On Wednesday, Nov. 14, more than 100 students crammed into the Valhalla Room in Buntrock Commons to hear Joy Friedman, a representative of the Minnesota nonprofit organization Breaking Free, discuss prostitution and human trafficking.
According to the organization’s Web site, Breaking Free is “a nonprofit organization serving women and girls involved in systems of abuse, exploitation, and prostitution/sex trafficking.” Breaking Free helps around 500 women and girls escape from sex trafficking each year, offering services that include therapy, housing, education and legal help.
Friedman’s talk was organized by members of St. Olaf Leaders Abolishing Slavery SOLAS, a year-old student organization that aims to address human trafficking issues both locally and worldwide. Kate Panning ’15, one of the organization’s founders and leaders, said that SOLAS is “a place to learn more about the atrocities of human trafficking as well as how to take action.”
Panning said that last fall, after she and Sarah Kretschmann ’15 watched the documentary “Half the Sky,” a film that addresses the oppression of women and human trafficking, they began to discuss the need for a more unified campus group to deal with these issues.
“We believe that creating a unified student organization could be really powerful in educating the St. Olaf population and making a difference in the fight to end human trafficking,” Panning said.
After Panning introduced Friedman at Wednesday night’s talk, Friedman, a survivor of more than two decades of human trafficking, immediately charmed her audience with a series of lighthearted jokes.
“Laughter is a way of healing,” she said before diving into the sobering facts that define human trafficking. She explained that there are three types of human trafficking, or modern-day slavery: sex trafficking, labor trafficking and organ trafficking.
“As fast as you can order a pizza, you can order a human being,” she said. “That’s reality.” Friedman also insisted that trafficking can – and does – happen everywhere.
“This is not something that happens somewhere else,” she said. “This happens here. Every single person in this room is sellable. It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, what your color is, what your religion is or what you think about it.”
Friedman discussed the stages of trafficking – recruitment, initiation and enslavement – and the intense psychological damage that impacts all victims of prostitution, or, as Friedman calls them, “overcomers.”
After explaining the reality of sex trafficking, Friedman called her audience to action.
“We have to shift our paradigm,” she said. First, she asked audience members to take the word “prostitute” out of their vocabularies, as it reduces victims of sex trafficking to what has happened to them instead of recognizing their individual worth. Acceptable terms to replace “prostitute” include “victim of prostitution” or “victim of sex trafficking.” This vocabulary shift, she said, is a simple but very important piece of action.
Next, Friedman addressed flaws in U.S. legislation surrounding prostitution.
“Help change laws,” she said. She cited strip clubs and the “adult entertainment” industry as legal gateways to prostitution that are unacceptable, claiming that “we shouldn’t even have this option.” In addition, Friedman pointed out that current laws only criminalize men and women in prostitution, not those taking advantage of them. These laws, she said, are backwards.
Lastly, Friedman asked audience members to continue to have conversations about sex trafficking and to get involved as activists or volunteers.
“This is not only a female issue,” Friedman said. “This is also a men’s issue. We need you. All of you. There is something each and every one of you can do.”
Members of SOLAS are committed to promoting goals like Friedman’s.
“We put on events to educate other students, we volunteer our time [and] we fundraise for causes we feel passionate about, including Breaking Free services,” Panning said. “We are currently working on a campaign to make St. Olaf a more fairtrade-friendly campus and increasing our consumer awareness.”
While SOLAS remains a young student organization, the interest in Friedman’s talk bodes well for the group’s success at building an important presence on campus. Those interested in learning more about SOLAS should attend one of the organization’s weekly meetings, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. in BC 220. To learn more about the work of Breaking Free, students can visit http://www.breakingfree.net.
Photo Credit: BEKAH ENGSTRAND/MANITOU MESSENGER