Oregon students and legislators talk sex trafficking prevention

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The sex trafficking prevention nonprofit Nest hosted a community panel event with Portland area high school students, teachers, and Oregon legislators on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. Courtesy of Nest Foundation

The sex trafficking prevention nonprofit Nest hosted a community panel event with Portland area high school students, teachers, and Oregon legislators on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. The panel discussed inhibitors to progressive sex education and current efforts in law enforcement and legislation to reduce victimhood.

The Vanguard published a preview to Nest’s event last week that described how the nonprofit came about from the documentary film Playground. Nest debuted its sexual exploitation health curriculum in Portland schools in 2015 with the help of local teachers.

Seven high school students represented Madison, Cleveland, and David Douglas high schools, as well as the student-managed nonprofit Youth Ending Slavery. Tim DuRoche from the World Affairs Council moderated the panel.

Nest-learned wisdom

Students mainly stressed that they should have been taught about sex trafficking from a much younger age.

The Vanguard also published an article three years ago about the realities of child sex trafficking in Portland, which highlighted that determining how many children are actually exploited is very difficult to track down. However, according to statistics from Multnomah County’s “Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Status Report” in 2015, a majority of affected children are exploited at age 15. That means for some, one health class in the junior or senior year of high school is too late.

“These conversations need to be made less taboo so we have the tools to make us less susceptible,” said Edom, freshman from David Douglas high school. Edom added that students should be taught recognition and prevention tools starting in 5th and 6th grades.

The Nest curriculum teaches students about common grooming methods predators use and how to avoid stereotyping who might be targeting them. “It could be very well an adult female who lures you in and talks about how pretty you are and invites you to get your nails done and go to the mall,” said Denise Biehn, supervisor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Violent Crimes Against Children. “Be aware of that fact.”

Biehn added that children should never invite an online stranger into their personal lives. “Don’t open doors online,” Biehn said. “Know who you’re communicating with in real life, not just virtual life. Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your parents to see or school friends to see.”

Edom responded that kids should not be blamed for using the internet or mobile devices. “Steve Jobs was from our generation,” Edom said. “People are benefiting from these things with money and that’s driving a lot of this. Don’t blame us for using our phones.”

Anna, another David Douglas student added that sexualized media is inescapable. “Why does a fast food commercial need a topless woman in it?” she asked. Tawna Sanchez, representative from District 43, added that sexualized themes have been covertly in music and advertisements since she was a youth in the 1970s.

Sri Craven, Portland State assistant professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, added that victims should not be shamed for “effing up” by posting regrettable images online. Craven encouraged students, if they fell into this situation, to “find a way to talk to someone [they] trust about it. Find a way to talk to adults honestly about these things. It’s OK to eff up. What’s not OK is to perpetuate a culture of shame and silence.”

Biehn added that victims could contact the FBI directly if someone was threatening to post illicit pictures of them on the web.

Law enforcement solutions

Sanchez confirmed that there are several bills moving through the House and Senate relating to victim privacy and protections for victims that also need drug or alcohol treatment. The panel also discussed, however, that rural areas can be less aware or receptive to sexual exploitation education.

Multnomah County Assistant District Attorney J.R. Ujifusa said that while Portland’s police force is skilled in recognizing and addressing sex crimes, rural areas have needed the most basic training in recent years.

“This last year we have gone to Medford, Roseburg, and the coast to talk to [law enforcement] about technology,” Ujifusa said. “Criminals can use technology to hide and find that trafficking is much easier. So we asked these areas if, one, they had the internet, two, if people have disposable income, three, if people want more money, and four if people in their community enjoy sex, then, yes, you have sex trafficking going on.”

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who keynoted the panel, explained that state officials were also partnering with truck drivers and truck stops to catch sex trafficking in process on the I-5 corridor.

“[Oregon] is probably one of the forefront states of prosecuting [child sex crimes] and law enforcement and victim advocates working together, focusing on traffickers and demand rather than throwing victims in jail” Ujifusa added.

Changing cultures

Biehn said she grew up in Oregon, then left, then came back five years ago. One thing that astonished her was the number of strip clubs that had risen up in her absence. Prevalent access to these centers of “commercial sexual exploitation,” Biehn said, “is not acceptable.” Biehn warned student panelists not to give business to strip clubs later in life, even for bachelorette parties.

Craven, however, explained the distinction between sex work as exploitation and sex work as a possibly fulfilling and empowering job.

“Feminists were the first ones to say we have to treat sex work as work and not as something to be ashamed of and something to be criminalized,” Craven said. “And some part of that is, I think, a lot of feminist scholars, me included, recognize that sex has always been bartered in every relationship, even when it has been in marriage, and when it has been in romantic relationships, but we don’t call that ‘sex for money.’ But where I think I would be a little bit cautious is the difference between what we think of as girl power and sex as a way of bartering power with men.”

Follow your passion

Though the panel covered everything from current legislation to educating youth to involving parents, adult panelists stressed that youth educating each other and their parents was most powerful.

“You can teach this,” Biehn said, addressing the student panelists. “You are the strongest and most powerful voices.”

Traffic Intervention Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Justice Amanda Monaco said to student panelists: “Give yourself some grace, because whatever you’re doing is more than a lot of people are doing. Really find what area you are passionate about, whether it is demand, prosecuting traffickers, helping victims, educating students, or buying goods that are made with slave labor. Really focus on that. [Sex trafficking] touches every single aspect of our society and it can be overwhelming [to work on it].”

If you or someone you know might be a victim of sex trafficking or other sex-related crimes, Portland State has a list of resources on the university website. The Women’s Resource Center and Illuminate PSU have confidential advocates that can advise students on next steps. Law enforcement can always be contacted directly, and they will work with social work advocates to ease the reporting process.

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