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Portland, Oregon -- Strip-Club City? Media Freak-Out Over Trafficking in Everyone's Favorite Hippie Utopia

We must respect sex workers as humans with rights and choices, and crusade against exploitation. Media freak-outs about sex work and trafficking accomplish neither.

Ah, Portland, Portland, Portland. What is it about Portland? IFC’s new show  Portlandia walks the line between ridiculing and paying homage to a city “where young people go to retire” and where the “dream of the '90s” are still alive. As the  New York Times  put it  recently, “’Nice’ is an adjective that Portland, OR can’t seem to shake.” Portland, it seems, is at least  something to everyone.

But more recently, you may have heard the moniker “Pornland” kicking around. This stems from another fact about the city people love to recite: the city has more strip clubs per capita than any other city in the country,  including Vegas.  Of course, with clubs opening and closing, and a shifting population, that distinction is an estimate at best. A 2009  inquiry by the  Portland Mercury  found that, at the time, nearby Springfield, OR had the most strip clubs per capita while West Virginia had the most per capita for a state.

Either way it’s a memorable fact that makes some cringe, and others proud. Oregon’s constitution contains a strong free speech clause which, bolstered by a 1987 State Supreme Court case, protects the right to nudity and lap dances in strip clubs. However, efforts over the past decades,  including bills in the State House and Senate currently being considered , have continually sought to exclude sexually oriented businesses from enjoying these rights.

In the end, one might wonder, what does this multiplication of strip clubs matter? For starters, it creates a perfect backdrop for some troubling allegations: after a 2009 raid turned up several underage prostitutes, Portland was branded a hub for child sex trafficking. In 2010,  Dan Rather Reports  and ABC World News  with Diane Sawyer both aired in-depth investigative reports based on this trend, with each using the high number of strip clubs in the city to prop up their case. Both reports also perpetuate an alarmist tone about the escalating problem of child sex trafficking which takes advantage of racist and classist assumptions about sex work. They argue, in dramatic voice over, that  this is serious  because it’s not just “homeless” or “druggie” girls [of color] being lured into prostitution, but white, well-to-do, suburban girls.

The problem with these portrayals is two-fold. First, as  Oregonian reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones  points out  in her January 2011 investigation, the allegations of child sex trafficking that form the crux of both major news reports are based on overblown and erroneous data. Hannah-Jones writes, “While a single case of a child in the sex trade is tragic, little data is kept locally on the depth of the problem, and the figures cited nationally crumble under scrutiny.”

Hannah-Jones traces nationwide alarm back to a 2009 prostitution raid in Portland – in coordination with raids in other cities across the country – that, in fact, turned up  fewer underage sex workers than neighboring Seattle. Yet well-meaning and concerned Portland politicians and advocates (and  media) took this intel and ran.

The reality is far messier (and scarier). Underage sex trafficking and exploitation is happening everywhere, not just in Portland. Yet this is a bitter pill to swallow, and when national news reports confine the blame to one particular city, that seems to somehow make the rest of us feel better. That’s how pointing fingers and assigning blame works, right?

To follow Hannah-Jones’ point, we need to let go of this notion that if the problem isn’t construed as dramatic and sensational, then we won’t care. People should care equally if it’s one girl or one million, and despite, not because of, her background, race, or drug use habits. Good data to back that up is crucial.

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