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Woodburn City Council receives an accelerated lesson on human trafficking, illicit massage venues

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Woodburn City Hall

Woodburn City Council was presented with some eye-opening data last month when two women who work with victims of sexual and domestic abuse gave an abridged presentation about the realities surrounding the people they help.

One of the most staggering statistics involved commercial sexual exploitation, which sees global profits that exceed $150 billion dollars.

"Globally, it is the largest, fastest-growing, commercial-criminal enterprise in the 21st century," said Esther Nelson, founder of Safety Compass, which provides advocacy for human trafficking survivors in Marion, Clackamas and Washington counties.

Nelson was joined by D Howden, a training supervisor for the Center for Hope and Safety, in delivering the presentation. CHS primarily deals with domestic violence in Marion County, while Compass has a pulse on the broader exploitation and trafficking realm. Since issues surfaced earlier this year regarding a Woodburn business allegedly delivering illicit massage services, Howden ceded much of the presentation's allotted time to Nelson, who covered that topic explicitly.

Specifically, the illicit massage industry sees an estimated $2.5 billion in profits annually in the U.S.

"It is one of the largest and, I would say, definitely the most prolifically networked sex trafficking groups in the United States," Nelson said. "From all the data we've compiled, more than 11,000 business fronts exist in the United States."

That is a phenomenon that Nelson described as an explosion. Each site is estimated to generate between $277,000 and $1.2 million annually.

"That's not all from the sex sales; we do believe that a large portion of that is coming from drug trafficking moving through those sites," she said.

Nonetheless, Nelson asserted that the money generated funnels into the hands of exploiters who have no interest in community nor much empathy for their "employees."

"These are massive profits that are not staying here (locally), and they are not benefiting the people who are working or are being exploited in those environments," she said.

Ubiquitous issue

A national map of sex trafficking revealed areas where it is heavier than others, but it also indicated that the nation is heavily imbued with sexual exploitation throughout.

Potential venues involved are wide ranging, including illicit massage businesses, strip clubs, escort sites, dance/night clubs, hotels and motels, house brothels, seasonal work camps, video poker bars, casinos, truck stops, tracks (specific roads or streets used for trafficking), city parks, porn production sites and the internet.

"The internet is by far the biggest platform and pimp in the world," Nelson said.

That coupled with the proliferation of human trafficking and sexual exploitation of recent decades, Nelson stressed that this is not an issue specific to any specific geographical group or area — it is everyone's problem.


The trafficking within illicit massage venues tends to be more specific than that of other exploitive forms. Various indices of an IMV include the tone of ads for the establishment, hours of operation, signs of people living on site and communication tendencies.

A worker at such a site, for example, probably knows little to nothing about the surrounding community.

"Whether or not they are able to communicate with you in a way that would make you think that they would be able to navigate their own environment easily or would be able to do things like walk out and access groceries or transportation," Nelson portrayed a scenario.

"Unlike a lot of our other local trafficking, which is primarily domestic, almost 100% of people exploited within the illicit massage venue are international victims of human trafficking," Nelson explained. "The majority of them are, actually, of east Asian descent or Chinese. So, it's very specific."

She emphasized that phenomenon is not indicative of the broader world of trafficking. A person from any background is potentially vulnerable, and it's especially so if they come from economically challenged circumstances.

Victims often come from poverty, domestic violence situations or aging out of an orphanage with no other financial option. Recruiting occurs within their own country, and they are frequently lured into the situation with promises of working in a legitimate massage facility or trade. The opportunity to come to the U.S. is among the appeals.

"Once they get here, they are processed in a few key cities within the country that we are well aware of, and then they are moved around by the network approximately every two weeks to keep from being detected by local law enforcement as a regular face in the community," Nelson explained. "They also don't know where they are, so, they can't leave. They don't usually speak any English, and they are not familiar with the location that they are at when they are found."

Oppressive environments

Those exploited within the IMV's have often experienced sexual or physical violence, debt bondage, controlled mobility, dangerous working environments or homicide/femicide threats; they have been oppressed.

"I just wanted to point out that that is not the only microculture," Nelson said. "Other forms we see here locally, internet-based venues, app-based venues, local in-call and out-call activity at local motels, housing acting as brothels are very common in this county, and that's both domestic and international."

The biggest feeding factor within all of this is oppression. Nelson said the topic cannot be discussed accurately without the use of that word.

"Overwhelmingly, the people we see who are being victimized are part of the BIPOC communities in our local communities," Nelson said. "So, they are already being rendered vulnerable for many other reasons, and then they are being purchased by our communities in an additional form of dehumanization."

Nelson said the extent and severity of the violence endured by the many she's worked with is unspeakable in a venue such as the council chambers.

"I would just say that they experience a lot of physical violence in relation to whether or not they stay compliant with their network," she disclosed. "And if they get into the turf of another network by accident, that's also, like, potential aggravated assault or death. So, they don't have a lot of options."

Helpful recommendations

Nelson itemized a number of suggestions to guide a community away from this sort of exploitive environment scenario, and she emphasized that its important to avoid apathy or acceptance.

What communities should do is: ensure city ordinances do not accommodate unlicensed masseuses; commit to not consuming people as products; talk about and model respect and healthy boundaries with young people in your life; believe survivors of abuse when they come forward, and create pathways to safety for children so that they do not become vulnerable to being trafficked due to lack of safe alternatives to survive; believe that what you do makes a difference.

Along the same lines, communities should not perpetuate the demand; confront illicit massage venues workers or associations — that should be left to law enforcement; assume you can tell if someone is being trafficked by appearance or demeanor; be immobilized by the magnitude of the problem.

"We can alter the state of demand of one person at a time by our own actions," Nelson surmised.

The nonprofits

Learn more about Safety Compass at

Learn more about Center for Hope & Safety at

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