ST. PAUL — An estimated 5,000 Minnesota high school students report that they have exchanged sex for something of value, according to an analysis released Monday, Jan. 27, by the Minnesota Department of Health and University of Minnesota researchers.

The state for the first time last year asked high school students as part of the Minnesota Student Survey whether they had traded sex for money, food, drugs, alcohol, a place to stay or something else of value. Minnesota is believed to be the first state in the nation to ask such a question of public school students.

Of the ninth and 11th grade students who took the survey, 1.4% said they'd had sex in exchange for one of the listed items. And from there, health experts determined that around 5,000 Minnesota high school students (at a minimum) had been subject to exploitation, based on that proportion factored across the census estimate for 15- to 19-year-olds in the state.

Under state law, minors who've been subject to sexual activity in exchange for an item of value or promise of such an item, are eligible for public health services and are exempt from prostitution charges. And that exchange when it involves someone 24 years or younger who engaged in, agreed to engage in or was coerced into sexual contact is considered sexual exploitation.

"This confirms, frankly, what community leaders on the ground have known for a while. This is happening here in Minnesota and it is harming our young people," Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. "It's a real wakeup call."

Transgender, Native American students report higher rates of exploitation

The identities of the students polled remain anonymous, but students' self-reported gender and race, as well as the geographic region where they live, were tracked in the survey. And the results showed that boys and girls surveyed reported similar rates of exploitation, 1.2% and 1.3% respectively.

Transgender students and students unsure about their gender identity reported higher rates of sexual exploitation, with 5.9% transgender students reporting they'd traded sex for something of value, and 3.3% of students unsure about their gender identity reporting they'd been exploited.

Native American students reported the highest rates of exploitation compared to their peers of different races, at 3.1%, followed by African American students at 1.7%, Latino and Latina students at 1.5% and white students at 1.2%.

Students in Northern Minnesota, and particularly Northwestern Minnesota, reported the highest rates of exploitation of any geographic area at 2%. And those in juvenile correctional facilities, as well as students who'd been in foster care, also reported higher rates of sexual exploitation.

While it was too early to know what resources the state might need to combat the exploitation, Malcolm said the department likely would make an ask of lawmakers as they write their next budget in 2021.

And for now, the survey data could also help inform how the state and other groups make available their resources for survivors and educational materials for students, caregivers, teachers and others.

"We can use this information to guide our programs, to reach the youth that we may not have previously been reaching," Beatriz Menanteau, with the department's Violence Prevention Programs Unit, said. "We are beginning to be able to count what we were not able to count before but what we knew was happening."

The health experts encouraged caregivers to talk to children about healthy and unhealthy relationships, and about consent. They also urged young people in need of help to reach out to the Department of Health, a regional navigator or the Day One crisis hotline at 1-866-223-1111.