Human trafficking embedded in Portland culture

Human trafficking is an international issue, but more to the point and closer to home, it is prevalent in greater Portland and Multnomah County.

It is an embedded part of the culture here, and victims are often trapped in a pattern that unfortunately becomes normal for them. Every year, the Advocate prints some sort of coverage of this plague, and will probably continue doing do so as long as human trafficking continues to be a problem in our own backyard.

Last Friday, Mt. Hood’s Public Safety department,  Title IX team, and Associated Student Government hosted an illuminating, and sobering, talk in the Town & Gown Room.

Guest speaker Sarah Nedeau, human trafficking program specialist from the Multnomah County community justice department, spent the majority of the lunch hour addressing the issue. Local trafficking was her focal point.

The federal definition of sex trafficking, is “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act,” said Nedeau. “It’s induced by force, fraud or coercion to engage another person into sex work.”

Made in Portland

In Portland, the trafficking industry has three main characteristics, she said: It’s local, it’s generational, and it’s culturally embedded.

It’s a local issue because purchasers and victims are usually members from our community. “They were born here, they were raised here, they’re being trafficked here, they’re looking for sex here,” Nedeau  said. It’s generational, too, because mothers who entered ‘the life’ early sometimes raise their kids to become involved as well, she said.

Among U.S. cities, Portland has the most strip clubs in relation to the local population, said Nedeau. These places are sometimes trafficking hubs. “Either strip club owners are not enforcing age guidelines around who they’re employing, or there’s a gradual expansion of boundaries and maybe the owner of the strip club is also encouraging folks to engage in more expansive forms of sex work,” she explained.

For any such “worker” under age 18, prosecutors are not required to prove force, fraud, or coercion, she said. And the federal definition (listed above) applies to adults, children, women, men, boys, girls, LGBTQ individuals, foreign nationals, and citizens.

Lured into ‘the life’

Even though the forced nature of sex trafficking is commonly embellished, the truth is more subtle.

“How folks get involved and why folks stay involved in what’s called ‘the life,’ or the commercial sex industry, is more about fraud and coercion than it is brute force,” said Nedeau.

She referred to the “Taken” film series as an example of international forced sex trafficking, and explained that “what we’re seeing in our community is much more subversive… there’s a culture around it and at times it’s popularized and normalized in our pop culture.”

Individuals usually enter ‘the life’ in their early teens. Girls usually start at ages 12-14, while boys start anywhere between 11 and 13, Nedeau said. “That is really alarming, in and of itself. Our society has this perception that anybody who is working in the industry, specifically around street prostitution or online advertisement, is somebody who is an adult.”

Sadly, that’s not the case.

Even though popular locations like 82nd Avenue are known spots for prostitution, Nedeau said sex trafficking also happens along major transportation lines, transportation hubs, malls, and other places where people congregate.

Sex trafficking is more prevalent online than it is on the streets. “That’s where the majority of folks are being bought and sold,” Nedeau said. Sties such as the back pages, craigslist, social media platforms, and dating websites are common avenues for traffickers. Online, individuals advertised as “young” and between 18 and 25, are often underage.

Grasping for ‘support’

When referring to individuals who are being trafficked, Nedeau stressed the importance of correct terminology. “We really want to be intentional about the language that we’re using so that we are supporting and not minimizing folks’ experience, especially related to force, fraud and coercion.

“I often just say ‘folks who have experience in the life,’ or ‘youth who have been trafficked…’ generally.”

Individuals get snared in ‘the life’ in various ways. Kidnapping and violence are usually assumed methods of recruitment, said Nedeau, but that’s not always the case. Perceived romantic relationships are common methods. “The fraud component of the trafficker is pretending to be a boyfriend (or) potentially pretending to be a father figure – a safe, supportive adult individual who’s going to take care of you.

For a 12- or 13-year-old, that’s a really compelling force for somebody who wanted to get involved in the life and they may not even know this person is trying to traffic them,” she said.

Often, when a victim in ‘the life’ turns 18, the pimp will allow some autonomy. “They manipulate victims to take on more responsibility that could cause legal ramifications, so (it becomes) ‘You put the hotel room in your name, you recruit me another girl for my stable,’ ” said Nedeau.

Pimps often have their adult victims take on these responsibilities so that they can take a “back seat” in their own operations. Such criminal charges as compelling or promoting prostitution are aimed at traffickers, “but if a trafficker can take a backseat and just receive the money, that puts them in a much safer position,” Nedeau said.

Deadly consequences

She honed in on the use of the term “survivor.” She said the average lifespan of a person after entering the life is seven years. “Survivors are not only overcoming all the trauma they’ve experienced, but that is a really shocking number when you think that average life expectancy is about 20 (years) for somebody who enters the life.”

These individuals often fall to drug overdose, suicide, or even murder by clients or their own traffickers.

Exiting the commercial sex industry is difficult and often complicated. “Leaving the life means leaving a culture that is kind of all you’ve known, if you got involved at age 13,” said Nedeau. Psychological and emotional issues often set in. Survivors have “complex trauma,” in which they are in a constant state of fear. They have a difficult time assimilating to normal society.

Numerous services are available for victims caught in ‘the life.’

The Sexual Assault Resource Center (SARC) operates 24 hours a day, and offers support and counseling to ‘survivors.’ Information is available online at and at 503-640-5311.

Numerous other services are available. For immediate help one should call 911; contact MHCC’s Public Safety at 503-491-7310 for non-emergencies and 503-491-7911 for emergencies, if something suspicious is happening on campus.


  1. Man, the mainstream is obsessed with blaming the adult industry. You want to learn about Oregon’s human trafficking? Check the agriculture industry.. (Source: the Multnomah County Sheeiff’s Dept.) So much of it exists there. You people and your sensationalist “end demand” attitude toward sex work, is what conflates sex work with trafficking. And “Taken” is the example used?

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