Multnomah County, OR

Tactics Used

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

Multnomah County is one of 36 counties in Oregon, and as of the 2017 United States Census estimate, the county’s population was over 800,000. Its county seat, Portland, is the state’s largest city. Prostitution and sex trafficking activity have been well-documented in the city of Portland and surrounding communities, and in unincorporated areas of Multnomah County.  This activity and the problems and ancillary crimes it generates results in complaints to law enforcement agencies from residents and businesses. Among the more serious crimes associated with the local commercial sex market is sex trafficking, and there have been numerous cases of assault, child trafficking, child endangerment and neglect, homicide, and other felines connected to commercial sex.  Consumer level demand provides the revenue stream for all prostitution and sex trafficking, and has therefore been targeted by local law enforcement agencies as a strategy for prevention and response.

To identify and apprehend local sex buyers driving the prostitution and sex trafficking markets, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office has worked with municipal police and state and federal agencies to conduct reverse stings since the 1970s.  Within the county, nearly all of the types of tactics known to have been used to combat demand have been implemented.  For example, Portland was 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.  In January 2011, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office and the city of Portland launched a third john school program, the Sex Buyer Accountability Diversion program (SBAD),which is currently operating in 2019.  More information about these programs is provided below.

John Schools

Since 2012, men in Multnomah County can be sentenced to terms of probation, incarceration in Lane County Jail and may receive reduced jail terms if eligible to serve in an alternative program, where they are required to take an eight-hour Sex Buyer Accountability class ran by LifeWorks NorthWest in Multnomah County.  There have been two previous programs fitting within the general “john school” concept.  All three are briefly described below.

#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

  • Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department
  • Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office
  • Office of the Multnomah County Commissioner
  • Portland Police Bureau
  • Lifeworks Northwest
  • Sexual Assault Resource Center
  • 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

National Assessment Survey, Interviews, and Site Visit

Information about Portland & Multnomah County’s 3rd and Current John School Program (Sex Buyer Accountability and Diversion):

Information about Portland’s 2nd John School Program (Portland Prostitution Offender Program):

Information about Portland’s 1st John School Program (Sexual Exploitation Education Program):

Information on SOAP Orders in Portland:

Reverse Stings:

Web-Based Reverse Stings:


Public Awareness and Deterrence:

Auto Seizure:

“Dear John” Letters:

Neighborhood Action:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Violence against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

State Oregon
Type County
Population 807555
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