Portland, OR

Tactics Used

Reverse stings
Auto seizure
Community service
Public education
Neighborhood action
SOAP orders
John school
Web stings
License suspension

Portland, Oregon has a long history of serious and visible problems associated with prostitution and sex trafficking. Child sex trafficking is a particularly serious and documented problem in the city, and Portland is known to be a major stop on domestic and international sex trafficking networks.  A serial killer who targeted sex sellers has also operated in the city.

Portland has mobilized to address demand for commercial sex since the mid-1970s, and possibly before.  Local police began conducting reverse stings in 1974.  Since then, the city has employed nearly all of the types of tactics known to have been used to combat demand.  For example, Portland was also a pioneer in the systematic use of SOAP orders (geographic exclusion zones for those arrested for soliciting prostitution – including buyers), and has used “dear john” letters sent to the homes of sex buyers; public education and awareness focusing on demand; neighborhood group efforts; auto seizures; and community service. The city launched a john school in 1995, the same year that San Francisco started its program (which is widely – but erroneously – regarded as the first.  It was cancelled two years later, and a second john school ran from 2003-2006.  The city launched a third program in January, 2011, which is currently operating. More information about these programs is provided below.

John Schools

#1: Sexual Exploitation Education Project.  The city’s first sex buyer education program was the Sexual Exploitation Education Project (SEEP).  It was active in 1995-1997, and was run by the Council for Prostitution Alternatives through an informal agreement with Multnomah County District Attorney and the District Court.  SEEP was a three-day classroom program, established as a condition of a sentence rather than as a diversion option resulting in dismissed charges.  The program was cancelled due to a lack of support by local law enforcement agencies, including the courts that stopped referring men to the program.  Published reports state that the program was considered by local agencies to be too polemic and political, rather than educational and practical. Having never seen the program, we cannot comment on the validity of the claims of SEEP’s detractors or supporters, although references and links to their reports are provided below. The reports also provide more detail about the program’s structure, curriculum, and operation.  For a summary of SEEP’s basic features, as well as those of the other two Portland/Multnomah County john schools, click here:  Three Portland John Schools: Summary Table.

#2: Portland Prostitution Offender Program.  The city’s second john school was the Portland Prostitution Offender Program (PPOP).  It operated from 2003 to 2006, and was led by the Lola Greene Baldwin Foundation, in partnership with the Multnomah County Community and Circuit Courts.  The program was designed as a condition of a sentence, rather than a diversion, as was its predecessor – SEEP.  In the PPOP, successful completion of the john school would result a reduction in the number of hours offenders were required to perform community service (another standard condition of their sentence).  One of the reasons the program was discontinued after two years was that an unusually small program fee was charged to offenders, which resulted in the PPOP not being financially self-sustaining, as are most john schools.  The PPOP charged $83, while the national average john school fee or fine is approximately $400 and can range as high as $1,500 (Norfolk, VA).

#3: Sex Buyer Accountability Diversion program.  Five years after the PPOP ended, the city of Portland and the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office initiated a third john school program, the Sex Buyer Accountability Diversion program (SBAD).  Launched in January 2011, the program was modeled explicitly after San Francisco’s FOPP, unlike its two predecessors.  It is a diversion program, where meeting all of the requirements results in a case dismissal.  The fee is $1,000, with provisions for a sliding scale based on ability to pay. The program is financially supported entirely by fees from the offenders, and excess revenue is used to support programs for survivors of commercial sex and sex trafficking.  As of May, 2013, this program, administered by Lifeworks Northwest and the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, is still operating and has had over 200 participants.

Geographic Exclusion Zone (SOAP Orders)

Like most greater metro regions, Portland and Multnomah County have a street with a long history of being a focal point for street prostitution, and that have high concentrations of sexually-oriented businesses, storefront brothels, and motels catering to (or tolerating) prostitution. In Portland and beyond, this is 82nd Avenue, and is akin to strips such as the Miracle Mile in Tucson, AZ and Mannheim Boulevard in Cook County, IL.  In 1995, the city passed an ordinance (Portland City Code Sec. 14B.30) and police began enforcing the “Prostitution Free Zone” that focused on 82nd Avenue and an area surrounding it.  The geographic exclusion zone (also known generically in some cities as a SOAP Order, for Stay away from Areas with Prostitution) is broadly written and enforced to include both buyers and sellers of sex, and a larger number of orders have been applied to sex sellers than buyers.  However, it is a tool that is used to punish and discourage arrested sex buyers.  In simplest terms, those arrested for prostitution offenses can be ordered to stay out of the defined zone, and violations of this restriction can result in enhanced penalties.  Portland’s ordinance and other reference materials about the Prostitution Free Zone are provided below.

The Prostitution Free Zone was challenged as an inappropriate restriction on individual freedoms and for being unevenly applied across races, and incurred costs in its enforcement.  Due to budget cuts to law enforcement agencies and other concerns, the Zone was allowed to expire or “sunset” in September, 2007.  Reportedly, soon after the Zone expired residents, businesses, and those traveling through the area observed a rapid and substantial increase in prostitution in the area, and in problems associated with it – e.g., in a rise in street crime rates, harassment of residents and business patrons by sex buyers, sellers, and pimps, and calls for service to police from the area increased.  Police attempted to compensate for the loss of the zone by increased patrols and enforcement efforts.  Community groups mobilized and formed a Prostitution Advisory Council, which wrote a report and in late 2009 presented to city officials recommendations for reinstatement of the Zone and other measures such as re-establishing a john school (which was not active at that time).

Neighborhood Action

Portland has had many neighborhood groups and organizations that have formed and mobilized to combat prostitution and sex trafficking.  Some of their efforts have been specifically focused on demand.  For example, the community-driven Prostitution Advisory Council wrote a report and presented to city officials recommendations for reinstatement of SOAP orders and re-establishing a john school.

Reverse Stings

Police have used women decoys to arrest sex buyers since at least 1982.  During that year, Portland Police Bureau made 1,600 prostitution arrests, of which 400 were arrested buyers. In January and June of 2018, a web-based reverse sting resulted in the arrest of 43 sex buyers. During the operations, investigators communicated online with the people seeking to pay for sex acts.  Seven local law enforcement agencies collaborated in the anti-human trafficking effort, with arrests occurring at multiple area hotels.  Other agencies involved in the operation included the Portland Police Bureau, Hillsboro Police Department, Vancouver Police Department, Lake Oswego Police Department, Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, and Oregon State Police.  In a similar operation in November 2018, undercover investigators communicated online with people seeking sexual acts in exchange for money, and arrested the sex buyers who arrived at the two hotels in Portland and Hillsboro to complete the transactions.

Public Awareness/Deterrence

In 1983, the city unveiled three billboards with the message, “If you’re looking for a prostitute, plan on getting arrested.”

Key Partners

Involved in Current Efforts to Combat Demand

  • Portland Police Bureau
  • Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office
  • Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department
  • Office of the Multnomah County Commissioner
  • Lifeworks Northwest
  • Sexual Assault Resource Center
  • Take Back 82nd
  • Montavilla Neighborhood Association
  • Montavilla in Action (ad hoc neighborhood organization, 2008)

Involved in Previous Efforts to Combat Demand

  • Council for Prostitution Alternatives
  • Lola Green Baldwin Foundation

Key Sources


State Oregon
Type City
Population 550396
Comments are closed.