ST. CLOUD -- At least 5,000 high school-age youth around the state have traded sex for money, drugs, alcohol, food, a place to stay or another item of value at some point in their lives.

That's according to a recently-completed study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health. The department added a question to the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, asking students in grades nine and 11 whether they've traded sex for something of value.

1.4% of survey-takers responded "yes." Boys and girls were almost evenly impacted.

Rebecca Kotz of the Central Minnesota Sexual Assault Center says, in reality, the number is likely higher.

“The tough part with measuring the prevalence of this issue is that the statistics are self-reported," said Kotz. "Most people who have been sexually exploited or trafficked do not self-identify. Most of the data out there is really, really conservative.”

Kotz says rates of exploitation in youth were shown to be higher in rural areas than in the Twin Cities metro.

"I think that really confirms what we've been saying," she said. "This isn't just a city problem; this is a problem everywhere and it's happening in our communities."

The Central Minnesota Sexual Assault Center is tackling the issue through curriculum called Not A #Number. The five-part program, launched last year, is geared toward ages 12 to 18. Kotz says it teaches participants how to spot and address sexually exploitative situations and other difficult topics.

"The program doesn't silo all of the surrounding issues," Kotz explained. "It talks a lot about things everyone can relate to, whether it's healthy relationships, consent, boundaries and red flags in relationships – along with exploitation and abuse."

The curriculum also shows participants how to recognize troubling situations in their peers and offers advice on how to find help.

Kotz says her organization has offered the curriculum to area schools, after-school programs, group homes and other facilities – and it's been well-received.

"(Kids) look forward to the sessions," she said. "We're seeing people of all gender identities disclosing. People are recognizing that this isn't something only happening to young girls. This can happen to anybody."

To learn more about Not a #Number, visit their website. To contact the Central Minnesota Sexual Assault Center, call (320) 251-4357.