Sex trafficking continues to be an issue of significant concern facing Oregonians today. Though many of the resources are centered in Portland, it is runaways from more affluent areas including Corvallis who feed this particular pipeline.
The majority of the victims of sex trafficking are under the age of 25. Contrary to popular belief, sex trafficking includes any form of forced prostitution. It does not imply physically moving the victim across state lines or exploiting her or him in any other way.
Locals know that Portland contains more strip clubs and sex shops than virtually any major city in the continental US. What many do not know is that the majority of workers in these clubs do not keep all or even most of their money. In reality, these women are likely to be exploited, denied union wages, and fired upon attempting to unionize. Many must give over their wages to pimps or other so-called “boyfriends” who exert various degrees of control over these women’s lives.
Esther Nelson created Safety Compass, a local organization aimed at helping survivors navigate available resources and avenues towards justice. Safety Compass is unique in that it aims to help survivors in Corvallis and nearby cities, closing the prior gap between resources in Portland and surrounding rural areas.
Nelson explained that while “Portland is its own continuum of care, that care is specific to the needs of Portland. The amount of resources are very different in rural areas.”
Safety Compass supports survivors via emergency response advocacy at law enforcement request, using advocacy to identify survivors’ greatest needs then operating like a compass to “help people navigate the system.” This includes explaining options like restraining orders and support groups.
Nelson described risk factors such as violence in the home, a past that includes stints in foster care, as well as teens who have run away from abusive situations.
Approximately 90 percent of victims are recruited via social media; perpetrators use a variety of social networking sites to “fish” for victims, seeking those with distant relationships with their guardians or histories of involvement with juvenile detention or the foster care system. Statistics suggest that 68 percent of youth who are sex-trafficked are wards of the state or have been involved in the child welfare system.
Nelson explained that there is no benefit to be gained in trying to narrow down a description of pimps, because pimps will simply change their image in a chameleon-like manner. However, johns, the individuals who pay to victimize those who are sex-trafficked, do fit a basic profile. They function according to their need for power and control. Most have access to consensual sex; rather, what they want is the experience of domination and manipulation.
This is why “what sells in the industry is vulnerability,” said Nelson.
Many pimps respond to this customer demand by deliberately recruiting youth. That’s why organizations like Safety Compass have begun programs that include speaking with local students at the middle school, high school, and college levels. They come at the request of administration or teachers, presenting programs carefully designed to meet the needs of their audience. This includes teaching warning signs of teen dating violence, as well as educating youth in healthy boundaries.
The commonly held stereotype of an empowered, sexually liberated sex worker who enters the trade by choice in America is largely that: a stereotype. These stereotypes continue to plague both law enforcement and the wider community. Thus efforts to protect these individuals continue to stumble over the understandable confusion of those in a position to help.
Other options for those seeking to escape sex trafficking include women-centered services such as women’s shelters and domestic violence organizations. Though many of these organizations also serve men, this aspect is less well-known and thus these services are less widely accessed.
By Ariadne Wolf