May 16, Mary G. 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. 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. 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. H is now When H began coming home with expensive clothing and a cell phone, Mary suspected that she was being prostituted. H tells Mary that J. Mary notes, however, that he beats H. Despite all that, H insists that she loves J. Mary is not alone. 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. She notes that in , 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 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. Indeed, in their report, Shattered Hearts: 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 years in the making, says Sarah Deer of the Muscogee Creek Nation.
Paul and has done extensive legal work and research about violence against Native women. 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 quotes a letter written by U. Lincoln in Montana in 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 , particularly those who are underage.
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. 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.
Police note that the Internet also aids the movement and coordination of prostitution. Regionally, pimps coordinate meet-ups between prostitutes and buyers at rural bars and strip clubs, especially during hunting and fishing season.
The mechanism of trafficking and prostitution has changed since the days when Mary worked the boats. 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.
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. 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 invited us on board his boat and hailed a taxi. 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. She talks about those early days with a measure of fondness. I got nice food and drinks and learned about different countries.
They are simply doing what they have to do to stay alive, engaging in survival sex. Mary is quiet for a long time. 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. Toward the end of her days in the life, Mary was desperate, often trying to kill herself. 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. 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. 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. 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. Victims need only demonstrate that others are profiting from their sexual exploitation, notes Menanteau. Although there may be evidence that a criminal is involved with trafficking, victims must agree to testify against them for a successful case.
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. 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.
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.
Mary knows all too well how hard it is to get justice through the system: We sit quietly as the late afternoon sun lengthens the shadows in the room.
Mary looks up and her face brightens: Now I have decided to do that.