Jahn Teetsov

Shame is a powerful tool—one that Oregon lawmakers are trying to leverage in their ongoing fight against sex traffickers and those who pay for sex.

The theory, according to two Oregon legislators, is simple: The more negative consequences for a crime, the less that crime will happen. So State Sen. Kathleeen Taylor and State Rep. John Huffman are pushing new laws that would suspend professional, recreational, and driver’s licenses of people busted for visiting a sex worker, purchasing sex with a minor, or “compelling” or “promoting” prostitution.

“The idea is to hold the johns—the purchaser—a little bit more accountable,” said Taylor last month at a House Judiciary Committee hearing. “And yes, there is a shame component to it.”

Notably, the legislation the Milwaukie Democrat is helping push doesn’t require additional penalties against sex workers themselves. Taylor and Huffman (R-The Dalles) introduced two bills in January—one that would suspend driver’s licenses, the other that could suspend state professional and recreational licenses.

Though the bills were tabled last week “due to various legal and stakeholder input,” Taylor tells the Mercury | “a new bill will be put forward which will combine elements of these two bills.” The new legislation could also mandate something known as “john school,” which aims to teach men about negative effects of paying for sex, both for themselves and the sellers.

The unified bill has yet to be drafted.

Proponents of this strategy—more penalties leading to increased deterrence—say it’s necessary to combat child sex trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable people, usually women.

Detractors, like the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (OCDLA), say it will only hinder people from getting their lives back on track after a conviction, citing a 2016 state study that found “the inability to obtain or reinstate a driver’s license is one of the single greatest barriers to obtain/maintain stable employment.”

One Portland-based organization, STROLL, is more worried about the bill’s effect on sex workers. The advocacy group says that by ramping up penalties for johns, the legislation could force sex workers into more hidden or remote places that will make them increasingly susceptible to violence. That’s a similar position to those held by groups like Amnesty International and the World Health Organization, which have advocated for decriminalization of sex work.

Prosecutors, of course, don’t buy it. JR Ujifusa, a state and federal prosecutor who handles most of Portland’s sex trafficking cases, is one of the main advocates for the stricter strategy.

“When you reduce the demand, you’re reducing the entire crime in general,” he tells the Mercury. “The best way to combat some of the demand side is to bring [convictions] out in the open.”

Under the proposal, a person charged with one of four prostitution-related crimes would be required to supply the court with a list of their professional and recreational licenses. That could rope in doctors, teachers, cosmetologists, contractors, liquor licensees, hunters, anglers, and so on.

The court would inform applicable state boards of a conviction, and licenses would be suspended.

Under one of the now-tabled bills floated in January, driver’s licenses would be suspended for six months. It’s possible the specifics will change in the yet-to-be-introduced legislation.

Ujifusa believes people will be less likely to patronize sex workers “if you know the risk may be your livelihood or your hobby.”

But what about, for example, studies that show that capital punishment doesn’t necessarily deter murder? Ujifusa cites research he says shows that concept doesn’t apply here. Unlike many murders, “where things escalate quickly,” seeking a sex worker is usually more deliberate, he says.

“Getting on Backpage, logging on, searching around for someone to make an agreement for sex, then hopping in your car, going and getting money out of the ATM, meeting at a hotel—it’s a pretty calculated formula of steps,” Ujifusa says. “When buyers were asked ‘What would deter you the most from these things?’, out of their own mouths they talked about either their significant other, or family members, or employer knowing about it.”

OCDLA legislative representative Mary Sell criticized revoking driver’s licenses for a crime with a “lack of connection to road safety,” saying the average person will likely be unaware that would be a consequence for getting arrested for paying for sex. And “losing a license makes it incredibly difficult for people to reintegrate into society,” Sell said.

Gail Meyer, an OCDLA lobbyist, criticized the bills because they go after those charged with common prostitution (one adult paying another adult for sex) the same as they do pimps and sex traffickers.

“Our legislative committee looked at this—everybody was a little puzzled, because we’d never seen anything like this before,” Meyer said at the judiciary committee hearing last month. “This is pretty broad-reaching, because the whole issue of whether or not two consenting adults ought to be able to choose whether or not they want to engage in sex for a fee is sort of getting swept under the rug.”

State Rep. Jeff Barker, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a retired Portland police lieutenant, disagreed, saying: “I’m sure there are consenting adults having paid sex, but for the most part, prostitution isn’t the pretty girl movie, it’s much different than that.”

Barker described an early morning breakfast he’d recently had on 82nd. “The morning shift was coming out and they were a pretty bedraggled bunch of sorry-looking people,” he said. “Where’s your life when you’re out on 82nd and Powell on a Saturday morning trying to buy meth and sell yourself? It’s pretty horrendous stuff.”

After much debate about the original bills introduced earlier this year, a new unified bill should be coming soon.

“We are in the waiting game,” Amanda Kraus, Taylor’s legislative assistant, told the Mercury on Monday. “We had assistance from legal experts in framing our amendment language to Legislative Counsel and have not received the drafted amendment to share with stakeholders.”