A study released this week in Washington says the sexual exploitation of girls online is growing in Minnesota.
Testimony on Capitol Hill said online ads for underage girls in the state may have grown by more than 60 percent since February alone -- and could be among the fastest growing in the nation.
While the online classified site Craigslist said yesterday that it was permanently banning online sex ads -- ads that critics say are contributing to child sex trafficking in the U.S. -- experts are saying the online trend has already been growing wildly, and perhaps nowhere as quickly as in Minnesota.
Deborah Richardson, program officer with the San Francisco-based Women's Funding Network, told a House Judiciary Committee panel in Washington on Wednesday that three states stood out in a recent study done by Women's Funding Network.
“I think a lot of us just want to put our heads in the sand and can't believe that girls in our state are being prostituted.”Lee Roper-Batker, Women's Foundation of Minnesota
Over the past six months, she said, the number of underage girls trafficked online rose a 'staggering' 64.7 in Minnesota. Michigan and New York saw 39 percent and 21 percent increases, respectively.
The study is the third version of an online survey done by Atlanta-based Schapiro Group.
The Women's Funding Network paid the research firm to track the online ads over the past year, most recently in August. The Network is a group of 170 non-profit organizations worldwide.
Those organizations include the Women's Foundation of Minnesota which urged researchers to include Minnesota in the four-state survey.
Schapiro conducted similar surveys in February and May. The latest numbers date from just weeks ago.
"I think a lot of us just want to put our heads in the sand and can't believe that girls in our state are being prostituted," said Lee Roper-Batker, the foundation's president. "But unfortunately, it happens and its growing."
The study combed through more than 7,000 internet ads in Minnesota in August and estimated by looking at pictures and studying the ads that there were 112 different girls under 18 being offered online, up from 68 in February.
Despite that growth, the total number in Minnesota pales in comparison to other states. Researchers found what looked like more than 3,400 underage girls in online sex ads in New York. Georgia and Michigan were the other states in the study.
The study found Minnesota had the fewest number of girls online, making the data much more subject to wide fluctuation -- a possible explanation for the state's growth.
And Minnesota has long played an over-sized role in prostitution lore: a legendary "Minnesota Strip" in midtown Manhattan was purportedly a destination for runaways in the late 1970s -- to the point that People Magazine had a story about it, although actual examples proved difficult to find.
Nonetheless, the Minnesota Women's Foundation is hoping this new study will draw more attention to the problem from law enforcement, the courts and policy makers.
Federal and local authorities who fight child sex exploitation said they share that goal, although they say they can't corroborate the study's specific findings.
Federal officials say they've seen a spike in exploitation case volumes as the Department of Justice has ramped up its Project Safe Childhood initiative -- although that includes a wider variety of crimes, including child pornography and child sex tourism.
St. Paul Police Sgt. John Bandemer, who monitors online vice closely, says his day-to-day experience reflects the study's statistics.
"Because of the online atmosphere, there is more of it happening," he said.
He attributes it to a number of factors.
Bandemer says the sex industry may be making a final transition to a virtual market, supplanting street-based and phone-based prostitution.
Bandemer says the recession is driving more people into the underground economy, and teenage girls are no exception.
But he also says the anonymous nature of the internet and a changing culture has also proven to be a lure of its own to women and girls, who wouldn't have even imagined prostitution otherwise.
"We're still out there, searching for the women who are not doing it on their own, that are being forced to do it," he said. "I don't want my message to get mixed and say that prostitution is happening because people want it to happen and nobody cares. There are still a lot of people that are exploited and forced into that kind of activity."
Beth Schapiro said her Atlanta company is planning to track the trend quarterly. Her researchers print out ads and statistically analyze what they find for the report.
"It's not fun work," she said.
But it is rare documentation of one of the Internet's darkest corners.