Of the arrests made by the Portland Police Bureau’s human trafficking unit, 85% result in only a solicitation charge. That’s according to a new investigation by reporter Karina Brown in an article published by Willamette Week. Brown wrote about how these arrests may be reducing the safety of sex workers, rather than actually reducing human trafficking.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. We start today with a conversation about sex work and human trafficking. Karina Brown is a reporter for Courthouse News. She wrote a story in Willamette Week about one particular sting set up by the Portland Police Bureau. Police say the sting, like more than 100 similar ones over the last few years, was intended to prevent the exploitation of people who are forced into sex work. But sex workers who do the job voluntarily say these undercover operations are making them less safe. Karina Brown, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Karina Brown: Hi Dave, thanks for having me.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. So you started this recent article with the story of this Portland Police bureau sting that snared Dave Hunt, the former Democratic politician. But besides the fact that he was a prominent figure in the Oregon political establishment, it seems that what happened to him was not all that uncommon in Portland. How do these stings work?
Brown: Police put up ads on what they call, in affidavits, “known trafficking websites.” These are places where sex workers advertise. And then people, like Dave Hunt and as you mentioned about 100 other people over the last couple of years, answer these ads, thinking they’re setting up arrangements to pay for sex. There’s nothing in the ad about anyone being under age or under force or duress to be there. And then they show up to a hotel and police arrest them.
Miller: What normally happens after that, in terms of the criminal justice process?
Brown: For the most part, people plead guilty to commercial sexual solicitation, which is a misdemeanor. It can carry a jail sentence, but that pleading guilty allows people to simply pay a fine, $1000, to attend what the city calls the Sex Buyers Accountability and Diversion program. The DA’s office talks about it, the police talk about it, as the John School. That’s a seven hour program, it’s held in one day for each group of people attending, where police and the District Attorney’s office basically tell people who tried to buy sex that that is innately harmful to sex workers.
I saw the slides for the curriculum for this class, and it’s all based on this idea that that all sex work is harmful, which is the idea that police and the DA’s office are preceding from in their attempt to prosecute these crimes.
Miller: How do they, whether it’s police or prosecutors, how do they explain and justify their policy of stings?
Brown: They say that it’s critical to end the demand for these kinds of services. They tie the demand for sexual services to human trafficking. They say that forced sex work or human trafficking is basically like a market response. It’s a type of crime that will increase if there’s more demand for these services. Sex workers, on the other hand, say that this kind of demand has always been around, will always be around, and what they actually need is labor protections, and to not fear these kinds of stings and to not fear the police.
Miller: You got a pretty telling quote that really gets to the heart of this from Bianca Beebe, a sex worker who pushes for the decriminalization of sex work, as a co-chair of the Oregon Sex Workers’ Project. She said this to you:
“Violence is a problem. But what I would encourage police to do is listen to what sex workers want. Policing us makes the problem worse.”
Can you help us understand her argument? How is violence against sex workers more likely if police go after some of the men who patronize them? If they, as you explained, try to reduce demand?
Brown: Basically police, when they set up these things, they have no idea who these people who are responding to their ads are. And the people responding aren’t responding to anything that makes it sound like a forced situation or an underage situation. So they’re just catching this broad swath of people who might otherwise be clients for for sex workers who are doing their jobs voluntarily.
The main character, kind of, in my story, a sex worker who said Dave Hunt was their long term client, explained that in this case, what this sting did was it scared away a safe client, a safe and reliable regular client, and it caused them to have to go back out and look for new clients. And then looking for new clients is something - a lot of sex workers, they have these these systems to try to vet new clients, to try to make sure that people they’re meeting for the first time are safe. That can involve getting references from other sex workers. It can involve making sure they know exactly who this person is by verifying their identity. And these are the kinds of things that new clients are scared to provide under an atmosphere created by these kinds of stings. So these strings, they take away safe clients, and they also make getting new clients in a safe way harder.
Miller: Did police or prosecutors that you talked to respond to this particular criticism, that these things are doing what you just outlined? Scaring away the “good clients,” and in so doing, making it more dangerous for sex workers who might be more likely then to encounter, say violent clients?
Brown: The lieutenant who runs the human trafficking unit now, and also JR Ujifusa, who is the Assistant District Attorney who is in charge of prosecuting these cases, they both said that, from their perspective, most sex work in Portland is not voluntary. That they don’t believe that sex workers are actually choosing to do these kinds of jobs. And that’s something that is really argued against strenuously by sex workers. Although trafficking is a problem in Portland, it’s much more complex than just all sex work is forced. This is what sex workers say.
And then the former head of the human trafficking unit, Sergeant Mark Georgeoff, he retired a couple of years ago, he told me police have heard this particular argument, that stings make sex workers less safe, many times, and basically said that that doesn’t matter. That from his perspective, sex work is unsafe, and should be stopped no matter what sex workers say actually would keep them safer, or what they say they want.
Miller: So there are a couple pieces all embedded in that. So the more absolutist point of view that you just outlined that some members of law enforcement holding, and I’m sure some members of society as well, that sex work is simply wrong and we should get rid of it because it’s harmful, primarily to women who make up the vast majority, I think it’s fair to say, of sex workers.
But there’s a more complicated argument being made by people like the Senior Deputy District Attorney who you mentioned, JR Ujifusa, who as you note in the story and as you just mentioned, has said that only a “small percentage of people doing sex work in Portland are doing so voluntarily.” What kinds of data are actually available to back that up or to challenge that?
Brown: There’s very little data. We have a study from over a decade ago outlining the number of people under the age of 18 who may have been trading sex in some way. But it’s really hard to verify. Often, in these kinds of studies, the numbers are based on calls to hotlines that are totally unverified. “Cases” might be something where someone called and reported their concern that someone might be involved in a trafficking situation that may or may not be verified.
And then additionally, as as is shown by the District Attorney and the police, the conflation between who is choosing to be in sex work and who is there not voluntarily makes this even harder to tease out. We don’t know, for instance, in some studies, how the researchers were defining that. They may have been calling all sex work trafficking. So it’s really hard to get an accurate idea of this.
Miller: You note in your article that that we could see what’s happening in Portland, the enforcement and the pushback against it, as a kind of small microcosm of what’s happening now nationally, because of a still relatively new law with the confusing double acronym, FOSTA-SESTA. This is something Congress passed in 2018. Can you remind us what that law was supposed to do, the promise behind that law, and then we can get to what people are actually seeing?
Brown: Yeah, it was supposed to remove websites where federal prosecutors said trafficking was happening. So websites like Craigslist, Backpage. And it’s similar to language used by Portland Police, this idea of “known trafficking websites,” which are places where sex workers advertise.
Miller: So, what do experts actually see as the real effects of this law?
Brown: Well for the most part websites that were targeted, some were removed, and that made it harder for sex workers to advertise their services and find safe clients. Some websites just moved overseas where they would be outside of the purview of these laws, and also, to the extent that trafficking may have been happening on those websites, made that much harder to investigate.
Miller: If many of the sex workers that you talked to are against these broad stings meant to reduce demand for sex, did any of them suggest a more targeted way, a better way to actually crack down on sex trafficking or human trafficking? In other words, to crack down on what they too believe is a problem, even if they say it’s not as common as police and prosecutors would lead us to believe.
Brown: Yeah, there are programs that offer services to sex workers, and also people who are survivors of trafficking situations. And these programs would provide services like housing, helping them find jobs, childcare, providing services first that help people find stability in their lives without going to a trafficker, without going to sex work if they choose to leave it.
And the critical thing there is allowing the survivor of trafficking, if they want to, to involve police. Some programs require people to report to police what has happened, and sex workers and trafficking survivors I talked to said that basically makes people scared to go to those programs. Some people do want to pursue prosecution, and some don’t, and decide to much later down the road when they’re in a safer situation. So, the critical thing that I heard was providing services to get people to a stable place without requiring the involvement of police.
Miller: Near the end of your article, you have a striking paragraph, where you talk about the list of activities that in the past have all been lumped together and called “vice.” And then vice squads or vice detectives would crack down on them. And a lot of those have been liberalized in Portland or in the state of Oregon as a whole in recent years. That includes cannabis, sports gambling, and then in 2020, voters decriminalized most hard drugs. At the same time, you note that a bill that would have decriminalized prostitution died in Salem this year. How do you explain this? That, of all of those “vices,” prostitution is the one that, so far, voters or lawmakers have been more squeamish about liberalizing?
Brown: It’s highly stigmatized. I mean, it’s something that society hasn’t been able to really come to an understanding of why people might be in that situation. So I think we have a long way to go to develop empathy for people in this world, and to understand their lives, and to understand why they might be there and what might help them. And most of all, to listen to them about what they say would be best.
Miller: When you’re talking about empathy. Are you, are you talking about that for sex workers, or their clients, or both?
Brown: Well, I was referring mostly to sex workers. But I mean, both for sure. Sex workers say they need their clients, and that is an important part of their work. It’s an exchange between two people, so certainly, both people are involved.
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