This Happens Everywhere

In Conversation With Mallory Thorne and Sarah Curtiss

Men as Peacemakers has been doing anti-violence work in the Duluth area for two decades. Specifically, they have focused on educating the community around them to the devastating effects of what domestic and sexual violence looks like in their region of Lake Superior. In trying to build safer communities they have implemented “programs that address and undermine the root causes of violence against women and children including sexism, male dominance, racism, and homophobia.” Mallory and Sarah sat down with us for a conversation as we passed through Duluth on a rainy day at the end of May. Below you will find our edited conversation from that day.

Can you speak about the origins of Men as Peacemakers and the work you do?

Mallory Thorne: Sure! We’re celebrating our twentieth anniversary this year which is really exciting. We started back in 1996 and it was a response to a series of really violent murders that happened here in town. So they held listening sessions…

Sarah Curtiss: Yeah, and the murders that happened were domestic violence related in our community. And so as a response to that they said, “Why in the community is only part of the community talking about it, predominately women, we need to involve the entire gender spectrum into the conversation.” So they had a gathering that hosted 100 men, diverse men from the community, came together to see what they wanted to do and out of those conversations cam Men as Peacemakers.

Can you talk about the creation then of Men Against Sex Trafficking and when that started as a part of Men as Peacemakers?

SC: So it started with the response around commercial sexual exploitation in our community. All of these people wanted to come to the table, what actually happen was the AFL-CIO, the labor union, heard some stuff and wanted to get involved. So the organized with some legislators, listening sessions at the Labor Temple. Which, I have been talking about sex trafficking for just about 10 years, organizing around those things and I have never been more terrified to walk into a room of about 200 men to talk about the issues there. And I remember because I spoke specifically of tribal communities and the Garden of Truth Report, if you’re ever interested in what it looks like in Minnesota with specifically Native women. So talking to them about the research that came out and telling them that they are this group of men, that you are the primary demographic of people who purchase native women in our community and you have to do something, you have to be men with hearts. And I spoke after about male-socialization and some of the conditions in the environments that are setup. After it ended, so I’m standing around talking and there’s this huge guy that comes marching up to me. In bibs, bandana, arms-are-so-big-you–gotta-cut-the-sleeves-off-my-shirt kinda guy. And I was like, “Okay, here it is.” I’m used to having to have an argument around this so I was all braced for that but before I knew it he had me in a bear hug, lifting me up off the ground and said, “What you said really hit me. What can I do?” And we got a response from many men from that saying, “We wanna do something. What can we do?” The intervention agency, the agencies that directly work with women who survive this kind of violence, said, “We have enough. We can’t do this. This is kind of your thing.” So we met informally for a couple of years just working on some education and then we were fortunate enough that Mallory started with an internship here.

MT: I didn’t really have a specific background in trafficking at all. I sort of stumbled my way into Men as Peacemakers and it was one of the best decisions that I’ve made. So I started running these groups. We were meeting once a month just with community men. So not specifically with men who have purchased. Not like a John School, if you’ve heard of that. Just men who wanted to be a part of the solution and we were really trying to figure out where do we go and what do we do because it is such an intersectional issue. Do we focus on the hotels? Do we focus on harsher punishment? Do we focus on legislation? Who do we engage and how do we do this? It was really rough for a few months trying to pick something and be patient and plan. You know, you can’t just jump in and expect it to go away the next day. What we learned pretty quickly was, because I was also educating myself, that we really needed to take an educational focus for the community to understand the inherent racism, the inherent sexism and the normalization, how if you look at all of these different pieces that it’s really not all the surprising that this happens. And how do we tackle that and how do we position the men in our group to be able to talk about that in a way that doesn’t necessarily come from a moral argument, although they are great in certain situations, often time people justget shot down when they come from that perspective. So how do we give them the tools, how do we give them the education where they can be at a bachelor party and actually have a conversation about not wanting to go to a strip club because it’s harmful and this is how I know why. So we shifted our focus and started doing that work.

“You may have heard prostitution called the world’s oldest profession, but she calls it the world’s oldest form of oppression.”

SC: Vednita Carter, she was the founder of Breaking Free, which is an organization in the Twin Cities that works with commercially sexually exploited, and we use that word instead of sex trafficking because that encompasses all forms of that. It includes stripping and pornography and other places where people are harmed for the purpose of sexual exploitation. But she says that, you may have heard prostitution called the world’s oldest profession, but she calls it the world’s oldest form of oppression. So since it has been there for so long those myths and stereotypes are embedded in the vernacular that we use every day. It comes from how profitable this industry of selling people is. So really to take that time and also to engage men that have super good intentions, I think of my partner, right. He’s enormous, he’s 6’ 7’’, 400 pounds, he’s a combat veteran and he’s a really nice man, otherwise we would not have been married as long as we’ve been married. Hah. But his first response to it is, “Well if that happens let’s fucking kick some ass!” We would get that response, “We’ve gotta go out and find these johns, find these pimps and put the boots to them!” This is what would happen but it’s like, “Okay, slow your roll, let’s talk about what happens if you do that.” How is that keeping that person safe? How is it interrupting the system? Really focusing on base education and male privilege and other things that come into play, all of those layers. And just because you are a man, you know, that you identify as a man, does not mean that all of a sudden now that you’re a part of this that it will end. It is a community response. So we’re working on dismantling some of that in order to create true and genuine allyship.

So for someone who is unfamiliar with this issue and Duluth, how might you describe the current landscape of sex trafficking and sex exploitation?

MT: Good question, I mean I don’t have specific numbers. I think it’s really difficult to get specific numbers.

SC: You’re talking about technologies. You’re talking about the back page dot com. You’re talking about people in certain areas of Duluth, you know, outdoors. You’re talking about survival sex. You’re talking about things even like exploitative landlords. You know, survival sex, if it’s 40 below in Minnesota you’re gonna find a place to sleep indoors to survive.

MT: I think a lot of it too, the inherit manipulation, a lot of people think about exploitation, they think sex trafficking and they think two things. The think either overseas or they think of the very Law-and-Order- style, kidnapped in a van and chained in a basement. And what it really looks like often times, not that I don’t believe that that does happen, but the narrative that I’ve heard stick out so far is that manipulation, that coercion. That, “He loved me and...” I think that makes it really hard to get numbers. It takes a really long time to put those pieces together and understand, “Oh, my gosh. This is what happened.”

SC: And no one will come up to you like they might identify as a survivor of domestic violence. I have never ever, ever worked with a woman who said, “I’m a survivor of sex trafficking!” Coming right from the street to receive service. And research shows that the primary interventions are not with domestic violence or sexual assault agencies. We are conditioned to, if there’s a domestic violence incident, we go to the domestic violence advocate of the domestic violence agency and we handle it that way. There is not that system setup with commercial sexual exploitation. Or, if there is, it is very spotty and pocketed.

MT: And then you have the shame. I mean, you have this kind of landscape in Minnesota where we’re really making strides in understanding that this isn’t a thing a 13-year-old is chooses to do. But what if she’s 18 or 35 or 65? She comes forward and says, “I’ve been prostituted.” She’s gonna get nailed with all sorts of, “Well you chose that. You could have just left.” Kind of some of the same things we hear with domestic violence. Why don’t you just leave? You should just leave. Until we really reach that paradigm shift of this is not a choice. It may seem like a choice but when you have all of these different factors it’s not a choice. It’s not something that people choose to do. We’re not gonna see that shame shift away. Where domestic violence used to be a very private issue in the family, like that was something you handle at home…

SC: A “family” issue.

MT: Yeah. And now we understand the conditions and we understand that there are reasons she doesn’t leave right away. When she leaves that’s the most harmful time. That is when women are typically harmed and murdered.

SC: And understanding the Safe Harbor law that we have in Minnesota that makes it so if you are 17 and under that you’re not charged with prostitution crime. But it isn’t legal. So if I am sexually assaulted, I go to the hospital, I make a report, I don’t have to worry about consequences happening, judicially consequences happening. But as a prostituted woman I would technically be reporting a crime that I committed to a police officer. So there is that difference. We’re an abolitionist organization and Duluth by-and-large is an abolitionist community, and we believe that it is violence against persons in this way. It is not a sexually-liberated job choice. But it is still on the books as a crime. And just because young person at 17 and open their eyes the next day and turn 18, then, what has changed? Besides a weird social construct of time. But nothing else has changed in that person’s life.

You already spoke to this a little bit but, you highlight Native American women and people of color being very affected by these issues, is there anything else you would like to add to that conversation?

"Indigenous people are at the highest rates for sexual violence, violent deaths, sex trafficking. Why is that?"

SC: I was just at the Safe Harbor Tribal Summit down in Shakopee. I think that we’re talking about how this can happen at such high rates, right? The Garden of Truth Report, which was done in Minnesota with 105 native women over the age of 18 who are either currently or were formally used in trafficking or prostitution, and we really don’t delineate that because trafficking – federal definition – is forced out of coercion but, prostitution, in my opinion, is you just can’t prove it. That’s the only difference working with women. But with it happening at such high rates there’s the invisibility factor with persons. So, it does happen to white people in our community but statistically, in that Garden of Truth Report, they did comparative research with Melissa Farley, she has done this research in 8 other countries, and across the board in nearly every category native women in the state on Minnesota suffer worse conditions than women in all of these 8 other countries combined. And so to use the “all lives matter” kind of situation with this is that we’re really eliminating factors like racism. The historical genocide of indigenous people in our country. Indigenous people are at the highest rates for sexual violence, violent deaths, sex trafficking. Why is that? When we can objectivize and degrade and exploit someone then we lose their humanness. And when we’re looking at the primary demographic of purchasers being middle-class-white-cis-hetero guys then we can start degrading –dehumanizing– people who do not look like us. Who are different. Who we can put over there. Just the history of low prosecution rates for crimes against people of color and native people, it just really sets up the conditions where if you harm, if you rape, if you purchase a person of color or an indigenous person you’re probably not gonna get in trouble for it. Like, if you know people and they’ve not gotten in trouble for it then you’re probably not gonna get in trouble for it. It sets the conditions and perpetuates that harm and, intergenerationally with families. It just continues to spiral. That report always shocks me. 90% of the women that were interviewed were either currently homeless or had been homeless. So then looking at intersectionality like housing accessibility, affordable housing and those sorts of things.

I’m a mother, I’ve got a pretty rad 5-year-old that I love to death that I would do just about anything for. And I think, if I had to, what wouldn’t I do to make sure he had a place to live, he had food? And these women are no different than I am. Like myself, I am a survivor of a lot of violence: childhood sexual abuse, domestic and sexual violence. All of those conditions that put me right in line. Just the same thing as these women for but one turn of the road. I could be them. And so not having that separation and understanding that it is more than just a bad choice. It is more than she just really likes sex. It is the way that the “-isms” are setup in our society that affects the choices of women and people of color and native people.

Thinking about the Lake Superior region in general, do you have any idea of how this issue in this community may compare to other communities around the Lake?

MT: Again, I don’t have those specific numbers. You definitely hear the conversation about the shipping industry. But back to the back pages and accessibility, I don’t think that there is anything particularly special about any region. I think that this happens everywhere. I think that it’s a matter of whether or not it’s being talked about and whether or not it’s being prosecuted. I know that my dad, I’m from a small town in southern Minnesota, called and he said, “Sex trafficking is happening here now!” Hah. And I’m like, “It’s right along the I-35 corridor, there are two truck stops, there are white men in my hometown.” It’s just being caught there now. It takes a lot of money to run a sting operation. Some things that I’ve heard from the police department and tons of academic research is that they’ll post an ad and they’ll get hundreds of calls. They can’t even follow through and make all the arrests because they just have a limited timeframe. It takes a lot of money because you have staffing. You can’t post an add without a Facebook, well if you’re gonna have a Facebook link then you’ve gotta have that fake Facebook profile for years because someone is gonna be able to tell that’s not a real Facebook if you don’t. So the amount of time that goes in on the front end of these sting operations and then there’s an end date. So the sting ends after a few days but the phone keeps ringing. It doesn’t stop ringing. I’ve also heard that they’ll actually see an increase in phone calls after several days because purchasers will wait because they think that, “Oh, if it’s really a cop then the ad won’t be up after a couple of days.” And then the calls just keep coming. I’ve heard that here. I’ve heard that in the Cities. It’s a pretty common story when I’ve talked with police officers. Which means that those same people are not just calling the same ad. They’re calling other ads. Which means that anytime something is posted, if it’s not a sting operation, you can expect hundreds of calls per prostituted woman.

I think that we’re fortunate to live in a community that has so many agencies that care about this issue. I think that is a pretty unique situation. There are a lot of people really invested. We have a task force with people from all sorts of agencies, from the school district to the police department to the port authority. I think that we’re very, very lucky that we have so many agencies that are also willing to work together. But I don’t know as far as comparing to different regions.

SC: And I think when you’re talking about urban and rural you’re looking at a whole different beast. There might be a track in the city where there are women that you can drive to a certain place and know that you can exploit them where, in a rural community, I live in Cloquet, I live in a very small community, and there’s just not that accessibility. But even Cloquet is considered to be a large town to somewhere like Tofte. And there’s that understanding of what happens in the summer months when tourism booms. Every once and awhile I will go onto Craigslist and their “casual encounters section,” it’s insidious. It’ll say something like, “Generous man, staying up at Lutsen. Come have a nice dinner with me.” And there will be a money sign replacing an S. You see some of those things that are code. All the way up the north shore. Grand Marais all the way down you see when tourism increases. Because there is not a lot of hard-numbered data, just because of the nature of what is happening, a lot of it we gain from hearing from people. So understanding like hunting and fishing season where those small towns have one bar and all of a sudden that bar turns into a strip club and woman are rotated, because of course you can’t be looking at the same women all the time, so they have to be moved around so no one gets bored of the product. Even stories during ice fishing. Very popular ice fishing lakes where women get brought out to ice houses out there. And understanding technology connects us and it’s wonderful but technology also makes it so that this can be a more behind-closed-doors kind of crime.

Is there a typical lifeway of someone who is trafficked?

SC: There isn’t. I think that’s why… I mean, there are a lot of things that make people more vulnerable to that type of violence. Maybe chemical dependency issues.  Maybe in and out of foster care. But we always like to flip the script because why must there be something inherently wrong that a person is damaged and can be abused. Instead really looking at why in the world does someone think they can purchase another human being? What has gone on with them that they think [they can do that]? Changing that and putting the focus there because if there were no demand there would not be this type of violence. Unfortunately there is a lot of demand.

We’re traveling around the lake and having a variety of conversations with all sorts of organizations and people. Any advice for us as to how we may be able to talk about this issue with the folks that we meet as we travel?

"The more you talk about equality in all of its forms: racial equity, housing, poverty. The more you start talking about really creating an environment that doesn’t allow for people to be harmed is when you’re gonna see lasting change." 

MT: I think the more awareness that we can raise around this issue the more we can really tackle it. What we’re really talking about is the normalization of exploitation in our community. Back to the, “Let’s go beat up all the exploiters” thing. You can take all the purchasers off the streets but we’re raising new ones. We’re raising people to believe that womens’ value lies in their bodies. That kind of othering of different communities makes them more desirable. LGBTQ are impacted by this at astronomical rates. Purchasers will specifically ask for people who are trans because we are othering them and so they’re desirable. The more you talk about equality in all of its forms: racial equity, housing, poverty. The more you start talking about really creating an environment that doesn’t allow for people to be harmed is when you’re gonna see lasting change. So having a voice for those things and more importantly, listening to the people who are impacted by all of those issues, more than just talking, is important. I know personally, if I were speaking and someone told me I had something wrong I would just sit down because there is nothing I would be able to say to help that person understand. I think when we talk about sex trafficking we really need to start talking about educating our communities, getting people to understand that it is happening here. There are agencies people working on it and connecting them with those agencies. I’m not trying to get famous for anti-trafficking work. If that were that case, I chose the wrong career. But, really working to connect people to places that are gonna get them the information. I am not qualified to work with a survivor’s family, so I’m gonna connect them to someone who is. I can certainly talk about warning signs and that kind of stuff but even that is not going to create a shift. Just teaching people how to report it, although that is important, that’s not going to stop it from happening. So we’ve gotta take a step back and talk about all of the conditions that allow for this to happen. Talk to the men in our lives.

SC: I think that one thing that you can take away and do instantaneously is change the use of language. You may have heard that we never said the word prostitute. We said prostituted-woman or prostituted-person. So that’s even using the language of talking about the crime happening to someone, not them being responsible for it. Never use the word hooker. Ever. And talking about things like strip clubs… many men will never purchase someone or go to a strip club but I’ve never met a man who has not looked at porn. It’s the reality. It is so ingrained in our society. So talking about those linkages and making those changes.