As an advocate for people who’ve survived sex trafficking, Alexandra Appleton says she has seen the many ways that the system has failed to center the experience of survivors. A history of classism, racism, sexism, gender bias, Appleton said, must be confronted to better serve sex trafficking survivors and the people in their lives.
“Lift up the voices because the legacy of rape, enslavement of Black and Indigenous people exist today and the current system enables trafficking to occur,” Appleton said. “Lift up the voices of those impacted because the system is set up to punish individuals before, during and after being trafficked.”
Appleton joined survivors, allies and community partners virtually Thursday, Jan. 7 as the Board proclaimed January 2021 “Human Trafficking Awareness Month” in Multnomah County. During the event, panelists highlighted the causes of human trafficking while calling for reform to center the needs of survivors.
Human Trafficking Awareness Month raises awareness about the exploitation of people for the purpose of prostitution, forced labor, slavery, and other acts against their will. The practice disproportionately impacts those most marginalized in our community.
“The racial injustices that make people of color more vulnerable to COVID also make people of color more vulnerable to sex trafficking,” said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, the Chair of the Multnomah County Sex Trafficking Collaborative. “While anyone can become a victim of sex trafficking, people of color disproportionately experience this form of victimization. And at Multnomah County we see these intersecting identities and crises play out.”
Since 2009, more than 1,261 cited purchasers and 119 individuals have been charged with luring and purchasing a minor in the Portland Metro Area.
This year’s proclamation takes place during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated the conditions that make people vulnerable to human trafficking. Many victims of human trafficking often lack access to food, healthcare, and other essentials.
Despite the challenge of the pandemic, the collaborative has been able to keep its services open. And they have expanded services, including mentorship for youth, housing services and crisis line services.
Leaders with the Multnomah County Sex Trafficking Collaborative say it’s important to center the experience of survivors. Over the past two years, the collaborative has developed a board including individuals with lived experience, elected officials, government partners, law enforcement, and service providers.
“It's comprised of individuals who have lived experience of sex trafficking,” said Natalie Weaver, the coordinator of the Multnomah County Sex Trafficking Collaborative. “We wanted to learn from other boards that are similar and then, most importantly, listen to people who have experienced trafficking themselves.”
Jocelyn Bell, an advocate, said sex trafficking is deeply rooted in our history, tracing it back to the rape of Indigenous people during America’s colonization. Inequities in the education system makes youth more vulnerable to it. And, as it stands, the current system gives too much leniency to perpetrators and not enough to survivors.
“Sex trafficking is a criminal justice issue where we pacify large scale traffickers, facilitators and promoters of sex tourism and we do this out of a reliance on capital gain,” Bell said. “Yet we penalize those that facilitate and participate in survival sex to meet their basic needs or for lack of a choice, making an example out of them. We do this out of the need to punish and further marginalize our most vulnerable populations.”
To better meet the needs of survivors, Bell and others called for more culturally-specific services, including services for LGBTQ+ communities. Panelists also called for more investment in frontline positions at all levels. And they urged the Board to advocate for making it illegal to charge minors associated with sex-related offenses.
Commissioner Jayapal pledged to support upcoming legislation that would protect minors trapped into sex trafficking. Other members of the board echoed her.
“It's something that people have been trying to get done at the legislative and state level,” Commissioner Vega Pederson said. “I think this is one of those things where we can bring our voices. Count me in for helping with that work.”
“Sign me up for the legislation,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann added.
As the Board unanimously passed the proclamation, Chair Deborah Kafoury reflected on the history of sex trafficking being pushed aside as a women’s issue, while celebrating the progress that has been made in centering the voices of survivors.
“Unfortunately, it has not been very long that we have had a movement that has been led by people with lived experience,” Chair Kafoury said. “And for so long, the voices of those who had been impacted have not been at the table. It's shocking, but we have come so far.”