Q&A: Nicole Matthews and Guadalupe Lopez of Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition

Image of a Native American woman covered with a red robe.

A new report released in October by Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition paints a grim but thorough portrait of the dangers facing Native women involved in prostitution. Based on interviews with 105 prostituted Minnesota women ages 18-60, “Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota” also explores the relationship between sexual trafficking and women’s earlier experiences of youth homelessness and trauma.

NCFY spoke to Nicole Matthews and Guadalupe Lopez, two of the study’s authors, to learn more about their findings as well as the role that youth workers can play in combating sexual violence.

NCFY: What correlation did you find between prostitution and youth experience? What kinds of formative experiences did these women share?

Nicole Matthews: Child sexual abuse was probably the number one correlation. A large number of our interviewees were victimized as children, by an average of four perpetrators.

And connected to that, most of them (98 percent) were runaway or homeless as young people. They ran away because there was sexual abuse in the home, and then they had nowhere to go and no means of supporting themselves.

Guadalupe Lopez: The person who picks them up has that power to say, “Oh you can just come sleep here,” and often there’s an unspoken expectation of “Well, you know what you’ll have to do for that…” And the girls don’t always identify that as prostitution.

NCFY:  What role do you see youth workers playing in the solution to this problem?

Matthews: I think they need to get better at addressing childhood sexual abuse. They need to know the risk factors and red flags—that goes for teachers, educators, anyone who is coming in contact with youth.

We need to also get better at talking with men and boys, so not all the onus for change falls on girls and women. We need healthy and respectful children of both genders, so it’s not considered a rite of passage for young men to buy a prostitute, for example.

Youth workers, sexual assault workers—we all need to get educated on sexual abuse and trafficking. A lot of times we just don’t know how to talk about it. So women and kids who are used in prostitution don’t bring it up when they come in to our programs.

NCFY: What kind of cultural competence training needs to be in place for youth workers to properly serve Native girls and women?

Lopez: It’s a hard question because we’re all so different: it depends on what Tribe you’re from, and whether you were raised on a reservation or in an urban area. But all service providers need to check their own biases and stereotypes at the door. Organizations should avoid “tokenizing” Native people or asking inappropriate questions—though asking respectfully is always good.

Matthews: The women we interviewed really wanted to speak with other Native women; when they’re talking about victimization, they don’t want to have to explain everything about their context and history as well.

NCFY: What kinds of collaborations would you like to see in response to this problem?

Matthews: Youth-serving agencies should be talking to homeless shelters and sexual assault programs. They should be talking to substance abuse programs and domestic violence shelters. These services are all related, and they all correspond to sexual trafficking of Native women, so those core systems need to be talking to each other and working a lot closer.

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