You Go
What: “Parent Time-Out” live-streamed educational session, “Born 2B Wired: A parents’ guide to helping kids navigate social media,” with Dr. Walt Mueller from Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
Why: To help parents understand the role of social media in kids’ lives, and how to instill best practices of social-media use in the home
When: 6:30 to 8 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 25
Where: Atonement Lutheran Church, 4601 S. University Drive, Fargo
Cost: Free and open to the public
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Jan. 14, 2017.]