On April 28 of this year, a 53-year-old man approached the Ramada Inn near Mall 205 after responding to an online ad from a sex worker.
The ad, on a website called Skip the Games, was from “Mandi,” who said she was 19 years old. It included a photo of a woman in bikini bottoms, her hands covering her bare breasts. It was one of many listed in the Portland section advertising “escorts.”
Via text, the man and Mandi agreed on a quick visit for $80.
Mandi was actually an undercover officer in the Portland Police Bureau’s Human Trafficking Unit.
And when Mandi’s would-be client showed up at the rear door of the Ramada Inn, that’s when five police officers arrested, handcuffed and placed him in a patrol car.
The arrest was hardly unusual. Rather, it was one of eight that PPB’s Human Trafficking Unit made in a sting that week, according to figures WW obtained through a public records request, and one of 102 the unit made in the past 22 months.
Nor was it unusual that the man was charged not with trafficking—a class A felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison—but rather with commercial sexual solicitation, a misdemeanor that involves a fine and attendance at what’s colloquially known as “the johns’ school.” Records reviewed by WW show 85% of the arrests made by the Human Trafficking Unit result in only a solicitation charge.
Two things, however, were unusual about the arrest that evening.
First, the man at the door was Dave Hunt, once one of the brightest stars in Democratic politics, a former speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives and a man onetime Gov. Ted Kulongoski predicted might someday become governor.
Second, someone besides the police has decided to talk about it: Jesse Sutton, a sex worker who has had a long-standing relationship with Hunt.
Sutton was scrolling Instagram and sipping coffee on a sunny May morning when news about Hunt appeared on their cellphone.
Sutton nearly dropped the phone.
“My heart started racing,” Sutton recalls. “I’d literally just seen him a few days earlier.”
The jolt sent Sutton into a panic of frantic texts.
“I feel so bad for him and I’m so scared this could link back to me,” Sutton texted a friend moments later, in a message obtained by WW. “I hate this fucking system.”
Police claim stings like the one that snared Hunt are crucial to reducing the demand for sex work, which they contend is mostly forced or coerced. (Hunt, who declined to speak to WW, eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of commercial sexual solicitation on Sept. 29.)
Sutton, who has been a sex worker for 16 years, has a different point of view. At a moment when Portland police lack the resources to deal with an epidemic of shootings or even investigate most property crimes, the story of Hunt’s arrest raises significant issues about city leadership, the use of tax dollars and the Portland Police Bureau’s priorities.
Sex workers who spoke to WW say the Police Bureau’s approach to combating prostitution stems from cops’ belief that they are rescuing sex workers from exploitation.
“It’s really paternalistic—like, ‘There’s no way you could be choosing this,’ and ‘We’re the men, so we’re going to save you from all these other men who are raping and exploiting you,’” says Laura LeMoon, a sex worker and trafficking survivor.
Rep. Dacia Grayber (D-Tigard), who co-sponsored an unsuccessful bill in 2020 to decriminalize sex work, says she’s bothered by police priorities.
“When we have people dying in the streets,” says Grayber, “when we have unmitigated gun violence and a murder epidemic, I am disturbed to hear that’s where the resources are being focused—when it’s a consensual act.”
A few days before police announced his arrest, Hunt visited Sutton.
Sutton, 38, is a sex worker who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns (and is using a pseudonym for this story).
Sutton works in a remodeled brick office building. Their office, decorated with former girlfriends’ art and lit by a pink salt lamp, could be any massage studio.
A musician and former geology major, Sutton likes the work and appreciates the freedom and lifestyle that come with it. Still, clients can be dangerous. Sutton has been assaulted at work—but has never felt safe enough to report those assaults to police.
Sutton bikes downtown to work while listening to podcasts—usually comedy, or a favorite that offers contemporary political analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Trained in shiatsu, Sutton charges the standard amount for full body sensual massage: $200 per hour. Sutton goes topless during sessions and allows clients to touch them above their waist.
“Quite honestly, it’s good for my mental health to do this with clients who are just here to be Zen,” Sutton says. “And I just happen to be really good at handjobs.”
Sutton is careful about new clients. They seek references and use an app where sex workers can post reviews of clients.
For more than a year, Sutton says, Hunt was a regular client.
Hunt graduated from high school in Eugene, earned a political science degree at Columbia University, and worked as a staffer to three members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.), winning an Oregon House seat representing Gladstone in 2002. By 2006, he was House majority leader and, in 2009, House speaker. He lost the speakership in 2010, when the House split 30-30, and in 2012 left the Legislature to run—unsuccessfully—for Clackamas County chair.
Hunt repeatedly declined to talk to WW about his arrest or Sutton.
But receipts on a payment app on Sutton’s phone, reviewed by WW, show a phone number belonging to Hunt paid for half-hour sessions on at least seven occasions over a period of 10 months.
Sutton says Hunt was the ideal client.
“He was one of the ones that was so safe,” they say. “I was never afraid of a boundary crossing and knew he would just pay a fair wage and leave on time. That’s the cream of the crop. It’s all you can ask in this industry—just someone to respect a person and their boundaries.”
After his arrest, Hunt, a married father of two, stepped down from the Clackamas Community College Board of Education under pressure. A board statement noted the crime Hunt was charged with—commercial sexual solicitation—is one in which “the victims…are almost always vulnerable women.”
The arrest badly damaged his lobbying business, Columbia Public Affairs. Records show he lost several clients, including Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, and the Oregon School Employees Association.
And Sutton lost a valuable client: Hunt.
“The more this happens, the more I have to put myself out there,” Sutton says. “Vetting clients is so risky and exhausting. There’s so many unhinged people.”
JR Ujifusa, senior deputy district attorney in charge of prosecuting cases from the Portland Police Bureau’s Human Trafficking Unit, disagrees that his policies harm sex workers.
Ujifusa oversees another deputy district attorney and two victim advocates on the Multnomah County DA’s Human Trafficking Team. He also prosecutes other types of cases, like burglary, identity theft and drunken driving.
“Sex workers who have voluntarily chosen to do this are not affected” by the unit’s arrests and stings, he says, “because our focus is on traffickers.”
Ujifusa says only a “small percentage” of people doing sex work in Portland are doing so voluntarily—an assertion rejected by researchers and sex workers themselves (see sidebar, “Stuck in Trafficking,” below).
“The vast majority we see is people who are forced to do it by a third party,” Ujifusa tells WW.
Even so, since the start of 2019, 85% of the Human Trafficking Unit’s 102 arrests resulted a single charge of commercial sexual solicitation—not human trafficking. The solicitation charge indicates only an attempt at a consensual exchange of cash for a sex act. Another 15% of defendants faced charges used in situations that might involve force, abuse or people under 18.
In other words, in the vast majority of the Human Trafficking Unit’s arrests, the only crime alleged is attempting to pay for sex—something the Portland City Club suggested 25 years ago should be legalized.
Police and prosecutors say that’s because people looking to buy sex can’t tell from an online ad whether the person selling is being forced into doing so. The less demand for sex work, the reasoning goes, the less opportunity for workers to be exploited.
“Buyer suppression missions are focused to reduce the demand,” Lt. Franz Schoening, the unit’s leader, tells WW. “Arrest numbers are not an accurate measure of prioritization.”
“Because buyers purchase individuals, for many of them, their view is, ‘Hey, I paid for half an hour or an hour and I get what I want,’” Ujifusa adds. “We hear of assaults based on that dynamic. There’s a power differential because of money, and with that comes violence, in addition to children who are being forced and coerced into doing that. So by reducing demand, we reduce assaults as well as the purchasing of minors.”
Sex workers who spoke to WW reject this reasoning.
“Taking away our money makes us poor and desperate and consequently more likely to engage in dangerous situations to get money,” says sex worker Bianca Beebe, co-chair of the Oregon Sex Workers’ Project, which pushes for decriminalization.
At a time when police can’t keep pace with a murder wave and have mostly eliminated patrols that are supposed to reduce fatal car wrecks, the Human Trafficking Unit is exceptionally well staffed. With an annual budget of more than $1 million, it employs a lieutenant, two sergeants, four detectives, five officers and a victim advocate.
Portland cops stopped busting people on minor cannabis charges decades ago. Lawmakers greenlighted sports gambling in 2019, and voters loosened alcohol regulations and decriminalized most hard drugs in 2020. But a bill that would have decriminalized prostitution died in Salem this year, leaving the policing of sex work as the lone remnant of the city’s once comprehensive war on vice.
“They’re never going to completely disrupt the oldest profession in the world,” says state Rep. Grayber.
In Oregon, commercial sexual solicitation is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $6,250 fine. In practice, most local cases are dismissed under a first-time offender program, available for $1,000 to people who attend the Sex Buyers Accountability and Diversion Program, known colloquially as the “johns’ school,” run by local nonprofit LifeWorks Northwest. (The enrollment money is split between PPB, the DA and LifeWorks.)
Sex workers say stings don’t help—they scare off safe clients, which necessitates the risky task of taking on new customers.
“Violence is a problem, but what I would encourage [police] to do is listen to what sex workers want,” Beebe says. “Policing us makes the problem worse.”
Sgt. Mark Georgioff, who led the Police Bureau’s Human Trafficking Unit before retiring in March 2019, brushes off that argument. “I’ve heard that argument a million times,” he says. “No one denies that girls in the sex industry feel this way. But is it safe and prudent? That’s the question to ask.”
He says gaining the cooperation of sex workers in investigations is difficult. Much easier are stings with online and cellphone evidence already tidy before police even make arrests.
Georgioff says the Ramada stings are a reliable source of arrests. “The Ramada is a quick and dirty kind of thing,” he says. “You can set it up really quick and get people.”
Local leaders who enable such tactics are not eager to discuss it.
WW asked Mayor Ted Wheeler, who oversees the Police Bureau, to make a case for prostitution stings that sex workers say make their lives more dangerous. His office did not respond to our questions.
Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt also declined to comment. But his spokeswoman Elisabeth Shepard says this is the policy Schmidt wants.
“Mike campaigned on the equality model,” Shepard says. “We want to make sure people buying are the ones prosecuted, not sex workers.”
One of Schmidt’s top aides, Aaron Knott, disputes the idea that prostitution stings are pointless. Knott says buyers don’t know if the person they’re buying sex from is selling services consensually.
“Trafficking seizes on the fact that there’s no clear distinction for a purchaser between somebody who has been trafficked or is involved in coercion and somebody who isn’t,” Knott says. “And demand is what normalizes the purchase of sex. The more established the market you have for the purchase of sex, the more the purchase of sex is normalized.”
Sex workers who spoke to WW say police stings make clients skittish about verifying their identity—and work for people like Jesse Sutton more dangerous.
Today, Portland operates under a de facto legalization policy, experts say. The so-called Nordic model cleaves sex work into two parts: Police and prosecutors seek to help sex workers leave the profession while arresting their clients. (Portland police last arrested a suspected sex worker in May 2019. She was acquitted by a jury.)
Sex worker and activist Emi Koyama says the Nordic model is a futile approach—especially for those who are most vulnerable.
“Sex work is often a way that people are escaping and surviving something else,” Koyama says. “If you take away sex work, chances are they will be doing something else that is also criminalized, like drugs or shoplifting, in order to survive. So it’s not going to be a solution to just get rid of the sex trade.”
Many sex workers and researchers prefer decriminalization, which would simply remove criminal penalties for sex work. Crimes associated with trafficking—compelling and promoting prostitution, assault, child abuse and kidnapping—would remain illegal.
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty says decriminalizing sex work would free up resources for police to address bigger problems.
“I don’t believe stings to catch consenting adults engaged in sex is a good use of limited public safety resources,” Hardesty says. “Portlanders are deeply concerned about gun violence, robberies, traffic violence, and a host of far more serious issues. PPB should match the community’s priorities.”
State Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland) was the chief sponsor of the 2020 bill to decriminalize sex work. “I think a lot of people have trouble believing that someone would choose this as a profession,” he says. “And what I would say to those people is: Talk to some actual sex workers.”
For Sutton, police stings are a blunt instrument that only complicates their efforts to avoid the more dangerous aspects of sex work.
“If the stings advertised underage girls, that’s legit, obviously,” Sutton says. “I am all for that. Men should not be seeking out the services of underage girls. But baiting men with seemingly consensual providers who are of age only punishes consensual sex work.
“It means the arrest of good clients like Dave who keep the realm of sex work safe for us.”
Dive Deeper: Listen to interviews about this story on the Dive podcast, available Oct. 23 on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and wweek.com.
Who Gets Busted
Dave Hunt’s arrest was unusual in one respect: He was white.
Fewer than half of suspects arrested for solicitation in Portland are white—45% where a race or ethnicity is listed. And such arrests substantially underrepresent white people in a city where over 77% of the population is white. Police listed over half of arrestees for solicitation as Black, Indian, Asian or other.
That’s odd, experts say, because people of all races and ethnicities buy sex at similar rates.
“Research has shown that those who are [arrested for] buying sex in other places roughly mirror the racial composition of the population,” says Mark Leymon, a professor of criminology at Portland State University.
The data shows arrests for solicitation in Portland do not, Leymon adds. “They’re skewed to nonwhite, particularly for Black individuals. It definitely raises a lot of red flags.”
Stuck in Trafficking
You could view Dave Hunt’s awkward arrest as part of a long continuum of Portland law enforcement’s struggles with sex work, which reaches back to the city’s founding but has a direct predecessor in the 2000s, when the city experimented with “prostitution-free zones.”
For 15 years, the exclusion zones, which included Northeast 82nd Avenue from Skidmore to Burnside streets and Northwest Portland between 14th and 23rd avenues, allowed police to ban from those areas anyone arrested—not convicted, but arrested—on prostitution charges.
Faced with evidence that such exclusions were unconstitutional and racist, the Portland City Council allowed them to expire in 2007.
Two years later, the Portland Police Bureau created the Sex Trafficking Unit, taking over policing of sex work and trafficking from the Vice Unit (since renamed Narcotics and Organized Crime).
The name of the unit—”sex trafficking”—was in vogue.
“That’s when the whole idea started of white girls from good families being kidnapped,” says Emi Koyama, a Portland sex worker who was involved in organizing against the city’s prostitution-free zones.
Bill Hillar, a self-styled anti-trafficking trainer who later went to prison for lying about his credentials, gave regular talks in 2010 at Kells Irish Pub, scheduled by Multnomah County commissioners to coincide with official meetings on sex trafficking. Hillar worked with police and the FBI and falsely claimed his daughter was kidnapped by traffickers and the incident was the basis for the Liam Neeson movie Taken.
Hillar turned out to be a fraud. But his 2011 conviction for wire fraud related to his deception had little effect on the momentum to fight the trafficking he described.
On several occasions, Portland made national news with law enforcement claims that the city was a hub for human trafficking. A 2013 study by Chris Carey, a professor of criminology at Portland State University, made the strongest case. The study said 469 children—average age 15—had been trafficked for commercial sex in Oregon over four years.
Carey stands by his report. “I was just trying to help those agencies get a handle on what was happening,” he says.
There’s no question that people, some of them teenagers, are being forced into selling sex in Portland.
But sex trafficking is notoriously difficult to quantify. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, says there are no good numbers for tracking the true scope of sex trafficking, in Portland or anywhere else.
“People have thrown out estimates, but the truth is, it’s a very difficult problem to assess and count in a scientifically valid way,” Finkelhor says. “All the assessments I’ve seen have been very flawed.”
In early 2019, PPB moved the Sex Trafficking Unit out of the East Precinct, where it was independent, and merged it with the Human Trafficking Unit. Sgt. Mark Georgioff, the former unit leader, says stings were scaled back then—but increased at the insistence of the DA’s office.
Bear Wilner-Nugent, a Portland defense lawyer who has represented clients in state and federal court charged with selling and buying sex, says trafficking is a buzzword that unlocks government coffers.
“It’s a ratchet that’s used for ever more funding because it’s a problem where the actual details are little known to policymakers,” Wilner-Nugent says. “The statistics are not well kept and well agreed upon, and policymakers are not aware of accurate numbers, so they can be manipulated.”
In 2018, the Portland Police Bureau secured a three-year, $824,000 grant from the federal Office of Victims of Crime to hire three advocates for the Human Trafficking Unit. Their job: help adults over the age of 26 who police think are being forced to engage in sex work.
The city kicked in additional funding to bring the total to $1 million.
To show the feds how the money was spent, the PPB advocates collected “victim assessment surveys” in which trafficking survivors recounted how police helped them. Over three years, the bureau completed 15 such surveys.
Online sex stings in Portland operate in the shadow of federal legislation that did little to achieve its goal of ending human trafficking, but did manage to make life more dangerous for sex workers.
In 2018, Congress passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. They’re better known by their acronyms: SESTA/FOSTA. Similar to the Portland Police Bureau’s arrest warrant language about placing ads for stings on “known trafficking websites,” the law was intended to shut down online purveyors of sex. But it’s done little to reduce trafficking, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The U.S. Department of Justice has used the law to prosecute just one case in the three years since it was passed. Instead, SESTA/FOSTA made it harder to investigate trafficking because the online platforms where sex workers advertise simply moved overseas after the law passed to avoid prosecution.
Natalie Weaver, who for five years coordinated Multnomah County’s response to sex trafficking, says the law made things worse in Portland as well.
“We’ve had many accounts of sex workers being targeted by traffickers after that law was passed because the trafficker knew the sex workers were in a more vulnerable position with the law change,” Weaver says.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) opposed the law. He tells WW that SESTA/FOSTA created “massive collateral damage for marginalized communities.” Police should focus on fighting trafficking, he adds, instead of compounding the “skyrocketing violence against sex workers” caused by the federal law.
“It’s clear law enforcement needs to do a lot more to distinguish between adults who are making their own decisions and victims who have been coerced or threatened into awful situations,” Wyden says.
What happened with SESTA/FOSTA matches the pattern of PPB’s Human Trafficking Unit. In both cases, sex workers have warned against policies they say will expose them to greater danger. But officials carry on, in the name of helping them.
Laura LeMoon, a Seattle sex worker and trafficking survivor who fought passage of the SESTA/FOSTA, says it forced a lot of sex workers into more dangerous situations.
“When you limit people’s opportunities for online sex work, you kind of by default make sex workers less safe,” LeMoon says. “Online work is, in a lot of ways, more safe than outdoor sex work. You have the ability to screen clients in a way you wouldn’t outdoors, and you have the ability to say no in ways that you really couldn’t if you’re face to face. There are some clients who know this is going on and use it to their advantage—financially and also sexually. They know sex workers are desperate because all of our venues are going away.”