Buying Sex on Company Time

Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

Businesses can play an important role in preventing sex trafficking, but they continue to facilitate the crime.

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In the Portland Police Bureau’s anti-sex-trafficking unit, officers try to stem the tidal wave of demand for prostituted people by posting fake ads for commercial sex and arresting buyers who respond.

It was during these sting operations that officers found many buyers were arranging and procuring sex while at work.

The Portland Police Bureau’s fake ads include a phone number that buyers can call to arrange a meeting with a person they think is a prostitute. “We get people texting us at 2 p.m. and they say, ‘I am at work now. I’ll see you as soon as I get off work,’” says police officer Mike Gallagher.

Through these sting operations, police have arrested buyers who work at some of the largest employers in Oregon, including a big name in the technology space. “We have arrested a lot of people from Intel,” says Gallagher. “As a large corporation, it stands out.”

An Intel spokeswoman responded via email that the company’s code of conduct sets forth its view that human trafficking is unacceptable, and it is committed to preventing these practices in its operations and supply chain. Employees are subject to discipinary action, including termination, if they commit a crime during official work time.

Sex trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery that is widespread and pervasive yet little understood. Many buyers do not understand that a lot of prostituted people have been trafficked, often as children, and are forced to engage in sex acts against their will.

Businesses have a large role to play in helping to identify victims and also prevent sex trafficking. Many of these crimes happen on businesses’ premises — in motels, hotels, apartment buildings and Airbnb residences.

The retail and medical sectors can also be agents of change by helping to identify possible victims and alert the police.

Businesses could also do more to educate employees that buying sex while at work will lead to disciplinary action. Data show the peak time for procuring sex is between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Despite this, HR policies that make it clear such activity will not be tolerated are not common practice.

Although progress has been made in raising awareness in certain sectors of what employees can do to prevent the crime, anti-sex-trafficking advocates are calling on the private sector to play a more active role in combating this abuse of human rights.

The Portland metro area is a hub for sex trafficking. It has the notorious ranking of coming second for the greatest number of children found in forced prostitution of all U.S. cities following a national federal law enforcement sting, according to a 2018 report on human trafficking by the Oregon Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights.

One of the reasons it is a hot spot is its legal sex industry. Strip clubs, live sex acts and swingers’ clubs are legal in Portland. These businesses are often also places where traffickers lure workers into forced prostitution.

By definition, sex trafficking is when a person uses force, fraud or coercion to cause another person to engage in a commercial sex act. While some prostitutes work of their own free will, experts say many are trafficked by pimps.

Portland’s location at the intersection of major interstate freeways I-5 and I-84 puts it at the center of trafficking routes between Seattle, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Moreover, the city’s proximity to shipping waterways and the Canadian border provides access to domestic and international traffickers.

The demand from buyers is unfathomably high. Just in the Portland metro area, around 300 advertisements are posted online every day for prostitution-related acts. A 2015 study estimates there are more than 11,000 attempts to buy sex in Multnomah County every week.

Money generated from sex trafficking in just the Portland area is estimated to total $60 million a year.

And it is not just Portland where it is a problem. Since prostitution migrated from the streets of Portland (82nd Avenue, Interstate Avenue, and Martin Luther King and Sandy boulevards were main thoroughfares where prostitution was common) to escort websites, social media and more recently phone apps, sex trafficking has spread to all areas of the state.

JR Ujifusa, senior deputy district attorney for Multnomah County, explains the magnitude of the problem: “When I present to more rural areas, I say, ‘If your location has the internet, if it has individuals who enjoy sex and individuals who have disposable income, you have a sex-trafficking problem,’ because that is really the case.”

The bureau went to the small city of Ontario in Malheur County for two days to put on a training and help the local police with a mission to arrest buyers who responded to a fake ad. “We ended up with 26 arrests in two days,” says Gallagher of the Portland Police Bureau Sex-Trafficking Unit.

A similar mission in Medford resulted in more than 20 arrests. A fake ad posted in Bend received more than 100 responses.

Purchasers of sex come from all walks of life and often have medium- to well-paying jobs. “Buyers are anyone from doctors to attorneys to pastors to CEOs of companies to public employees,” says Ujifusa. “It spans the range of people because there is this underlying culture that it is OK to buy sex.”

When a Washington-based foundation wanted to examine how to prevent sex trafficking in 2011, experts agreed businesses were central to the prevention and reporting of the crime, yet they were mostly absent from state and national efforts.

And so Seattle-based Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) was created in March 2012. “All experts said we need businesses at the table because businesses are unknowingly paying [for] and facilitating it,” says Mar Brettmann, executive director.

During her outreach, Brettmann says companies have been hesitant to talk about the problem openly. “No business wants to be identified with it,” she says. That attitude is gradually shifting as more companies become aware of how they can prevent it.

“We heard so many businesspeople say, ‘I have a 14-year-old daughter. I can’t have this happen on my watch.’ We saw businesses step up and want to be part of the solution,” says Brettmann.

She wants to do more outreach in Oregon but admits the organization doesn’t have strong ties in the state. This is partly because of lack of resources. “If there was funding in Portland to do this work, we could do the work in Portland,” she says.

Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking advocates for companies to take an active role in educating employees about how people are exploited through trafficking. Many people have the impression that prostitutes live the life of their own free will and should have the right to do it legally.

Although companies may have guidelines that stipulate any employee who engages in sex trafficking will be terminated, this policy will not gain traction if employees do not understand that the person they are buying sex from has likely been trafficked.

Many prostituted people are engaged in sex work because they don’t have a choice, say experts. Most were trafficked as children between the ages of 12 and 15. Children as young as 9 years old have been found in the system.

“When I speak to victims, most have been trafficked as a child,” says Ujifusa. “Most of my victims are forced to do between eight and 14 sex acts a day by men who are strangers and who sometimes treat them more violently than their trafficker.”

Anti-sex-trafficking advocates are calling for companies to include in their employee guidelines language that informs staff explicitly that buying sex while at work will not be tolerated.

Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking has policies on its website that companies can adopt to make clear that employees who plan and buy sex during work hours will be fired.

It has online training tools for companies that want to educate employees and human resources professionals about sex trafficking, and what to do if they suspect an employee is engaging in the crime.

The nonprofit has online training for all sectors, as well as sector-specific trainings for the hotel sector and air and sea ports.

Amazon is an example of a large corporation that has a policy that stipulates employees will be terminated if they “engage in any sex-buying activities of any kind in Amazon’s workplace, or in any work-related setting outside of the workplace, such as during business trips, business meetings or business-related social events.”

A 2017 article by Newsweek uncovered how employees at Amazon, as well as Microsoft and other Seattle tech firms, used work email to buy sex.

Apart from hospitality and transportation sectors, Brettmann wants to do more outreach to the tech sector. “From our data, a lot of the buyers are coming from the tech industry,” says Brettmann. “As Oregon’s tech industry is growing, we would love to see those companies involved.”

Businesses that do act on a suspicion of trafficking can have a big impact. In 2012 an employee at the Hampton Inn near Portland International Airport called the Portland Police Bureau to report suspected prostitution at the hotel.

That call resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of a defendant who was found guilty of sex trafficking dozens of victims across the U.S.

Hotels near the airport are frequented by traffickers and their victims because they are convenient for buyers flying into Portland. It is common practice for men (most buyers of sex are men) to schedule dates with prostitutes while on a business trip.

The hotel industry is the leading sector on training employees to spot sex trafficking. One hotel owner who underwent training for herself and her staff is Tina Patel, managing partner of ALKO Hotels, a group of five hotels in Eugene. The training opened her eyes to what to look out for.

The company partnered with the Asian American Hotel Owners Association to hold a golf tournament to raise awareness of and money for the trainings.

“Even if you can save just one life, it is worth the training,” says Patel.

Tina Patel and daughter ALKO HotelsTina Patel, owner of ALKO Hotels in Eugene, at right. Her daughter, Dhruti, left, runs the training classes to teach to teach hotel staff how to spot victims of trafficking.   PHOTO: Jason E. Kaplan

Then there are the motels and hotels that generate revenue from sex trafficking and are complicit in facilitating the crime. “Probably most of the hotels on 82nd Avenue [in Portland] are aware it goes on and turn a blind eye,” says Gallagher.

“Some are cooperative with police if we ask for names. But they don’t ask for too much information on their clients that come in because that is where their business is at.”

The hospitality sector faces both financial liability and reputational damage for not being proactive about preventing sex trafficking. In January 2019, the family of a trafficked woman who was murdered at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Northeast Portland by a man who had paid to have sex with her sued the hotel chain.

The lawsuit, filed in the Multnomah County Circuit Court, claims the hotel chain failed to establish and use practices to protect victims of sex trafficking.

ALKO Hotels trainingGeneral manager James Myrick and Tina Patel conduct training with staff at the University Inn in Eugene. PHOTO: Jason E. Kaplan

It has been an uphill struggle to get the Oregon business community more involved in trainings and sponsorship events outside of the hospitality sector.

In 2017 the EPIK Project, a Portland-based anti-trafficking nonprofit, with the support of the Multnomah County District Attorney office, launched PDX BEST, an offshoot of Seattle’s Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking, to spread awareness and provide employee trainings.

Tomas Perez, founder of the EPIK Project and the driving force behind PDX BEST, says limited resources have prevented the initiative from getting off the ground.

This past year, the organization has tried to reengage with businesses. Perez says private-sector companies are not yet “allies” in the cause.

The EPIK Project’s main activity is a type of call-center operation run by male volunteers, who intercept buyers on the phone after they call numbers on fake online ads that have been posted by the organization.

The volunteers then try to dissuade buyers from getting involved in the market. Perez founded the nonprofit 10 years ago after seeing few opportunities for men to be involved in preventing sex trafficking. The call-center concept has spread to 12 locations around the country.

The most successful corporate partnership Perez was involved in was far outside of Oregon in the small town of Sturgis in South Dakota. Every year in August, a large motorcycle rally takes place in the town, which attracts half a million bikers. The event also attracts sex trafficking.

The City of Sturgis invited the EPIK Project to do a presentation on sex trafficking as a prevention measure. That presentation caught the attention of motorcycle manufacturer Indian Motorcycles, which partnered with EPIK.

The company raised money for anti-trafficking organizations by raffling tickets for a donated motorcycle dubbed the “Survivor Bike.”

“We were clear what we were doing in Sturgis. We wanted to engage with the good men and women in the biker community. That resonated with Indian Motorcycles’ customers. They saw they had something positive to contribute, and we saw positive exposure for us,” says Perez.

The organization has not been able to replicate this kind of partnership in Oregon. “We have had a hospitable response from the craft-brewery industry. They have been hospitable in giving us venues for events, but beyond that nothing has developed,” says Perez.

Perez EPIK USETomas Perez founded the EPIK Project, a nonprofit that works to intercept buyers of commercial sex at the point of sale. PHOTO: Jason E. Kaplan

Large business groups in Portland are not engaged in the problem. A spokeswoman for the Portland Business Alliance says sex trafficking is not something it is tracking.

“If a member brought it to our attention to address or engage on this issue, we would do what we do for any issue: engage in a process to understand, inform our members and, if needed, consider taking a position on solutions proposed to address the issue,” says spokeswoman Amy Lewin via email.

One of the most active groups working to raise awareness about sex trafficking in the business community is the Rotary Club of East Portland. The club holds free trainings in the hospitality sector.

Dana Clark, who heads the group’s anti-sex-trafficking campaign, says hotels have changed their policies after receiving training, such as requiring picture identification for anyone renting or visiting a room, or spotting warning signs such as a woman coming in with no luggage and disappearing for days.

The club also holds an organized walk along 82nd Avenue in Portland every year in January, which is Sex Trafficking Awareness Month.

Dana Clark RotaryDana Clark heads the Rotary Club of East Portland’s anti-sex-trafficking campaign. Every year the club organizes a parade along 82nd Avenue in Portland to raise awareness about the crime.  

The group’s success in reaching out to other sectors has been limited given its constrained budget. But Clark has had some success in other industries. One is the retail sector. Three years ago, Clark persuaded the manager of the Clackamas Town Center mall to host an exhibition about survivors of sex trafficking.

The manager was hesitant at first because he was afraid it would put off families from bringing children to the mall. But when she made the argument that the exhibit would show the crime was not tolerated at the mall rather than the company turning a blind eye to it, the manager agreed.

“We had so many people who came up to us at the exhibit to tell us they have been touched by sex trafficking in some way,” says Clark. People told her they knew someone who had been trafficked or they suspected someone had been affected by it.

“We had the exhibit for two weeks and it wasn’t a problem for the mall,” says Clark.

Law enforcement is seeking to target the transportation sector in the fight against the crime. Ride-sharing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, as well as taxi drivers, are ideally placed to identify trafficked people.

Exploited people are often transported by taxi and ride-sharing services to perform sex acts with buyers. “When you see a 15-year-old girl get transported to a hotel and then get picked up a short time later, there should be red flags there,” says Gallagher.

Bars and restaurants are also places where employees can help victims escape. Often at the beginning of the grooming process, a pimp will wine and dine victims on dates.

Anti-sex-trafficking experts have called on bars and restaurants to put up signs that inform people of what they can do if they need help. This is a similar idea to the “Angel Shot” concept, whereby someone who feels in danger can order an Angel Shot at the bar, which is a signal to the bartender or server that they need assistance.

Perhaps one of the easiest ways for companies to support anti-trafficking is to partner with nonprofits that work in the space. A dearth of funding in both law enforcement and community-based organizations was identified in the 2018 report on human trafficking to the Oregon Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Businesses could also make it a policy to hire trafficked people who are transitioning out of the life. It is one of the most “impactful ways” a company can support a person who has been trafficked, says Shannon O’Malley, account manager at Brew Advisors, a brand-consulting firm.

Without a doubt, progress has been made in combating sex trafficking in the business community. The hospitality sector is more proactive in identifying the crime. Some health care providers are now trained to identify patients who are trafficked.

More work could be done. A spokeswoman for Oregon Health & Science University says that although human trafficking comes up in training on sexual abuse and child abuse, no staff training is dedicated to the topic of sex trafficking.

Providence, the largest health system in Oregon, did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite progress, in some ways the problem has worsened over the past decade, as escort websites have proliferated and the internet has allowed increased anonymity for both buyers and sellers., a popular escort site notorious for advertising trafficked people, closed down recently, but hundreds of sites have taken its place. “We have identified about 150 different websites that host escort ads, which are thinly veiled prostitution advertisements,” says Ujifusa.

And the demand for prostitutes is so high that law enforcement is overwhelmed. Police officers know they cannot stop sex trafficking solely by arresting perpetrators.

The problem is so widespread and pervasive that a fundamental shift in attitude among buyers, who often hold well-paid positions, has to happen. Stymie the demand and the money generated through trafficking people will wane.

By educating employees on the reality of sex trafficking, how to spot victims and not tolerating workers who buy sex, the business community has “tremendous potential for what it can do,” says Brettmann.

Even the smallest step has a large impact. Just identifying one victim “could save that one girl from years and years of torture and torment from being involved in a life of prostitution,” says Gallagher.

Trafficked On The West Coast Circuit

Robin was working in a Portland strip club in 1993 when she became involved with a man who ended up coercing her into a life of prostitution. For six years, she was shuttled from city to city on the so-called West Coast circuit, a series of metropolitan areas among which trafficked people are moved.

The trafficker beat her to exert control, designed to prevent her from leaving or seeking help. She lived in fear of her trafficker and was overcome with feelings of shame and low self-esteem.

Robin (she asked that only her first name be used) lived in motels across the West Coast where she performed sex acts with buyers, some of whom were physically violent. It was obvious to motel employees that prostitution was happening under their roof, she says.

She recalls staying in a motel off 82nd Avenue in Portland, an area notorious for prostitution. “A buyer assaulted me. I was screaming, standing naked outside the door. They knew what was happening,” she says, referring to the motel employees.

Robin visited hospitals several times because of physical assaults she endured from her trafficker and from buyers. Not once did medical care providers ask her if she was being forcefully made to do something. “Nurses would care for me, but they never asked,” she says.

In 1999 Robin finally was able to leave her trafficker after several previous attempts. He was arrested for sex trafficking other women after she left, but the victims recanted and he walks free.

Robin became a counselor to victims of sex trafficking for a nonprofit. Although she has escaped the life, she still struggles with shame. It is the feelings of stigma and hopelessness that are inflicted upon the victims she counsels, and often prevent them from going to the police.

“I understand how privileged I am to sit here and talk to you about this,” she says. “I know women and children who have died on the street.”

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