FARGO – Danielle John spent five years working in the sex trade.

She was branded with tattoos by her pimp and went from town to town, working in strip joints and escort services, forced to have sex for money.

She had two children by the man who controlled her thoughts.

“I felt so broken down and useless. I was so broken, I could just not leave,” John said.

But break free, she did. Five years later, she is in control of her life, she told attendees at “Light for Freedom: Shining a Light in the Darkness of Sex Trafficking,” at the Fargo Theater.

John said her story is similar to that of many others caught up in the sex trade. She and other members of Sunday’s panel discussion told nearly 100 in the audience that raising public awareness to the problem is vital.

“The big challenge for us, is first and foremost, to make people aware this is happening,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. “We are ground zero for making the changes we need to make.”

Most people in the sex trade “are not there willingly,” and were often lured into the lifestyle as

children, Heitkamp said.

She wants more prosecutions of Johns and a way to make web sites accountable for the sex trade ads they display.

Heitkamp, who is working on the issue at the national level, also hopes the state Legislature enacts measures to fight trafficking, including:

  •  Providing more resources to prosecute pimps and the Johns who buy sex and target children;
  • Enacting a Safe Harbor law to help underage victims of sex trafficking;
  • Funding for shelter and treatment of victims.

Erin Prochnow, executive director of the YWCA of Cass-Clay, says the organization’s women’s shelter has seen the problems of sex trafficking for some time, she said.

The agency’s biggest need is funding to supply services to victims, Prochnow said.

“A person trafficked needs three to four times the hours as other domestic violence victims,” Prochnow said. “I believe we have the expertise,” but money is the challenge.”

West Fargo Police Detective Terry Styf, who works with juveniles, said pimps use “sextortion,” to gain control of victims. They’ll use a nude photo of inappropriate text to blackmail young people to do their will.

He urged people to get involved to prevent that victimization.

“If you see something that’s not quite right,” Styf said. “Don’t be afraid to call” police.

Christina Sambor, project coordinator of the North Dakota anti-sex trafficking group FUSE (Force to End Sexual Exploitation), said it’s important to challenge the impression that prostitution is a victimless crime.

She, too, would like to see North Dakota enact a Safe Harbor law to help juveniles in the sex trade.

She’d also hopes a way can be created to expunge criminal records for young people lured into prostitution, so they can have a chance at a normal life.

Mary Jo Hotzler, vice president of content for Forum Communications, moderated the event, which included an outtake from “Chosen,” a documentary on sex trafficking.

Panel members also praised The Forum’s recently completed series, “Trafficked,” for shining a light on just how widespread the problem is not only in the boomtowns of the Bakken oil country, but throughout the region.

That series, and other material, is online at www.traffickedreport.com.

Heitkamp said a drug dealer will sell a kilogram of heroin one time, but she said one young sex trafficking victim was sold 40 times in a weekend.

“We must change the dynamic,” Heitkamp said.

“Wouldn’t it be fun if we had a John registry?” Heitkamp asked, drawing applause.

“This is standing up for the most abused victims in America,” Heitkamp said. “If we can’t get behind this, I don’t know what we can get behind.”

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