by Darren Diekmann
Melissa Brenny of Sauk Rapids has taken every opportunity to make use of her platform as the reigning Mrs. Minnesota America. When asked to speak, she chooses the topic to which she feels a particular duty — sex trafficking.
She was especially pleased to speak Jan. 25 to the senior class at Sartell-St. Stephen High School because it included a visit with fellow and sister devotees of the cause — the school’s Students Against Trafficking Club.
The StAT Club is lead by senior Emma Zenzen, who invited Brenny to speak with the idea that the topic of sex trafficking would fit in with the senior class’s instruction this past January on the topic of sexual assault.
“I wanted a reason for her to talk to the entire senior class and this was the perfect time for that to happen so she related some of her talk to that,” Zenzen said.
The two (sexual assault and sex trafficking) are connected in that in an atmosphere where assault is prevalent there is also a disregard for women that also allows for an acceptance of trafficking. Abuse creates vulnerable young women who are more easily preyed upon by traffickers, Zenzen explained.
When Brenny spoke to the Sartell seniors, they listened to her with unusual quietness and respect. She attributed it to both the surprise over the revelation of how prolific the problem is and how young the girls are, as well as the discomfort the topic causes many people.
“One of the things I think is so important to emphasize is that it’s happening here, in this area,” Brenny said. It’s important for people to be aware trafficking occurs by such an alarming number of teenage prostitutes and customers or ‘Johns’,” she said.
Brenny distinguished between trafficked prostitutes, those who are pressured against their will, and those who prostitute willfully. The majority are believed to be trafficked.
Citing a video produced by WJON Radio, Brenny told the class the average age of a girl entering prostitution is 13. Of the 200 or so prostitutes in the area, 60 percent are underage. And traffickers or pimps target the homeless, the abused and otherwise vulnerable teens.
An actual manual exists to instruct traffickers on how to manipulate teenage girls into prostitution, Brenny said. The traffickers gain power over a teenage girl by first befriending and helping her and thus gaining her trust. Then they isolate her and create dependence.
Before speaking to the seniors, Brenny met informally with the StAT Club and was happy to see that, unlike many students, they were informed about the issue, having accessed some of the same resources as herself.
The StAT members were aware of the Central Minnesota Sexual Assault Center and its need for volunteers. They were also familiar with a women’s advocacy company called My Sister. And like Brenny that day, many in the group were wearing the same T-shirt sold by My Sister that reads, “Stop Trafficking.”
The group was unaware there is a local sex-trafficking task force. Brenny was able to inform them that it was comprised of local area police departments – Sartell, St. Joseph, St. Cloud, Sauk Rapids, Waite Park and Cold Spring.
Jaren Martin, a StAT Club member, said he loved what Brenny had to say and was impressed with her motivation to speak out on such a difficult topic.
“She was a fantastic speaker,” Martin said. “Her speaking has inspired me to find my own platform and help educate the people around me and my family.”
Martin said Brenny’s visit has motivated other members of the club to volunteer at the Sexual Assault Center and the new Terebinth Refuge, which was the subject of an article in the Jan. 6 issue of the Sartell-St. Stephen Newsleader.