Officials around the state are slowing changing the way they view the prostitution trade. Increasingly, lawmakers, police and prosecutors are viewing women who are prostituted, or who prostitute themselves, as victims.
When only two men opposed a recent city council ordinance to seize property from johns (buyers) and pimps, Commissioner Amanda Fritz told The Skanner News that she might have been swayed by their argument that it was a matter between two consenting adults – two years ago.
Since then, Fritz has spoken to a number of women who were compelled or forced into prostitution.
"Nobody chooses to do that," she said.
But the FBI's annual human trafficking raid, "Operation Cross Country V," illustrated just how often state laws still treat those same victims as criminals.
Touted as a sting to target child sex trafficking, the operation has historically resulted in far more arrests of adult women than rescued children. In Oregon and the Vancouver area, three children who were being victimized in the sex trade were rescued; 19 adults working as prostitutes were arrested, as well as nine pimps and five johns.
In Washington State, authorities rescued 23 children. Nationally the number of children rescued was 69.
In Portland, touted just last year as the "number two" city for trafficked children, police rescued not a single child. They arrested six women for prostitution and three men for promoting prostitution. The youngest woman arrested turned 18 in January. The rest of the women were not much older.
Experts will tell you that many women who work in the sex trade were pushed into it in their early teen years.
"Why is it they day before someone turns 18, they're a victim and the day after they're not?" Fritz said.
A source in the prosecutor's office said that in Multnomah County, keeping prostitution a criminal act helps them gain leverage with women to turn on their pimps. Many more adult women are fast-tracked to diversion programs to help get them out of the life.
But even keeping the threat – however remote – of criminal charges for juveniles remains one way to keep them in safe custody and is often a motivator for the girls to seek help – even if prosecutors rarely, if ever, charge a juvenile with prostitution.
There is a change in philosophy occurring at the district attorney's office, a growing realization that the selling of sex usually begins in the early teen years and continues into adulthood, often fueled by abuse, addiction and even survival. But on the ground, the majority of women charged with prostitution are still being criminally charged.
Currently, according to the Multnomah District Attorney's office, unless a woman charged with prostitution can prove she was being pimped out, she is charged with prostitution. The majority of cases do not have enough evidence to charge a pimp, according to the DA's office.
First time offenders are sent to community court where they receive community service. They are sent to jail if they don't complete that service.
If it's not their first prostitution charge, they go through misdemeanor court and sometimes placed on probation. All women are sent to the New Options for Women Program.
Natalie Schraner, a sex industry outreach advocate for the Portland Women's Crisis Line, said arrests can severely impact a woman's ability to leave the sex industry by restricting future job prospects. The way that women arrested for prostitution are treated also varies by county, with Multnomah County sending many chronic offenders through LifeWorks NW's New Options for Women diversion program.
Another problem that arrests can cause is lack of child care. Many sex workers are single moms, says Schraner, and an arrest can leave children without arrangements for supervised care.
Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel, who has advocated for human trafficking victims at the county level, says change must happen at the state level.
According to James Barta, legislative assistant to state Rep. Brent Barton, there are several legislators – Barton included – who have been working to make reforms to the state's prostitution laws.
Barta says there are about eight ideas floating around the legislature. The only bill to make it out of the legal counsel's office is a law that would "decouple" the crime of prostitution. Currently, both the buyer and the seller of sexual services are charged with the same crime – solicitation. This new law would create a separate offense for the john and impose a minimum $6,250 fine – with a provision that would allow a judge to reduce on finding of financial hardship.
Other ideas include allowing juvenile department personnel to place additional safety holds on girls, redirecting fines and forfeiture proceedings to victim resources, allowing alternate penalties that create a public humiliation for johns and a license program for adult shops that would fund victim services.
There is some discussion of creating a system similar to Sweden, although Barta and Rep. Jefferson Smith, D-Portland, say there is nothing serious on the table that resembles decriminalization for those who sell sex. In Sweden, the women – and men – who work as prostitutes are treated as victims and are not subject to criminal penalty. Conversely, pimps and johns face significant criminal sanctions. Many studies have shown a marked decrease in prostitution in that country.
Because this model has never been tried in the United States, officials have many doubts about how it would actually work. Prosecutors even fear a system that provides no penalties for minors who are prostituted, on the concern that it would embolden pimps to focus on young girls, despite the heavy penalties associated with the sexual trafficking of a juvenile.
Schraner believes that decriminalization of prostitution is a model that would reduce the hazards – both health and safety – that sex workers face. Schraner and her colleagues are primarily concerned with the personal safety of sex workers and she welcomes advances in the law that deal with victims of human trafficking.
"Anytime anyone is forced into this, there needs to be protections in place," she said, acknowledging that some women in the sex trade are not victims and want labor rights extended to them just like workers in any other industry.
Meanwhile, the city voted this week on an emergency resolution to provide additional shelter beds for juvenile victims of human trafficking in Portland, as well as two additional victim advocates at the Sexual Abuse Resource Center. Recently, Portland City Council – lead by Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office — passed a resolution that allows the seizure of cars and other property used in the commission of prostitution-related crimes, excluding those women and men who are arrested for selling sex.
A $500,000 federal grant has established a multi-agency task force, the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Steering Committee, which will allow for the creation of a coordinated plan to combat the exploitation of juveniles.
Ultimately, city leaders don't have a single, easy solution to deal with the problem over the long term. Juvenile victims, over time, become adults, subject to arrest records that can taint their ability to move on with the lives.