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Hidden in Plain Sight: Discussing Misconceptions About Sex Trafficking

As her abductors drove the car past the Canadian border without being stopped for identification, 14-year old Samantha Evans (named changed for privacy) knew she was in trouble.

“I was scared shitless,” Evans said, her voice growing shaky as she recalled the harrowing experience in the spring of 2004. “They just drove and that was the moment I thought I was going to be killed and my whole life was over.”

Now almost 30 and a former Clark College student, Evans remembered how she had been driving with two high school friends when they told her that they were taking her to Vancouver, BC to pay off a $900 cocaine debt that they owed to a drug dealer. Once they arrived in Vancouver, Evans’ abductors made her walk the streets throughout the night in an attempt to find someone to solicit Evans to.

“We would hear chatter from the bars on the next street, so they would take me down the next street, but it would be deserted,” she said. “They did this for hours, it felt like hours. I had no concept of time.”

Eventually Evans’ abductors stopped and drove her back to Washington. At the border they were stopped by U.S. border agents, who made them get out while agents searched the car for drugs. Evans was separated from her abductors and placed in a holding cell, where she remembers being interrogated by agents for hours.

“I was terrified and I wanted my mom. They didn’t tell me anything that was happening,” she said. “They seemed to be blaming me the whole time.”

Evans’ mom eventually came to pick her up. Evans’ terrifying night was over but the experience continues to affect her, made worse by the fact that her abductors were never charged for any crime. They simply returned to her high school like nothing had happened.

Stories like Evans’ are all too common, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where sex trafficking has been a problem for years. However, the common societal image of sex trafficking – being kidnapped off the street by a stranger in a white van and forced into prostitution – is an inaccurate depiction of the reality of trafficking. This image only serves to further muddy an issue complicated by ineffective federal laws, social stigmas surrounding sex workers and a culture that silences the voices of survivors. Despite these challenges, local lawmakers have passed legislation that could enable survivors to finally tell their stories and bring their abusers into the light by offering survivors criminal immunity.

“There’s a great white fear about trafficking; that your daughter’s gonna be walking home from high school and someone’s going to swoop up and grab her in a van and now she works for a sex circle,” Elle Stanger, a Portland-based sex worker and podcaster, said. “That is such a rare, unlikely situation.”

Human trafficking includes the recruitment, transportation and harboring of people for forced labor or sexual exploitation. Traffickers, including pimps, use tactics including force, coercion and manipulation to exploit their victims, according to Geri Bartz, a forensic nurse who works with the Clark County Human Trafficking Task Force.  

Pimps seek out victims who are already vulnerable and start to build relationships with them, Bartz said.

Traffickers prey specifically upon sex workers and systemically non-dominant youth who are already at risk for trafficking.

“Your risk as a sex worker is largely equated with your own demographics, class, race, etc,” Adara (name changed for privacy), an Indiana-based sex worker working on a masters in social work, said. “When you have a person who is already maybe in poverty, maybe black or Latino and that person is already at a risk for violence, that person is already fearful of law enforcement, that person is already marginalized in society. So when they get trafficked, what recourse do they have?

According to Bartz, a large number of LGBTQ+ youth could also victims of trafficking, as many face homelessness after being kicked out of their homes or running away.    

In some cases the trafficker is not a complete stranger, but someone who already has a connection with the victim.

“A lot of it is romantic partners or friends or people that are close enough to you to manipulate you,” Allison James (name changed for privacy), a New Mexico-based sex worker said.  

In Evans’ case, it was her fellow students.

“I didn’t think that I was at risk of being kidnapped,” Evans said. “I thought ‘I hang out with them all the time, it’s always fine.’”

These days, Evans works as a dancer at a Portland nightclub, where she sees first hand how pimps try to recruit vulnerable people with promises of wealth and success.   

“I’ve seen pimps come into the club by themselves. I’ve seen pimps come into the club with their girls trying to recruit,” Evans said. “But it’s not just there, I’ve seen them at 7-Eleven, I’ve heard about it at [Portland Community College], it’s all over.”  

Recent federal anti-trafficking legislation has aggravated the situation, putting more sex workers at risk for trafficking.

In April 2018, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) were signed into law. The federal legislation was designed to limit the operations of traffickers online, resulting in the shutdown of a number of websites which had been previously linked to trafficking.

According to Bartz however, FOSTA and SESTA had an adverse effect by driving traffickers onto dark net sites where they are more difficult to track.

We just pushed them further and made them harder to find,” Bartz said.

The laws have negatively impacted sex workers by limiting their access to vital online resources they use to protect themselves from abusive clients and traffickers. After FOSTA and SESTA, workers’ ability to vet clientele, safely receive payment and communicate with the larger community of sex workers has become more difficult.

Many sex workers also contributed to bad date lists, which sex workers use to warn other workers about violent and dangerous clients.

So much safety in sex work comes from having a community of sex workers,” Adara said. “When you don’t have that anymore because the Internet has shut it down, you’re not making it safer.”

“There’s so much less protection for sex workers in general, but definitely post FOSTA and SESTA there’s not as much of a paper trail,” James said. “There’s not so much of an ability to vet clientele. I don’t have bad date lists anymore. I don’t have this ability to just talk to other sex workers about the work that we’re doing and how to protect ourselves.

“My fiancé jokes that he’s an Army wife. He’s like, ‘I never know if you’re going to come home or not,’ and he’s not wrong,” she said.

Instead of anti-trafficking legislation, many survivors, sex workers and advocates favor decriminalization as one viable solution in the fight against trafficking. In 2003, New Zealand decriminalized sex work by removing legal penalties for both buyers and sellers. Decriminalization would allow victims of trafficking and abuse to come forward to law enforcement with their stories without a fear of being arrested.

“When you make the work no longer a crime, then law enforcement can truly focus on people who are being victimized and the victimizers,” Stanger said.

Earlier this year, Oregon and Washington both passed legislation that offer criminal immunity to sex workers and trafficking victims if they access emergency services after an assault. Washington House Bill 1832, which is set to go into effect in July, states that individuals cannot be prosecuted if the “evidence for the charge of prostitution was obtained as a result of the need for emergency assistance.”

“We have to facilitate [victims] talking about it,” Bartz said. “If we have a trafficker and their victims can speak against him, but they’re afraid of being arrested, what good does that do?”

According to both sex workers and advocacy groups, immunity laws like these are a step in the right direction.

“The key should be offering support to women, not penalizing and criminalizing them,” Evans said. “If you want to catch the bad guys, don’t come after the strippers, go after the bad guys.”

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