Men step up at St Paul anti-human trafficking event

Breaking Free (a group that provides housing, education and job training for women and girls who have been sexually exploited) held its second two-day event to raise awareness of human trafficking yesterday and today.  The first conference was in 2011. This year the group partnered with the Minnesota Men’s Action Network, and that organization’s co-founder, Chuck Derry, moderated a panel on men’s sexuality. Afterward, I asked each panel member what they wanted the public to know most. Here’s what they said.

Hans Ott, father of three girls and an assistant principal for St Paul schools: I want men and our society to know that this is a real problem, that women are being trafficked, girls are being trafficked every day and it’s not just something in the big cities. It’s happening in small towns around the United States and small towns right here in Minnesota. And we need to act on it and educate ourselves and our families about it.

Members of the "Stopping the Demand" panel pose for a picture after speaking at Breaking Free's Demand Change anti-human trafficking event in St Paul.

Jeremiah Witt, a California father of a trafficking victim: I just want men to know that this is not a women’s problem. I need fathers to understand that this is not somebody else’s kid’s problem. This is every man collectively getting off their rear end, putting the remote control down, joining together with these women, getting in the streets. If these guys can be out on the streets and these guys can be out in these motels so can all of us men to put a stop to what’s going on. And if men would stand up and work together with women, there’s power in unity. There’s nothing we can’t do.

Jeremy NeVilles-Sorell, co-director of Mending the Sacred Hoop, a group that helps Indian women respond to violence: I think as men it’s our responsibility to be the best person that we can be, internally for ourselves so that we can live a good life, but also as protectors and providers, we have to step up and take that responsibility to protect the women in our community. We can’t say that we love women and then ignore all the stuff that happens to them because of other men’s behaviors. So I think that’s really key and I think one of the challenges though is how do we get out there and talk with our friends and family about these real common issues. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to send a letter somewhere or donate $20 to a program but it’s much more complicated when we go up to our brother and say ‘Hey, why do you go to that strip club?’ So I want people to start thinking about that and start practicing that conversation so that we could help change this.

Blair Moses, prevention coordinator for Duluth-based Men As Peacemakers: So what I’d like to come out of this event and all the work we’re doing is awareness and a shift in paradigm. I think if we shift the paradigm in our schools, in our places of work, in our homes, I think then we can begin to see some true action. Then we can begin to see men getting involved and using their economic power and their privilege to say ‘no, trafficking is not ok. No, exploitation of women and children is not ok.’

Chuck Derry, co-founder of the Gender Violence Institute and the Minnesota Men’s Action Network: Men have got to acknowledge our investment, our involvement, our complacency, and taking our pleasure at the expense of women – our pleasure from women’s pain. Men really have to understand that when we’re going to strip clubs, when we’re using porn, when we’re prostituting women, those women are not there by choice. Those women are being beaten, they’re being raped, they’re being pistol-whipped, they’re being abused in so many ways. And the way to describe it really is torture. And so we have to really decide what kind of men we are, and are we going to take our pleasure at women’s pain. And that it’s really time for us to stand up and start challenging male culture and the ways in which we sexually exploit women and say ‘no, that’s not how I’m going to be as a man. I’m going to stand with women and say ‘no, this has got to stop.’’ We’ve got to stop the demand. And really look at what are the cultural norms in which boys and men are raised to think that it’s perfectly ok to buy and sell women and to treat them as we please for our own pleasure.

Pheng Thao, a therapist for Asian Pacific Islander Americans on issues of masculinity and sexual violence: I think that what’s important for men to understand is that women only see one collective group of men. They don’t see good or bad men. And so men should not be saying they’re good guys and they don’t do exploitation or they don’t demand for trafficking or sex, and they can sit back. But it’s like, no, there’s only one group of men that women see. And for men to really step up – the ones who think they’re good – they need to acknowledge they are also contributing to the exploitation of women and girls and they can no longer sit back and wait. Because there’s only a small, small minority of men who are doing the demand for sex trafficking.