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Sex Trafficking in South Dakota: A University Perspective

When you think of sex trafficking, most people think of bigger cities—places that are likely to have a lot of visitors all the time, or for certain events. South Dakota usually isn’t the first state you’d think of to be a hub for human trafficking. But there are a few characteristics that make South Dakota a potential environment for trafficking.
“In this state, Native women and children are at higher risk than any other racial groups, so trafficking is actually happening on the reservations,” Suzuki says.
Dr. Yumi Suzuki is an assistant criminal justice professor at the University of South Dakota. Suzuki’s research usually focuses on rape victims, but has recently become interested in sex trafficking when she connected with Dr. Elizabeth Talbot who does research on trafficking.
“Rape is obviously involved, and sex trafficking, there’s a variety of elements that overlap with violent crimes, so that’s how I got interested in pursuing this topic, especially in this region because I think there’s a lack of awareness about this issue, and that makes the victims of trafficking more vulnerable,” Suzuki says.
Suzuki says it’s common for victims of trafficking not to seek help because they feel trapped or don’t think law enforcement officials will believe them. For her research, Suzuki says she’s collected data from first responders and health care providers to see if they’re knowledgeable enough to identify signs of trafficking.
“There are a number of reoccurring injuries, especially reproductive injuries, recurring STD’s, unwanted pregnancies,” she says.
While some of the identification of trafficking relies on healthcare professionals, there are other ways to address the issue. In her criminology course, Suzuki says she discusses human and sex trafficking in South Dakota. She says most students aren’t aware of it happening in the state.
“The first response from students was, “Oh, I didn’t know this was a problem. I thought it was a problem in New York or Chicago, just big cities but not in South Dakota.” So, again, self-awareness about this issue is a key point, and that was done. The next stage, next response, was it’s really deplorable, what can we do? I think nowadays, young people especially college students are really passionate about getting involved and solving issues in practical ways,” Suzuki says.
Suzuki says some of her students have talked about becoming lawyers who will work with international victims, while others plan to address the issue on the legislative level. Brooke Horner is a junior at USD. Horner has an interest in what is leading to an increase of trafficking and sexual assault in our culture. A native of South Dakota, she says she can understand why human trafficking isn’t talked about in our state.
“I think people are really surprised because I know South Dakota is the sixth largest state that has the worst human trafficking problem, in the United States. I think people are really surprised because we do peg ourselves as more conservative state, more wholesome, so they don’t want to think that this is happening within South Dakota,” Horner says.
While South Dakotans might not be open to talking about sex trafficking, Horner says sex is discussed a lot on a college campus, and it’s not surprising given how our society views sex and pornography.
“As young women, we grow up and we do see these provocative ads of ladies and we deem that as normal. Your whole life while you’re growing up and see women dressed provocatively, it becomes normalized to you. So pornography, that also becomes normalized because why can’t you use someone for their outer appearance? It’s degrading the human soul, the dignity of a person,” she says.
Horner says she’s done research on the relationship between the normalization of pornography and the increase of human trafficking. She says she believes there is correlation between the two.
“Pornography is becoming more accessible and it’s not feeding the need anymore. Men and even women want something more. So they turn to these public sites, like Craigslist, that are advertising these women who very well might be in the human sex trafficking ring. It’s feeding the need, or the desires, of our culture,” Horner says.
Horner says preventing sex trafficking starts with education, like what type of person the traffickers are looking for and how to identify the signs of trafficking. Professor Yumi Suzuki says the university level is a great place to start, where there are numerous avenues to address sex trafficking.
“This is a really great environment, because we have, in proximity, the medical school, the law school and the main campus here. And, human trafficking requires multi-sector, multi-disciplines approaches to solve it, so we could all collaborate. Obviously medical school, they could actually train medical students to be aware of signs of trafficked victims. Law school, maybe some students are already showing interest in going into immigration and human rights law, they could actually emphasize those two things to fight against human trafficking,” Suzuki says.
Suzuki says she hopes South Dakota will implement better human trafficking laws and create a state-wide curriculum to train law enforcement officers. Suzuki and Horner both agree that the most critical step to combating sex trafficking is increasing awareness throughout the state.