“It couldn’t happen to my child or anyone I know, because they’re good kids.”
This common misconception about sex trafficking, couldn’t be further from the truth. “Sex trafficking is happening closer than you think… or want to think,” says John Rasmussen, Public Outreach Officer of the Gresham Police Department. “It’s only through education that people begin to understand that [sex trafficking] isn’t like it is on television. The vast majority of victims are not taken hostage in the traditional sense; it’s more so a systematic degradation of someone’s moral compass instead.”
Officer Rasmussen often finds that these youth are simply put in inappropriate situations. “They can be a young boy or girl sending an explicit picture to someone, who tries to shame them and threaten them with exposure (sextortion). They can be a runaway looking for a place to stay and then made to feel obligated to pay a debt.” The reality is that these victims can be anyone, including your child or someone else you love.
It’s tough to fathom the idea that one of these innocent victims could be someone you know. People don’t like to acknowledge the truth of the matter as it’s easier to shield their eyes and pretend like sex trafficking doesn’t exist here. But it does.
One of the biggest myths about sex trafficking is that it only happens in large cities - mostly internationally. In fact, it’s happening right here in America and in our own backyards in Oregon. Sex trafficking also isn’t limited to immigrant children or kids of low socioeconomic status. As a member of the local sex trafficking task force here, Officer Rasmussen knows how misplaced these beliefs are. “We’ve seen firsthand in PDX that trafficking includes youth from all walks of life - youth whose vulnerabilities are exploited in a number of ways.”
While the average age of entry into sex trafficking is during the teen years, the abuse can continue well into adult years. Even if victims are fortunate enough to escape “the life” (a street name used to reference sex trafficking), sexual victimization affects every aspect of their lives going forward - school, relationships, choices to engage in risky behavior, the work they choose (or don’t choose), and more.
While some statistics on sex trafficking in the US do exist, they are mostly estimates as it is a largely hidden crime, making it nearly impossible to know exactly how many victims there are. What we do know is that Portland is a place of sexual exploitation, most likely due to its abundance of strip clubs and online sexual services. This makes it even more crucial to shed to light on this unfortunate situation.
Yes, the first step in fighting human trafficking is admitting that there is a problem, but the second step is equally as important - educating yourself and others around you about the problem. Becoming aware of how big of a problem sex trafficking is and how it affects you can prevent this from happening to people you love and can possibly help save someone’s life.
For example, the omnipresence of technology makes it important to understand the dangers it presents and how it can be used to take advantage of young people. As a preventative measure, Gresham PD proactively works with at-risk youth who exhibit concerning behaviors (drug use, running away, sexting, isolation, etc.) that may be precursors to exploitation. “We talk with families about the dangers of the internet and social media, showing them how these tools are used to more easily reach our children and prey on their vulnerabilities,” Officer Rasmussen says.
In addition to gaining an understanding that the sexual exploitation of children is happening right here in our area, we need to talk about it with our family and friends so they’re aware and so that someone who may be vulnerable to victimization knows it’s okay to talk about it too. Officer Rasmussen also reminds us that the easiest thing you can do to help is to remember “If you see something, say something.” Don’t be afraid to be concerned and bring that concern to light. Maybe it’s your daughter texting someone she probably shouldn’t be. Or your neighbor’s kid hanging out with the wrong crowd. Whatever it is, we must continue to voice awareness by having these conversations, even about such a tough topic.
Outside of education and awareness, there are many other simple ways to contribute. With organizations right here in the PDX area that aim to help victims and survivors of human trafficking, there is also a great need for people to get involved. One of these organizations is Adorned in Grace Bridal Shop.
Adorned in Grace is a volunteer-run shop that sells heavily discounted wedding dresses (both new and used). These dresses have been donated by brides from all around the country or dress shops that can’t hold the inventory; proceeds from the shop go toward helping victims and survivors of human trafficking.
Shopping at Adorned in Grace can not only help to alleviate the financial headache of shopping for a wedding dress, but also allow people to know their money is going to a worthy cause. With the success of the first shop in Raleigh Hills, Adorned in Grace was recently able to open up a second shop right here in Gresham, with the hope of continuing to bring awareness to sex trafficking in the area. The Grand Opening this past Saturday was a wonderful celebration of all those who have worked hard to renovate and open this generously donated space. County Commissioner Diane McKeel, a long-time supporter of Adorned in Grace, spoke on the importance of grassroots efforts partnering with the county’s continued efforts against sex trafficking.
“Organizations like Adorned in Grace are important because they become a part of the community,” Officer Rasmussen says. “They work hard to spread awareness and provide an outlet (financial, volunteer-based) for the next step needed for those who want to help end human trafficking.”
Most importantly, Officer Rasmussen says that we need to remember that sex trafficking of youth is happening closer than we think or that we want to think. “Awareness of the problem is the beginning of the end. But like GI Joe said, ‘Knowing is half the battle’ and supporting organizations like Adorned in Grace can be your next step.”
Adorned in Grace is located at 818 NE Division St. Gresham, OR 97030. To learn more about how you can help or to donate a wedding dress, please visit www.adornedingrace.org.
--Written by Molly of the Abolition Now Communications Team