My Response to PPB Stings: We Should Be Investing In Supporting Survivors

November 1, 2021

My Response to PPB Stings: We Should Be Investing In Supporting Survivors

The reporting by Karina Brown in Willamette Week on Oct. 20th raised important questions about police funding and resources, and about distinctions between sex work and sex trafficking.

The justification for these police stings on people paying for consensual sex seems to conflate sex work with sex trafficking. While the two can overlap, they are not the same thing. Paying for sex between two consenting adults is, by definition, not sex trafficking - when adults are involved, the crime of trafficking requires force, fraud, or coercion. 

I understand that the line between coercion and consent, particularly in this context, can be difficult to determine. There are important discussions being had about whether sex work is ever truly voluntary, or is in effect a forced choice among the limited array of options faced by too many, particularly women of color and LGBTQ people; and I look forward to seeing those discussions continue.

As the Chair of the Multnomah County Sex Trafficking Collaborative, I’m committed to the eradication of sex trafficking and the protection of victims of sex trafficking. To this end, Multnomah County funds organizations that support victims by providing for their most basic needs --- housing, employment training, and mental and emotional health, to name a few. And we always meet victims where they are, with what they need --- recognizing that some may want to pursue prosecution of their traffickers, and many do not.

We focus particularly on protecting and supporting youth under 25, and especially minors, who can never legally consent to sex. Last year the New Day Collaborative, led by New Avenues for Youth, provided services for 200 young people. The Collaborative provides confidential, trauma-informed support and wrap-around services -- the kind of support that we need to prioritize for our limited resources. Our work has shown that increases in survivor services lead to increases in survivors seeking support, including making police reports.

It’s important to note that there are places where police play an instrumental role in protecting survivors from abuse. As the co-chair of the Gateway Center for Domestic Violence Council, I have heard from victims and service providers that the officers in the Special Victims Unit, the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) team dedicated to and trained in domestic violence response provide humane, trauma-informed service, and are essential partners in the work of protecting victims. These types of relationships and service should be where PPB is focusing its resources and time. 

Instead, my office regularly hears about the lack of police response to domestic violence calls. Victims have reported slow response, no response, dismissive response, failure to follow up on reports of violated restraining orders, and more. My staff and I have repeatedly discussed these concerns with the Mayor’s office, the PPB, the District Attorney, and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.

Not a day goes by that we don’t read in the newspaper repeated complaints about inadequate police response to gun violence, burglary, robbery, and other crimes. The police were absent during an armed standoff on Northeast 122nd Avenue in my district. I’ve heard of officers attending neighborhood association meetings about public safety and saying their hands are tied due to insufficient resources - that there is nothing they can do.

If resources are as constrained as we are told, the first order of business should be to identify priorities and to provide a plan for how those priorities are going to be addressed.  Stings on consenting adults exchanging sex for money should be very low on the list. The argument that stings reduce demand and therefore reduce sex trafficking seems dubious at best. We have been arresting and prosecuting people for selling and buying sex for a very long time, without noticeable impact on either sex trafficking or prostitution.

We are not going to arrest our way to eradicating the systemic issues that drive people to engage in survival sex work, and criminalization will not end coercion in the sex trade. We should not be prioritizing these stings over all the far more pressing safety issues in our community.