Not Entirely a World Apart

Sgt. Grant Snyder, lead investigator for sex trafficking, spoke to the crowd at Simley High School about what sex trafficking looks like and who the victims are. (Hannah Burlingame photos/Review)

It doesn’t seem like something that would occur here: young boys and girls lured into the dark world known as sex trafficking. 

Unfortunately, it does happen.

On Thursday, Feb. 18, Minneapolis Police Sgt. Grant Snyder addressed an audience of roughly 50 people in Simley High School’s auditorium about this very topic at an event sponsored by the Inver Grove Heights Ministerial Association with cooperative support from School District 199, the Inver Grove Heights Police Department and the Dakota County Sheriff.

Snyder has combated sex trafficking for about the past 16 years.

“One of the really neat things about being able to go to places like Inver Grove Heights is that it really convinces me that law enforcement and communities have all made the decision that sex trafficking, the safety of our children and freeing those people that are oppressed by things they shouldn’t have to be oppressed by, is really become a priority,” Snyder said. 

Snyder is lead investigator for all human sex trafficking cases handled by the Minneapolis Police Department. He also works in close collaboration with the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations.  

What it actually looks like 

Snyder said most people’s experience with sex trafficking is built on information that they get from movies, television and social media. 

They have not had the heartbreaking experiences Snyder has had of sitting across from a victim of sex trafficking.

An example Snyder gave to illustrate the public’s misperceptions was the 2008 movie “Taken,” in which a girl is abducted in Paris by sex slavers, and her father attempts to rescue her before she is auctioned off in Albania.

While the film shows what sex trafficking might look like in Eastern Europe, Snyder said the reality of the human sex trade in the United States is quite different.

Snyder said there aren’t too many cases of women with arms bound and chained to beds in basements, as was depicted in the movie.

He raised the question of what reality is being perpetuated: is it a perspective that is coming from the media covering an occasional sensational case, or one that matches victims’ actual experiences?

“Why is that important? Well, why that’s important is because if we’re looking for hands bound and children placed in closets, then we’re going to miss the reality that the biggest single indicator that we see with regards to trafficking is a [teen] runaway,” Snyder said. 

The population of homeless and runaway kids is the most vulnerable to human sex trafficking, both when they are young and forced into prostitution, and late entry into adult human trafficking. 

Sometimes when Snyder pulls a young sex trafficking victim out of a hotel room, he said the girl isn’t crying. At that moment, she might be happy she is there.

“The bad things that have happened to her may be pushed aside, because, guess what, she ran away from something to get to that room,” Snyder said.

One thing that comes up over and over again in cases Snyder has worked is a history of sexual abuse or assault in childhood.

Powerful drug

Snyder says he has investigated probably 1,000 cases where sex buyers, or johns, thought what they were doing might have been helping the girls, because they needed money.

“I think that’s an incredibly ridiculous place to go with that,” Snyder told the audience.

He explained that pimps tell their victims what they want to hear. Snyder said this includes things like “You’re so beautiful” or “I’m never going to love anybody like I love you.”

For kids who have been rejected by their family, and told they aren’t worthy or that nobody wants them, they suddenly have someone telling them they mean something. That can be a powerful drug, Snyder said.

Money and secrecy

“Sex trafficking exists because traffickers make money. If we could somehow, tomorrow, turn off a switch and no man in the United States or anywhere in the world could buy commercial sex, we’d eradicate sex trafficking,” Snyder said.

Traffickers aren’t going to put somebody on a street corner or in a hotel room if they aren’t making money, he said. But being a money-driven industry also helps law enforcement agencies better understand how to attack it.

Secrecy is another key element of sex trafficking. The public might see what looks like modeling ads on Craigslist and not realize some are actually sex ads. Snyder said that the amateur pornography industry is another way sex trafficking hides its activities.

Snyder said the world is saturated with social media. These methods of staying connected also open up new avenues for sex traffickers to find victims.

“In the past six months, every single trafficking case that I’ve worked has a Facebook nexus to it. Every single one,” Snyder said.

Much of what kids do on social media is hidden from parents. These platforms, such as Snapchat or Kik, do not always leave a trail of evidence.


Keeping the victims in mind

Snyder said it’s important to keep victim perspectives in mind. He recommended the public to read Holly Austin Smith’s book “Walking Prey: How America’s Youth Are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery.” Smith was a victim of sex trafficking when she was 14. Throughout the book, she weaves in her own experiences, giving a firsthand account of what it was like to be a victim of sex trafficking. 

“One of the big problems we have today is [that] our ability to relate to that kind of world is somewhat limited,” Snyder said.

Snyder said it has become a priority to convince young boys and girls that they are victims. Often, they have been manipulated into thinking they chose to become prostitutes. 

In her book, Smith admits that for several years after she was rescued from the sex trade, she was haunted by thoughts that it was her choice and her doing. She didn’t see herself as a victim.

Snyder said victims of sex trafficking are often complicated, distrusting, challenging to work with, potentially uncooperative, difficult to like and in need of a variety of services.

But these young people are also brave, survival-oriented and resourceful. 


Hannah Burlingame can be reached at or 651-748-7824.


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