Study: Most Minn. sex buyers are married, white men with disposable income

Updated: 2:55 p.m. | Posted: 1:36 p.m.

The profile of someone who purchases sex in Minnesota might be surprising to those who aren't engrossed in the issue, according to a study released Wednesday by researchers at the University of Minnesota's Urban Research Outreach-Engagement Center, or UROC.

The research found that those buying sex in Minnesota are predominantly white, married men, between the ages of 30 and 50, who have a disposable income.

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"People purchasing sex are part of the fabric of our state," said Lauren Martin, lead author of the study, titled Mapping the Demand: Sex Buyers in Minnesota. "They're community leaders, they're sometimes police officers or other people in authority. This is not a group of people who are distinct from mainstream society."

The men who are buying sex live everywhere in the state, the study found. But to maintain anonymity, tend to travel between 30 and 60 miles to purchase sex, usually during the work day.

"A lot of people might presume that sex buying is something that happens at night, at bars or something," said Martin, who's also UROC's research director. "But we really see it anchored around that workday."

Researchers also concluded that most people purchase sex through the internet. They identified 37 different websites in this study, although Martin conceded that's just the tip of the iceberg. Other buyers solicit sex in person, or find it through word-of-mouth networks.

The report did not attempt to quantify the number of men in the state who purchase sex.

However, a recent national study estimated that about 14 percent of men in the U.S. report having paid for sex, with 1 percent having done so during the previous year.

In Minnesota, that means about 26,000 men may have purchased sex in the past year.

But very few of those men were arrested. Researchers said it's likely that law enforcement has identified fewer than 1 percent of people who have purchased sex in the state.

Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Superintendent Drew Evans said a key goal for law enforcement is to disrupt trafficking rings.

"But more importantly, we need to work to drive down the demand. If the demand is not there, there will be no marketplace for the supply," Evans said.

The BCA added eight new agents last year to focus on sex exploitation of children and human trafficking. It now has 19 agents stationed around the state. In the first half of this year the agency has more than doubled the number of investigations compared to last year.

Funded by the Women's Foundation of Minnesota as part of its Minnesota Girls Are Not For Sale campaign, it's a follow-up to a 2014 study that focused on the overall market for juvenile sex trafficking specifically in Minneapolis.

Most of the research on sex trafficking to this point has focused on victims and the commercial trafficking networks that support the activity. But there's very little solid research about the people who purchase sex, Martin said.

Researchers did not interview sex buyers to reach their findings. Rather, they relied on more than 150 interviews with law enforcement, prosecutors and social service workers around the region with first-hand knowledge of the sex trafficking marketplace.

Martin said a logical follow-up study would focus on buyers themselves, but she said it was first necessary to develop a broad understanding of the sex market across the state.

"This study is key to creating targeted strategies to disrupt the sex-trafficking market, end the demand and decrease gender-based violence," said Mary Beth Hanson, vice president of external relations with the Women's Foundation of Minnesota.

"To be successful, we must educate and engage boys and men as leaders in this movement," she said, "and commit to a future of safety, opportunity and respect for all girls and women in Minnesota."

Minnesota is at the forefront nationally in its efforts to fight sex trafficking. A couple years ago it changed the law to treat trafficked girls and boys as victims, not criminals. The state is also spending 13 million dollars to improve services. It now provides 40 beds across the state for sexually exploited youth.

But to really tackle the issue, Lauren Ryan, Safe Harbor Director at the Minnesota Department of Health, says the state must somehow reach those who are purchasing sex.

"We need to find better ways to dissuade them," Ryan said. "And that can be done through education, [raising] awarenesss and changing the cultural norms that say it is acceptable in our society to purchase another human being for sex."