New coalition challenges the status quo of “Pornland, OR”

published at The Portland Alliance, February 2010


I have been a feminist a long time. First just a feminist, then a liberal feminist, then a sex-positive feminist by my early 20s. To my life-changing joy, I discovered radical feminism and I’m still in that camp, but traipsing through my early 30s brought me to a new way of working for women’s rights. I am now a Soroptimist.

Since last week I have been asking people if they know who the Soroptimists are and what they do. Some folks had vague recollections of community do-gooders, but most externalized the dialogue that ran through my brain upon receiving word of the conference, “Sorop-wha?”

Soroptimist means “best for women.” They are an international volunteer organization of professional women comprising more than 1,400 clubs in 19 countries who work to improve the lives of women and girls. From microcredit to funding media projects and more, throughout the day I heard astonishing success stories that convinced me they’re not bragging about that “best for women” declaration.

Soroptimists are the key constituents behind the Northwest Coalition Against Trafficking (NWCAT), the official sponsor of the anti-trafficking conference that drew a crowd of 500 to Portland’s Red Lion Hotel on January 9. Soroptimist International Northwestern Region is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that has formed a coalition of agencies, political leaders, community organizers, media and business contacts throughout the Northwest to work against trafficking.

And mama miais there trafficking in the Northwest. Deputy Keith Bickford, director of the Oregon State Human Trafficking Task Force, explained why Portland is a major slave hub in the United States, “Lots of pimps have come to Portland because there have been few prosecutions.” One pimp told him “schools are buffets” where slavers can find teen girls to turn out by the bunch. Bickford blamed the city’s legal sex industry, lax trafficking enforcement, large numbers of homeless youths, proximity to two interstate freeways and seasonal farmwork, but highlighted the fact that pimps only provide what johns demand. Research on Scottish johns from 2008 revealed twice as many prostitute-using men identified themselves as politically left than politically right (32% versus 17%). Portland progressives need to stop smirking at the sexual capitalism that has masqueraded under liberalism’s aegis for too long.

Talk of building a shelter for prostituted girls has been buzzing for about two years, but little headway has been made into the enormous project. Greg Moawad of the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office used his session “Prosecution 101” to explain the critical role of a safe haven in seeing traffickers brought to justice. Prosecution is almost impossible without victim testimony, but these girls are scared for their lives. “The very reasons she was selected as a victim makes it hard for her to effectively prosecute them,” Moawad reported. Between the arrest date and the court date, girls often run away rather than go to court and face their enslavers. A shelter will provide victims with the security and social assistances they need to put these career criminals in jail.

It is easy to be against trafficking, tantamount as it is with slavery. More difficult by far is to take issue with the trafficker’s propaganda machine: the porn industry. Criticisms of pornography that go beyond jokes about bad music, fake breasts, and other purely aesthetic offenses are anathema in Portland. I have reported on many anti-trafficking events over the years and very rarely have the educational sessions or speakers broached the topic of pornography’s influence on sexual slavery.

Imagine my delight when I walked into Esther Nelson’s workshop and encountered a slide depicting pornography as a form of sex trafficking. Nelson was there representing the Sexual Assault Resource Center (SARC) and she did a bang-up job explaining how porn stimulates men’s desire to use prostitutes. To separate pornography from prostitution is to deny that women and children are often exploited by pimps who can operate camaras. Men who pay to watch prostitutes be prostituted on film are long-distance johns, and many move on to buying sex locally. An increasingly pornified culture was Nelson’s target and she criticized the current valorization of all things pimp; television shows like “Pimp My Ride”, feature movies like “Hustle & Flow,” and songs like 50 Cent’s career-making “P.I.M.P”:

I let em’ do as they please, as long as they get my cheese
Even if they gotta freeze, or if it’s a hundred degrees
I keep em’ on they knees, take a look under my sleeve
I ain’t gotta give em’ much, they happy with Mickey D’s

Later that afternoon, Soroptimist International of the Americas President Cathy Standiford made a Soroptimist of me when she also pointed a finger-o’-blame at pornography, “80 percent of prostitutes say johns have shown them porn to illustrate what they want.”

Pornography is fundamentally an experience of bought sex, and it is used by pimps to train and groom young girls into prostitution. So-called “modeling agents” take naked photos then threaten to release them publicly unless the girls turn tricks, and one Portland prostitute out of “the life” for years was blackmailed by a former john who threatened to show pictures to her new family if she didn’t have sex with him. I found Standiford’s forthright statements about internet porn and the increase in sadistic porn’s popularity especially refreshing after a decade of lily-livered liberal feminists avoiding the subject.

William G. Hillar’s liver is dark, dark red. In 1988, while traveling with schoolmates in Southeast Asia, kidnappers pulled Hillar’s 17-year old daughter off a train and forced her into prostitution. Despite an exhaustive global search, the former Colonel of the U.S. Army Special Forces was unable to save his daughter, and the movie “Taken,” starring Liam Neeson is loosely based on his story.

He was a magnetic speaker who ruled the room. I won’t tell you the horrific details of how his daughter was slowly killed to teach other enslaved women the consequences of trying to escape. The worst tortures your imagination could conjure would barely dent the reality. What I want to tell you is what Hillar wants people to understand about sex trafficking:

There is a huge gender inequality issue and a double standard that allows us today – still today – to objectify a woman and make them something different than men…It might be that pimps are the problems, but I think they’re the middle men. I don’t like the pimp just like everybody else, but we need to get to the root cause and it has to do with morality and treating people like equals with their own dignity.

It was a long day of hearing atrocity after atrocity punctuated by moments of hope. The sky started fading to black, and the emotional tenor was a fever pitch when Jeri Williams came onstage. She opened with, “I had to take my shoes off because I’m really feeling like I’m standing on holy ground right now. I have never seen this many people wanting to support this issue before.”

Williams is the program manager for Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement and has a long history as a labor organizer. In the summer of 1989, she moved to Portland in order to escape an abusive husband and got jumped into a gang. All of them raped her. During the day she was locked in a bedroom, and every night she was let out to turn at least 15 tricks in order to make her quota of $300 or get beaten.

With the help of Portland’s Council for Prostitution Alternatives (CPA) and the West Women’s Shelter, Williams was able to turn her life around and become a community leader. CPA’s all-volunteer group is still providing crucial services to prostituted women, but without the safe space of a shelter the path to recovery remains impossibly difficult for the most vulnerable women.

Jane Velez-Mitchell, host of CNN’s Headline News show “Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell” and author of the book “iWant: My Journey from Addiction and Overconsumption to a Simpler, Honest Life,” was awarded the Soroptimist Ruby Award for women who work to improve the lives of women and girls. A recovering alcoholic, out lesbian, and impassioned animal rights advocate, Velez-Mitchell bravely admitted to having the aforementioned “Soro-wha?” moment upon receiving news of the award.

She sure knows who they are now, and like me she has vowed to get immediately involved with this group of incredibly effective women. Also like me, she uses the power of media to tell women’s stories and project women’s voices into the world. Here’s a snippet from Velez-Mitchell’s show dated January 14th, a mere five days after Saturday’s conference:

VELEZ-MITCHELL: There is a bill in the Senate, Jeri Williams. You are a survivor. It would crack down on the pimps and the johns. Ten seconds. Why should Americans support it?

WILLIAMS: Americans should support it because, unless we decrease the demand, the supply will be there of young children. If common sense were common, then we`d all have it. And the issue right now is that men should be going to jail for raping children.

I don’t know what feminism means anymore. I have been banned from posting at the two largest feminist blogs on the internet and shunned by many more for insisting prostitution is slavery, not work. Soroptimist means “best for women.” These are the world-changing women I’ve been waiting for.

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