National anti-human trafficking legislation that passed at the end of April is a big deal.

Formerly relegated to the shadows, human trafficking – more specifically, sex trafficking in our part of the country – has been exposed as a malignant blight on society to be eradicated rather than an ugly spot here or there to be ignored. Frankly, we’re surprised we ever thought differently. Yet, what seems obvious today wasn’t obvious a few years back, nor was there much societal or legislative interest in traversing the nasty, steep learning curve on sex trafficking.

Wasn’t trafficking simply the latest version of the world’s oldest profession?

Well, not exactly. Sex trafficking is as much related to archaic terms, such as “involuntary servitude” and “debt bondage” and “slavery” as it is to plain old prostitution. However, it took time to get to that understanding. In North Dakota, we learned as state leaders and advocacy groups brought visibility to the problem, and we learned through media, such as Kevin Wallevand’s WDAY special report, “Bakken’s Dirty Little Secret: Sex Trafficking.”

But we didn’t reach the tipping point without national leadership. Former U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Tim Purdon was at the forefront of educating law enforcement to the unusual nature of sex trafficking – including its possible connections to organized crime – and calling for cooperation with social service agencies. And U.S. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., were like the proverbial dog with a bone. When they took hold of the issue, they did not let go.

Let me hasten to add that all four U.S. senators from North Dakota and Minnesota – Heitkamp, John Hoeven, Klobuchar, and Al Franken – had their names on the anti-trafficking legislation that passed, and they all should be applauded. Still, it’s the tenacity of Klobuchar and Heitkamp that stands out.

An important provision brought to the anti-trafficking legislation by Klobuchar was modeled after Minnesota’s “Safe Harbor” law. The provision recognizes that trafficked underage sex workers are children being exploited rather than juvenile offenders – children who belong in protective services, not in jail. They are treated as victims instead of as criminals. They also can seek financial restitution from the perpetrators who trafficked them and are able to participate in Job Corps programs.

Heitkamp was instrumental in holding the first Senate hearing on trafficking in 2013. At the hearing she said that traffickers “prey upon our homeless, our abused, our young women and children, our Native women and children, our immigrant communities … those on the margins of our society who we all are at fault for overlooking and ignoring.” She placed trafficking squarely under the umbrella of human rights abuses and held many forums and conversations on the subject back home.

Perhaps Heitkamp as former North Dakota attorney general and Klobuchar as former county attorney for Hennepin County were in tune to the process of identifying, investigating and prosecuting traffickers and their networks because the concept of sex trafficking was not alien to them the way it was to most of us. They’d seen it before. That also may explain why they view the cost of human trafficking not only in terms of their own states and the nation but also the world.

In North Dakota and Minnesota, the pervasiveness of sex trafficking goes against our notion of who we are; still, we’ve come a long way on the learning curve for why getting rid of it must be prioritized.

With a new state law in North Dakota and a new national law, we have a good chance for success. Time to thank the leaders who got us there.