On the Track: Sexual Exploitation along the I-5 Corridor

First Fears

Twenty years later, Robin Miller still remembers her first night “on the track.” Robin’s trafficker had recently brought her from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco, California, and left her wandering through the Tenderloin neighborhood to find clients. Just twenty-one years old, she was confused, terrified, and ashamed of what she was supposed to do:

I was walking around the Tenderloin all night, just walking, and I had to use the bathroom, so I asked at a rental car place. They let me use the bathroom, but they made sure to tell me that I wouldn’t be able to use it again, because they knew. I remember being so humiliated and embarrassed that they knew what I was doing. I hadn’t even done anything yet, at that point, I had just been walking around, but they knew, and I knew, and I was just sick with embarrassment.

Robin recalls wearing a pink mini skirt and a “fluffy, pirate-looking white blouse.” Her first buyer drove a black Honda Prelude and had been circling past the intersection of Hyde and O’Farrell for some time when a fifteen-year-old girl, who was also working the streets, arranged a deal with him on Robin’s behalf. In exchange for $80, Robin got into the man’s car, and he drove her to a business called The Hot Tubs, which rented out rooms with saunas and small beds on an hourly basis.

The man rented a room for one hour, which cost him $20. Once they got to their room, the man spoke slowly to Robin, and when she asked him why, he responded that he thought she did not speak English because she was not “engaging with him on the block.” Robin did not engage, not because of her language skills, but because she was scared and uncertain about what to do during her first night of work. Today, she still remembers his face “as clear as day.”

The room at The Hot Tubs smelled strongly of chlorine and had a cement floor and hooks on the wall where people could hang their clothes. The bed in the room was more like a mat, covered in a cheap vinyl fabric. During her hour in the room, Robin says she felt “disconnected” from her surroundings, like she was not actually there. She says it was the first moment in her life when she dissociated herself from her situation and imagined she was somewhere else in order to cope. At the end of the hour, the buyer dropped Robin back off at Hyde and O’Farrell. She does not remember the rest of the night, or if she had another “date,” because she tried to block the experience from her memory. Even now, recounting the story twenty years later, Robin chokes up while describing the disbelief and fear she felt during her first night on the job, alone in San Francisco.

Despite her efforts to forget this part of her past, Robin’s memories of her “dehumanizing and terrifying” six years “in the life” remain clear. She recalls being choked and raped and fighting for her safety. During this time period, Robin was trafficked up and down the Interstate 5 corridor, a prominent sex trafficking route that spans the west coast of North America, from Canada to Mexico. While Robin was being trafficked, she lived in motels or on the street with her pimp, with whom she had three children. Robin turned to crack cocaine to help her cope with the hardships of trafficking until she was able to escape.

Robin was raised in Vancouver, Washington, in what she describes as “your average, dysfunctional family.” Growing up, she had low self-esteem stemming from insecurities about her body. She started drinking when she was fourteen years old, sometimes to the point where she blacked out. Shortly after, she started smoking weed, and by the time she was sixteen, she was dropping acid. Looking back, Robin says she had “problematic” relationships. She was raped by a twenty-six-year-old when she was only sixteen, but did not realize at the time that his actions constituted sexual assault. Her parents “did not know a lot of what was happening” in her life. Nonetheless, Robin graduated from high school and went on to attend Boise State University.

In college, Robin spent most of her time partying, and left school before finishing her degree and return home to Vancouver to find a job. Instead, heavy drinking coupled with a desire to get “attention from men, even if it was just physical [with no] kind of substance” continued to be the main focus in her life. Soon, she began spending time with a family from Chicago that had recently moved to Vancouver. Many of the women in the family had been prostituted, some of the men were pimps, and most suffered from addiction. The family also had ties to the Almighty Vice Lord Nation, one of the largest Chicago-based gangs.

Members of the family helped convince Robin to go work at a strip club in Portland, Oregon. Immediately, “some pimps from Las Vegas” started trying to groom her for prostitution and exploitation. Within two weeks of starting working at the club in August 1993, Robin was introduced to the man who would later become her pimp.

The morning after Robin met her pimp at the strip club, she woke up in Tacoma, Washington, a two-hour drive from Portland, with little memory of what had happened. The trafficker then transported Robin to San Francisco where she was first sold, and two weeks later, her first mugshot was taken. For the next six years, Robin was trafficked by the man from the strip club from Hawaii to Phoenix to Las Vegasbut mostly “up and down the five.”

The West Coast Track

Interstate 5 is the main highway running the length of the west coast of North America. It begins in Vancouver, British Columbia, travels through Washington, Oregon, and California, and ends at the US-Mexico border in Tijuana. The route winds through many of the major cities on the Pacific Coast, including Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, as well as the state capitals of Washington, Oregon, and California. The heavily traveled passage is ideal for transporting commercial goods, but also for trafficking victims undetected from city to city and across state lines. The I-5 route makes up the majority of what is referred to as the “West Coast track” for trafficking, and it is estimated that each victim traveling along the track can make their trafficker around $200,000 a year, contributing to the $150 billion global human trafficking industry.

Portland has earned a reputation for being a hub of human trafficking, in part due to its prime location along I-5. Some have called Portland the largest hub for juvenile trafficking in the country, but a lack of reporting makes it hard to quantify the exact number of victims in Portland and other major trafficking cities across the country.

Portland’s notoriety has driven Dr. Christopher Carey of Portland State University to research the city’s trafficking problem. He seeks to quantify the epidemic despite the challenge of identifying victims. Anyone can be trafficked, but the majority of victims are female. In Carey’s study of Portland from 2009 to 2013, 96.4 percent of all victims were female, 2.8 percent were male, and 0.9 percent were transgender. Carey found that 40.5 percent of the victims in his research were Caucasian, 27.1 percent were African American, and 5.1 percent were Hispanic. Staff at the Oregon Sexual Assault Resource Center (SARC) say that the average age of survivors they serve is fifteen or sixteen. In Carey’s study, the youngest victim was eight years old.

Human trafficking is defined by the Department of Homeland Security as “modern-day slavery [that] involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” Any minor in the sex industry is viewed by United States law as a victim of sex trafficking. Leah Bolstad, a federal prosecutor in the violent crimes unit of the US Attorney’s Office in Portland, stresses that trafficking is not the crime that many think it is. Often, people believe it only involves international victims brought into the United States. However, Bolstad says that none of the cases she has taken on over the course of her entire career have involved international victims. Instead, most victims come from “broken homes” in the Portland area. “People think that [sex trafficking involves] driving in these truckloads of Asian women,” she says. In fact, it is “really an easy crime” to commit.

Politicians on both the national and state levels are also concerned by the prevalence of trafficking in Oregon. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, has represented Oregon in the United States Senate since 1996 and previously served in the House of Representatives from 1981 to 1996. Wyden told the Gate that he believes “the I-5 corridor is a real magnet for some of these really horrible sex traffickers; the anonymity of the corridor makes it easier for them to do their horrible deeds.” Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer, a Democrat who represents Oregon’s Forty-sixth District in the state legislature, adds that traffickers “keep moving [victims] around so they don’t make any local connections that might help them get out of the trade, and to keep them so-called ‘fresh’ for consumers.” She too identifies I-5 as a crucial component of the trafficking network along the West Coast, and specifically in Oregon.

Robin’s experience on the I-5 corridor reflects the concerns of the politicians. She notes that pimps stop not only at major cities along the track, but also at “thousands of little towns” and small communities in between. In some cases, traffickers do not even exit the highway and instead conduct their business out of truck stops. Robin states that because “there’s so much travel up and down the Five … people don’t see it. It’s easily hidden.”

However, the I-5 corridor is not the only factor in Oregon’s trafficking problem. Bolstad identifies two additional causes: state laws and the state’s liberal culture. She says that Oregon “has very lax rules about sex offenders, [making it] a haven for people who commit sexual offenses, which stems from Oregon’s pretty liberal environment. Penalties are not as high in this state for failure to register as a sex offender as they are elsewhere.” Bolstad argues that reduced budgets for law enforcement and staff shortages at the Portland Police Bureau also lead to weaker enforcement of laws targeting sex offenders.

Additionally, Oregon has a reputation for being very sex-positive, and Bolstad argues that the pervasiveness of this culture contributes to trafficking. For example, Portland has the most strip clubs per capita in the country. “Who do you think comes here?” she asks. “It’s people who are interested in watching women dance naked.” Bolstad clarifies that Portland’s role as “a very lax town … a very liberal town is all fine and good, but it comes with a price … It fosters an environment of a lot of sexually liberal things.”

An adult store and strip club in Portland, Oregon.

Nonetheless, staff at the Sexual Assault Resource Center (SARC) question Portland’s notoriety as one of the largest hubs for trafficking in the country, suggesting that the problem is just as prevalent in other cities. Molly Botsford, a case manager with SARC’s Resilient Youth Survivors Empowerment (RYSE) program for young adults ages eighteen to twenty-five, says that in Portland, “We’ve opened our eyes, we’ve taken our blinders off and seen this as a real issue here that needs to be addressed, and therefore, we are seeing more survivors come up. Law enforcement are doing stings and running missions. Our politicians are actually caring about this issue and wanting to be a part of the change.” She argues that Portland has gained notoriety as a center for trafficking because of concentrated efforts by law enforcement, the government, and organizations like SARC to identify and help victims of trafficking. If any other city along the I-5 put similar efforts into exposing human trafficking, she argues, it would uncover its own population of victims.

Trafficking occurs across the nation, in cities of all sizes, but largely goes unnoticed by the general population. Alisha Howard and Keri Wilborn, case managers with SARC’s Survivors Together Reaching Your Dreams (STRYD) program for youth ages twelve to eighteen, agree. They say that “it’s baffling to [SARC staff] when people say, ‘I didn’t know that happened here,’ and we’re like, ‘What do you mean? They’re trafficking right next door to you, or at your kids’ school. It’s happening everywhere.’”

The Ease of Exploitation

Entrapping new victims is all too easy. Bolstad says that it is as simple as “some man approaching a young girl at Pioneer Square Mall [in downtown Portland], and telling her she’s pretty, offering to take her to get her nails done, and taking her out to dinner.” The girl then “falls in love, she’s like ‘Wow, this is the first time someone has paid attention to me!’ Next, the man can say, ‘Well, I’ve spent all this money on you, [so] what are you going to do for our relationship? I know this guy, and you can go give him a blowjob for $100, and then we can get a hotel tonight.’” “From there,” Bolstad continues, “it’s really an easy crime.”

Robin says many girls believe they are the “girlfriends” of their pimps, and that their boyfriends will “pick them up and take them to the strip club for lunch, or take them on a call at the lunch hour, and take them right back to school,” highlighting how young many of the victims are. She adds that while many people think of trafficking as something hidden, to her its existence is readily apparent, and she believes that people are just “afraid to know.” Robin says she could go to the Lloyd Center, a mall in Northeast Portland in a relatively wealthy neighborhood, and “point out five pimps … [and many] girls who are either high-risk or already in the life.”

Staff at SARC hear similar stories from the survivors they work with on a daily basis. Howard, the case manager, describes a youth she worked with recently, who was dating an older man. She says this victim, like many others, was looking for someone to provide for her basic needs. “That’s how traffickers groom people and that’s how it works, and so it’s like, ‘I got you.’ Then at some point, funds run out and [the trafficker doesn’t have money] anymore. From there, it’s like, ‘Hey, in order for us to keep making it, I need you to do this. Have you ever thought about this? I know how we can make money really quickly,’ and then the trafficker starts setting up dates.”  

Valerie Salazar, a mentor to Commercial Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC), shared the story of another youth she worked with, Anna, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. When Anna was fourteen years old, she went to a neighborhood party. At the door, she was warned by a twelve-year-old girl that she should be careful, but Anna ignored her. When the party started winding down, a different girl told Anna that the men at the party were not going to let her leave. Anna attempted to exit but the doorway was blocked.

The uncles of some of the high school boys at the party were in attendance. They made all of the girls sit on a couch. One by one, each girl was called into a different room in the house and sexually assaulted. Anna told Salazar that she could not believe the situation she was suddenly in. Anna began talking about the family members who would come looking for her if the men did anything to her, and tried to scare them into letting her go. Instead, they hit her and kept her there for a few days. When they let her go, they told her that if she did not prostitute herself for them, they would hurt her family.

From that point forward, whenever Anna left her house, the men were waiting at the street corner. They forced her into “running tricks,” or performing sexual acts in return for payment, and would take any money she made. Salazar began working with Anna after she eventually escaped the system and ended up in a program serving the CSEC community. She emphasizes that even when people are no longer with their pimps or traffickers, they face challenges re-entering normal life.

Trafficked and Traumatized

Life changes immediately after a victim’s first interaction with a client. Howard says that based on her work as a case manager for underage survivors, she has come to understand that “if it’s something that a youth wasn’t already exposed to, the first time is extremely traumatic for them. [They think], ‘I never thought I would do that.’ It’s just so traumatic for them. The idea is that ‘it’s just a one-time thing that I had to do because I love him [the pimp or trafficker] …’  Then that money runs out, too. Then it becomes something that continues.”

When she was being trafficked, Robin spent hours each day walking around looking for clients. “At the athletic clubs they have a silver sneakers wall,” she says, “and it’s for the old people who walk on the treadmill, to mark their little travel across the country, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh. How many times did I cross the country?’” During her six years in the system, she lived in motels and in a park. Robin describes it as a very lonely experience, with “dark, scary nights, and bright, sunlit afternoons.” She tears up when describing her “time just spent walking alone, and getting in cars.”

Robin wishes she had a worse memory so that she could forget her horrific experiences. She suffers from PTSD, including intense recall of painful moments from her time being trafficked. She remembers “very vivid images of the sex buyers,” and notes that she would recognize the faces of many former clients even today. She remembers the danger that she felt each day resulting from the uncertainty of what she was doing: every interaction forced her to wonder whether she was “going to live through the next sex buyer.” Robin notes that it can be “better [for a woman] to have her own room, do in-calls where the men come to her, because she already knows there’s not a gun under the pillow. There’s nobody hiding in the closet. She knows her surroundings.” Even in this type of situation, however, Robin says there’s no “guarantee he won’t kill you.” She recalls the distress she felt not knowing “who’s in the house, who’s in the closet, or what’s under the front seat of the car.”

One particularly traumatic interaction stands out to Robin. In Panorama City, California, she and another girl were approached by two men who Robin believes were in their twenties. They negotiated a $150 price for a date. Normally, Robin would always sit in the front seat of the car, so she could exit easily, but because the men wanted both her and the other woman to join them, she was forced to make room by sitting in the back. The car was a Thunderbird from the 1980s, and Robin says that even to this day, she has an intense aversion to the model. The back seat had no door, but the other woman sat in the front seat and unrolled the passenger side window.

The two men were talking to each other in a foreign language and suddenly started speeding, frightening Robin and the other woman because they couldn’t tell what the men were planning. The other woman opened the car door, and asked them to stop. When they refused, she jumped out. Robin was then left in the car, alone in the back seat and incredibly afraid. To stay calm, she pulled out a cigarette, but one of the men grabbed the pack and crumpled it. Robin was terrified. She pleaded with the men not to hurt her, and told them she had a babythe first of three children with her traffickerwho was back in a motel room with him. One of the men said “F your baby,” and Robin knew immediately that she needed to get out of the car. She pushed the seat in front of her down, stuck the front half of her body out of the car window, and stared down at the pavement flying in front of her nose.

Before she could jump out of the vehicle, her shoes came off. Robin recalls how each day, she would collect money from her clients and hold onto it until her trafficker picked her or the money up. To protect herself from being mugged, she would hide it in her bra, or in her stockings under her foot so that it was hidden by her shoes. When her shoes fell off, the men in the car saw the money she had made so far that dayaround $500in her stockings. They tried to pull Robin back into the car, and punched her between her legs. Robin kicked at them, thrusting herself out of the window, and slammed down onto the pavement from the speeding car.  

Robin remembers dry heaving on the side of the road. Her wig fell off. Her legs were bleeding. Her adrenaline was “overwhelming and overpowering,” as she gathered her possessions and started walking back to the motel where her trafficker and baby waited. During her walk back, several men stopped, and she wondered what kind of person would want to hire her in her clearly disturbed state. It was around 11:00 p.m. when Robin got to the room and told her pimp what had happened. He responded by asking her if she wanted to go back out, since, he said, she would “probably make a lot more money” that night. Robin recalls that “all [she] wanted to do was hold [her] daughter,” who stayed with them on the road for nine months before being taken in by Robin’s parents. She refused to go back out that night.

Lifeline to the Outside

With the exception of other working women, her pimp, clients, and cops, Robin did not interact with many people during her six years with her trafficker. She argues that today, with the advent of websites like Backpage, life is scarier for people being trafficked, because the crime is less visible to police officers, whom she could talk to face to face on the streets during her time “in the life.” In particular, she remembers the San Francisco Vice Unit, who “were very concerned, and supportive, and wanted to help.” She says that unlike other “dehumanizing” police units she interacted with, “they didn’t want to throw us in jail; they wanted to offer us resources on how to get out of it.”

According to Robin, the Vice were “cool with you unless you told new women, new girls out there who they were, because their job is to build cases.” Robin laughs when recalling some of the tactics used by the Vice Unit, sharing that they had a decoy female detective they would use to attract buyers. Robin and the other girls working “were mad because she was so pretty,” and would have lines of people waiting for her. In her head, she would mock the buyers. “I was like, ‘You guys are the stupidest fools I’ve ever seen. Clearly something is up.’” Men caught by the decoy would get a ticket and be sent to “john school,” a workshop to discourage them from buying sex.

Robin Miller (left) and Kendra Harding (right) outside of the Lifeworks Northwest office.

Kendra Harding works with Robin at Lifeworks Northwest and is the program coordinator of the New Options for Women and Multnomah County Domestic Violence Program. The New Options for Women program with Lifeworks Northwest is an outpatient program that provides mental health, chemical dependency services, and case management to women who have experienced sexual exploitation while in the sex industry. Women receive services through group and individual therapy as well as recovery mentor support. One of Kendra’s duties is running a john school. A “john” is a man who purchases sex acts. As she describes it, those who are caught may have the option to attend “an eight-hour class on the harms of the sex industry from the angle of how it affects women, and all the women who are involved in it” to avoid official charges.

Both Robin and Harding are quick to stress the diverse characteristics of johns. Harding reports that many of the men are in committed relationships or married with children, and that they fall everywhere along the socioeconomic spectrum. Robin echoes such descriptions and knows from experience that the majority of men who hired her were married with children. She remembers men talking about their children and wives when they were with her. Robin emphasizes that a john can be anyone: “They’re pastors, they’re doctors, they’re lawyers, they’re teachers, they’re your neighbors, they’re your dads, they’re your cousins, your uncles, they’re anybody. You don’t know.”

Robin is critical of the men in john school who claim they are one-time sex buyers, arguing that they are likely repeat offenders who just have not been caught before. She says that if the men know where to find girls, whether online or in person at specific locations, “chances are it’s probably not their first time, and it’s something that they have an addiction to.” Robin and Harding both acknowledge that there are good men in the world, and certainly not everyone buys sex, but Robin still cautions, “You don’t know. There’s no way to tell” because johns are so diverse, and can be anyone from “millionaires … [to] labor workers making minimum wage.”

From Victim to Survivor

Robin divides the time she was trafficked into before and after she began using crack, which she turned to as a way to cope with her situation. At the time, she says, she was a “chronic addict” and reports that she used every day.

“When you’re asked … to have sex with multiple men per day, a lot of times dissociation is needed to kind of zone out and be on another planet [when] you don’t want to be in that moment,” explains Harding. She states that in order to cope and achieve that dissociation, “a lot of times substances are used, or the trafficker gets the person addicted to substances, and then they have this addiction that they’re reliant on their trafficker to support.” Robin reflects that alcoholism played a big role in her life, and until she started using crack, it was her main addiction. From her experience, “once the drugs come into play … they take over, pretty much run the show.” Based on what Robin saw while in the system and sees now through her job at Lifeworks Northwest, “A lot of women … are hooked up with pimps who are also addicts.” However, Robin stresses that not all women in the life get into drugs. She remembers “some women in [her] circles who didn’t do hard drugs, but they may have drank or smoked weed.” It’s part of what she calls the “disease of prostitution”: “the older you get, the longer you’re in the game, the likelihood of you turning to a stronger substance is greater,” she says.

Despite the hazards of drug use, Robin believes that her addiction helped her cope with her transition out of the system. In fact, Robin adds that getting out of trafficking can be more difficult for women who don’t use drugs or alcohol. In her capacity today at Lifeworks Northwest, she meets daily with women who have been trafficked. For those without substance addictions, she has found that it can actually be harder to transition back into everyday life because “without any addiction to focus on,” trafficking victims have to face “the really hard, ugly, raw stuff” that happened to them.

Robin credits her faith with getting her through her experience of being trafficked and helping her transition out of it. After six long years and a particularly nasty fight with her pimp, she felt like her “heart was turning black with hate,” and that the “love that had got [her] through was depleted.” Robin prayed and contacted her mom, who was raising her children. Her mom called some of Robin’s old friends from a residential treatment program she had been a part of. They contacted Robin and offered to help her. Robin was reluctant, but eventually joined a clean and sober house where she lived for three years.

The day Robin left her pimp, she realized she was pregnant with their third child. Still, she was able to rejoin normal life and rekindle relationships with her two older children, even though her parents retained custody. Robin beams with pride when she talks about driving her daughter to school every day and is incredibly proud of her children’s success. She is also proud of herself. In addition to the ways in which she can support her children, she has been able to serve as a mentor to women “who are where [she came] from,” which has brought her healing and joy.

CSEC mentor Salazar knows from her own experiences working with survivors how difficult the transition out of trafficking can be. She stresses that while people think they can just give a survivor “peace and a place to live and food” in order to heal, it is often a much more difficult process. Salazar argues that this type of new environment can be “almost so calming that it’s like a shock to their whole being” and that survivors may go stir crazy, create drama, or sabotage themselves because they struggle to function in such a place. She refers to this type of environment as “square” and confining, and advocates for a more complex post-CSEC treatment, with support and advocacy offered by organizations like SARC and Lifeworks Northwest.

Oregon Sexual Assault Resource Center staff members.

Alisha Howard, the SARC case manager, emphasizes that the organization celebrates the little victories and sets goals tailored for each person they work with, such as going a week without using drugs, graduating from high school, or getting a job. Hannah Geist, who coordinates the SARC youth program, praises SARC’s efforts to be trauma-informed, which she describes as “asking what happened to you, rather than what’s wrong with you.” She argues that in most situations, specific challenging behavior of the survivors they work with can be traced to things that happened in their pasts, so it is important to talk about their lives in a “strength-based way.”

Tanell Morton, another case manager for the RYSE program, points to SARC’s confidentiality as important in helping survivors. Unlike other agencies, SARC case managers are not mandatory reporters, which enables survivors and youth still in the system to feel better about having open conversations in a space “where they can dump everything and not have any fear that something they say will get back to the trafficker.” This allows survivors to steer their own recovery process.

Ashley Ansett of the STRYD program for minors refers to SARC as something that lasts for life, since the case managers stay in touch with survivors even when they age out of the system, or if they move out of Oregon. For example, Ansett says she regularly connects over the phone with a girl who has since transferred to a treatment facility out-of-state, but still struggles with missing her exploiter. SARC staff say this experience is common due to the fact that some victims still feel like they need their pimp to protect and provide for them, similar to those who suffer from Stockholm syndrome. It can be especially hard for minor victims to leave their trafficker, because they have nowhere else to gooften they live in unstable foster homes, get inadequate help at treatment facilities, and are not in contact with their biological parents. These challenges make programs like STRYD even more important to survivors of trafficking.

Victims of trafficking face many challenges if they choose to press charges against their trafficker. Bolstad, the federal prosecutor, cites the Federal Sex Trafficking Statute as a document with room for improvement in order to aid in prosecuting traffickers. Trafficking anyone under the age of eighteen is a federal crime with a ten-year minimum sentence. “Whether or not the trafficker abused or coerced or compelled or used force, if you transport a kid, a minor, from one state to another, to have or engage in prostitution acts, it’s a federal crime, easy,” Bolstad says. The statute also applies to forced sex trafficking, in which victims can be either minors or adults. If the trafficker uses force to compel a victim to engage in sex acts for profit, the exploiter faces a fifteen-year minimum, regardless of whether the victim is a minor. However, it can be difficult to convict someone for trafficking. In some cases, lawyers may need to prove the knowledge and intentions of the trafficker, which Bolstad stresses is difficult. In her experience, “it’s a very poorly written statute,” because of the challenges of proving someone’s intent. One way she approaches this challenge is to look at an alleged trafficker’s past conduct for things like prior convictions for compelling prostitution. Still, in some cases, she has to give up on full trafficking charges and charge traffickers with other, lesser offenses in hopes of keeping them away from victims for at least some time.

Robin’s trafficker is now in prison. Robin is not sure when he will get out. She does know, however, that he was supposed to be charged with two new counts of human trafficking, although one of his more recent victims backed out of testifying. Robin was planning on testifying against him in the other woman’s case because she wanted to “tell [her] truth and stop him from doing it anymore to anybody else.” Given her role as a mentor at Lifeworks, she felt that in order to empower other women to testify or take charge of their situations, she needed to show that she was willing to do so as well.

Twenty years ago, however, Robin did not press charges against her trafficker when she left him. She “just got away,” and as a crack addict and alcoholic, was focused on her own treatment. Pregnant with her third child, she “just wanted to move on.” Robin recalls that the support system for trafficking survivors in the 1990s was not the same as it is today, and says that she is not sure if anything would have even happened had she come forward and tried to fight her trafficker in court, or reported him to law enforcement. She is encouraged by the legal recourse that survivors now have against their exploiters compared to when she found her way out of the system; she now encourages the survivors she works with to press charges because, as Bolstad’s work demonstrates, the criminal justice system has improved to make survivors better able to prosecute their traffickers.

Ending Exploitation

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 is the most expansive piece of federal legislation against human trafficking. It defines trafficking as a federal crime and requires restitution for victims, and established the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and the Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking. In 2003, the updated Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act recognized the right for victims to sue their traffickers, and the subsequent Reauthorization Act of 2005 worked to improve resources for underage survivors of trafficking and strengthened efforts to fight trafficking abroad. The following Reauthorization Acts in 2008 and 2013 worked to expand anti-trafficking efforts. Additionally, state lawmakers around the country, like Keny-Guyer, have attempted to curb trafficking. The Polaris Project publishes annual ratings assessing states’ legislative efforts to fight trafficking, based on factors like training methods for law enforcement and victim services. Oregon passed the state’s first criminal statute against trafficking in 2007 and Polaris now designates it Tier 1, the project’s top rating. Nonetheless, the ranking system does not measure the actual impact and efficacy of legislation, only whether or not it exists, and those who work with both the perpetrators and survivors of trafficking in Oregon point to areas where improvements can be made.

Bolstad views court rules about the timeline from indictment to trial as a potential area for change that could counter the challenges she faces in prosecuting traffickers. “It is really difficult to keep a victim out of harm’s way,” from the time of indictment until the time the case goes to trial, she says. “It can span years, and during this time it is easy to lose track of where the victims are, [and some] traffickers [are] even capable of finding victims and exploiting them again.” Because Bolstad cannot guarantee protection, some survivors feel as though the state does not care about their cases or their safety. Bolstad proposes creating a rule that anyone indicted for sex trafficking or related crimes involving a minor victim has to go to trial within a year.

Oregon’s national and state politicians share concerns about how trafficking is currently addressed. Keny-Guyer focuses on jointly tackling issues like education, healthcare, affordable housing, and racism to help stop trafficking. She believes that trafficking can be countered only by a combination of efforts on the state and federal levels.

Wyden reveals that trafficking became an important issue to him after he heard about it at many of the open county town hall meetings he has hosted, and in particular after he went on a ride-along with police in Portland. On the ride-along, he saw girls carrying “enormously long knives … to survive a night on the streets,” which he describes as shocking to him both as a senator and as a parent. Wyden describes trafficking as “a travesty happening in our backyard to our kids and neighbors.”

Both Keny-Guyer and Wyden see fighting trafficking as a bipartisan issue. Wyden acknowledges that Democrats and Republicans are both moving toward viewing minors who were trafficked as victims, and understanding that “there’s no such thing as a child prostitute [because] … by definition a child prostitute is a victim.” Wyden’s colleagues in the Senate are “starting to ensure that these young girls get treated like victims rather than just sending them off to the criminal justice system.” Wyden hopes that both Democrats and Republicans can continue to meet on common ground, even in a toxic political environment. He hopes that the issue “doesn’t get lost in a sea of screaming on cable TV,” so that “thoughtful bipartisan workaround principles that are common sense” can lead to methods to combat the trafficking problem.

Robin advocates for more education about trafficking and building up self-esteem in children. For example, she believes kids should be taught warning signs that people might hurt them. She also advocates to increase the number of trafficking prevention services, such as those offered by Lifeworks Northwest. However, Robin maintains that only one thing that can stop the problem: if “men [stop] buying sex.” She elaborates, “If men stopped buying sex, that’s it. Pimps wouldn’t be selling women or children. They’d be selling something else.”

“I’ve Done a Lot of Healing”

In the twenty years since she left her trafficker, Robin still struggles to speak about her experience. Robin is “re-traumatized” each time she tells her story, underscoring the lasting effects that trafficking has on survivors.

Yet Robin is proud that her passion to end human trafficking has made her stronger since she began working at Lifeworks Northwest. After enduring six years on the West Coast track, she has built a network of fellow survivors and commutes every day to what she calls her “dream job.”

Robin drives from her home in Vancouver to Lifeworks Northwest for work; on some mornings, the fastest route is via the I-5, which sometimes triggers memories from her past. Alone in her car on the highway where she was trafficked, Robin concentrates on the fact that being trafficked was something that happened to her; it was not something she chose for herself. “I’m looking around at the trees in my car,” she says, “just knowing I’m safe.”

All photos have been taken courtesy of the author, Dylan Wells.

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