The icon of a street prostitute, waiting languidly for eye contact on the sidewalk, seems a little ragged and outdated in Portland's 21st-century sex industry.
Police say more discreet options like lingerie-modeling studios and escort services have pushed working women off the streets. But although street-level prostitution has dwindled in recent years, the few scattered women loitering along strips like 82nd Avenue or Northeast Sandy Boulevard are increasingly the objects of criminal prosecution.
Meanwhile, the pimps and others who promote and profit from all realms of Portland's burgeoning sex trade increasingly avoid the courtroom.
Over the past five years, the number of prostitution prosecutions in Multnomah County has doubled, rising from 145 in 2001 to 301 in 2005 (see accompanying chart). In that same period, prosecutions against promoters of paid sex have fallen from 11 cases in 2001 to just five in 2005.
"They're going after the most visible symptoms of a deeper problem," says Chris O'Connor, a staff attorney at Metropolitan Public Defender. "Those are the easy missions, and from my experience they don't follow up on the root causes."
The contrast with law enforcement's approach to drug dealing is stark, O'Connor says. When police arrest low-level drug dealers, they usually ask where the dope came from. He says officers rarely ask prostitutes who put them on the street.
With the real profiteers avoiding prosecution, police enforcement of prostitution laws has begun to resemble an endless job of shoveling snow. The same women get arrested over and over, scooped up from one corner to reappear on another, depending on how loudly the neighborhood complains. And the strategy does nothing for the women themselves, arguably the real victims.
They are women like Miranda June Woodland, 29, who has been charged with prostitution eight times since 2001. Her long criminal record, dating to 1999, includes multiple charges for drug possession and resisting arrest. Like Woodland, most of the women prosecuted for prostitution over the past five years were repeat offenders.
Most local prosecutions for prostitution, a misdemeanor, go through Multnomah County Community Court, a sort of safety valve for the main circuit courts that allows defendants to avoid jail time by pleading guilty and doing community service.
O'Connor says a prostitute's experience in the court points to another disparity. Unlike most other defendants in community court—often thieves and drug users—prostitutes cannot have their convictions dismissed in exchange for cooperating with a judge's ruling.
"We're saying essentially it's a worse crime," O'Connor says. "It does unfairly stigmatize one group over another group of offenders. And if part of the goal is rehabilitation, then that doesn't help."
Meanwhile, the men and women who profit from paid sex are charged with one of two felonies: promoting prostitution or compelling prostitution, which includes the threat of physical violence. The difficulty of prosecuting such cases, which require prostitutes to testify against their bosses, is one reason there have been only 40 prosecutions for such crimes over the past five years.
The district attorney's office says it hasn't backed off prosecuting pimps, nor focused on punishing the women.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Norm Frink says budget cuts have forced his office to make choices. The division that handles promotion cases—which is also responsible for taking most drug cases and violent criminals—has seen its staff cut from 12 lawyers to seven over the past five years.
"The type of cutbacks that you have," he says, "you have to decide where you focus."
Frink says his office still wants to prosecute pimps. The difference, he says, lies in his ability to go after the explosion of more discreet sex outlets, a secretive world of massage parlors and escort services.
"There's no de-emphasis of people who promote prostitution in general." he says, "The issue with the police has been whether we're going to get involved in massage-parlor and lingerie-studio cases—very involved, labor-intensive cases with significant constitutional issues, absent aggravating circumstances."
Nonetheless, police say they've gotten the message that the DA doesn't have time to pursue nonviolent cases—with no distinction between cases involving street-level pimps or the masterminds behind businesses with legitimate fronts, like lingerie studios and escort services.
The different interpretations between the DA's office and the police may say something about how the policy was rolled out.
"There's the direct communication," says Southeast Precinct Commander Rosie Sizer, "and then there's what people intuit is being said. And that has impact as well.
"The compelling cases—where there's physical violence—are still on the table," Sizer adds. "When there's promoting, there seems to be less interest."
As to soaring prosecutions for prostitution, prosecutors say the level of police enforcement determines their caseload.
"As far as we're concerned, if we have enough evidence to go on one of these cases, we go on it," says Fred Lenzer, senior deputy district attorney in charge of the misdemeanor unit. "It's a livability issue for the communities."
Police enforcement of prostitution is often driven by citizen complaints.
Precincts receive dozens of calls a week from citizens infuriated that a prostitute chose a residential block to do business in the back seat of a Honda. Under a Police Bureau philosophy that since the late 1990s has increasingly placed emphasis on quality-of-life crimes, such phone calls generate a concerted response.
On increasingly frequent "livability mission" stings over the past five years, decoy officers arrest dozens of johns and prostitutes—but rarely, if ever, pimps. (The stings can cost as much as $10,000 in overtime.)
Sara Westbrook, the day-shift sergeant at Southeast Precinct, says she realizes the missions have a limited effect.
"It changes it for that neighbor," she says. "It moves the problem, makes the problem go away for that person. Does it change the life of the prostitutes? No."
Sizer doesn't favor cutting enforcement against prostitutes just to focus on the pimps.
"We can make a big impression short-term doing these missions," she says. "The problem is the longer term, getting the guys that are running these girls. I don't know. That whole robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul—the whole system is predicated on it for the moment."
Prosecutions of Prostitutes and Pimps in Multnomah County
2001: Prostitutes-150 Pimps-6
2002: Prostitutes-205 Pimps-2
2003: Prostitutes-280 Pimps-5
2004: Prostitutes-300 Pimps-5
2001: Prostitutes-330 Pimps-2