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Published in 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 mia is 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
Later that afternoon, Soroptimist International of the Americas
President Cathy Standiford made a soroptimist out 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.”
Read the rest
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
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
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
absolutely 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:
We have a problem in this country, and a part of that
problem is manifested by the fact most of us are amazed that human
trafficking is so big here in the Northwest. Part of that problem is
that 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
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
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
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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They pray that I won't do a better job of it -Dar Williams
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