Stop sex trafficking in Portland

My View • Laws must make a clear distinction between criminals and victims of modern 'slavery'

Slavery is alive and well in Oregon and Multnomah County. While most Americans associate human sex trafficking with something that happens on the other side of the world, few realize that it is happening here and now, in our own communities.

Whereas the drug trade garners much of the national attention, many gangs and criminals are now discovering that the selling of girls is much more lucrative. Drugs can only be used and sold once before they need to be replaced, but a single girl can be sold hundreds of times each year. Additionally, most states in the U.S. have outdated and backwards laws that punish the young girls being prostituted (studies show the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old) rather than those who force them to do so, making the commercial sex trade one of the most low-risk and high-reward forms of crime in America.

Our state and region are no exception. Because of our location on the Interstate 5 and Interstate 84 corridors - between Vancouver, Canada, Seattle, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles - Portland has become a countrywide hub for the sexual victimization of children. In a nationwide FBI sting operation last year, Portland yielded the second most underage victims being forced to sell their bodies on the streets, ranking only behind Seattle.

Initially lured by pimps who they see as their boyfriends, these young girls are forced to sell themselves on our streets. If they try to flee, they face beating or murder by their pimps. And even if they successfully escape, they are placed in an overwhelmed social service and law enforcement system that is largely unable to protect them.

It is a crime to sell sex in our state, regardless of age or coercion. Thus, a 12-year-old girl, who by definition is the victim of statutory rape, is committing a crime when she is forced by her pimp and her 'customer' to sell her body. Under any other circumstance, a 12-year-old girl who has been molested and raped by a much older man is treated as a victim and her abuser is sent to jail for many years.

Unfortunately, when money is involved (all of which ultimately goes to her pimp) the perception and treatment under the law changes. Indeed, buying and selling sex are under the same statute in Oregon, so in the eyes of the law there is no difference between a 40-year-old man who buys sex and the 12-year-old girl he buys it from.

Clearly, much needs to be changed if we are to seriously and effectively end this injustice in Oregon. Thanks to the leadership of state Sen. Bruce Starr and state Reps. Jefferson Smith, Carolyn Tomei, Brent Barton and Tina Kotek, we are hoping to update these laws, beginning by increasing penalties for purchasers of sex and reclassifying children forced into sex trafficking as victims rather than criminals.

Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman is working to develop housing for adult recovery and services for adults. And - as reported in the Tribune, 'Prostitutes' customers to be sent to school' (July 29) - we are working at Multnomah County to establish a 'johns school' for men caught purchasing sex, with a portion of the money raised going to their victims.

Thanks to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and our federal delegation's leadership, our community has been awarded a $900,000 appropriation to build and administer a safe shelter that will be operational by early 2012. We must work to create a range of meaningful services in order to help victims reclaim their lives. This is a tremendous step forward toward that goal and will be the first safe place dedicated solely to victims of underage sex trafficking in the state of Oregon.

While this tragic crime continues in our neighborhoods, we are not fighting a lost cause. In little over a year we have seen greater awareness, more community events and a growing sense of determination that we will not sit by idly while children are being prostituted on our streets. We are fortunate to have citizens, nonprofits, government agencies and elected leaders around the table discussing ways to end this epidemic.

With the dedication of many, we will begin to end the myths, change current laws and continue to push for necessary reform. Now is the time to stand up for victims who have too often been pushed aside or forgotten. Together we will begin to turn the tide against these evil acts.

Diane McKeel is the Multnomah County commissioner representing outer East Portland and the rest of East Multnomah County.