PORTLAND, Ore. — The nonprofit organization Cupcake Girls has been providing support and resources for sex workers and victims of sex trafficking for nearly a decade.
It had more than 41,000 interactions with people seeking assistance and 759 clients in their direct care program in 2020, according to executive director Amy-Marie Merrell.
The organization tracks individual interactions from people who are looking for referrals or maybe need a few resources temporarily. Anyone enrolled in the client program with Cupcake Girls meets with them every week or every other week and are assigned an advocate.
Although commercial sex is illegal in Oregon, there are consenting adults in Portland who choose to work in the sex industry. Merrell said it was after she saw an apparent need for services and resources in Portland she started working for the Portland branch in 2012. The Portland location opened in 2011 and the nonprofit originally was originally founded in Las Vegas.
The nonprofit adopted The Cupcake Girls as their name because originally the group of volunteers would go out to strip clubs or illegal brothels with a pink box of cupcakes. After doing a few outreach events, the name stuck.
Merrell said sex workers and victims of sex trafficking are "historically underserved and underrepresented communities in our country."
One of the agencies actively working to reduce these statistics is the Portland Police Bureau (PPB).
When asked about PPB's approach to sex trafficking and consensual sex workers, they responded via email about the role the Human Sex Trafficking Unit (HTU) plays in serving this community. Lieutenant Franz Schoening said:
"Currently, in Oregon, it is a crime to purchase sex. Most people who are looking to purchase sex use websites and social media apps. An advertisement placed by a person who is engaged in consensual sex work is indistinguishable from an advertisement posted at the direction of a trafficker. Therefore, a buyer of sex cannot determine if the person they are attempting to purchase sex from is being trafficked."
Schoening added, although there may be people who consensually engage in sex work, the majority of people HTU contacts are being coerced.
“It’s important that we recognize humans as humans,” Merrell said. "Our clients are experiencing multiple intersectionalities of oppression, included but not limited to race-based violence, gender oppressions, rampant misinformation, stigma about the sex industry, mental health, physical health challenges, food and housing insecurity.“
One of the ways The Cupcake Girls helps their clients combat these issues is through education and community outreach. Merrell said the stigma society places on sex workers creates considerable barriers for victims to report any type of crime committed against them, making it more difficult to access public aid or medical care.
Some of the additional support The Cupcake Girls provides includes partnering with doctors, tax preparers, therapists and legal counsel, as well parent and family services.
Merrell herself has been with the Portland organization since its inception in 2012 and remembers vividly the moment this cause became her mission.
She was running in downtown Portland with her dog when she noticed a man grabbing a woman and punching her in her side. Horrified, Merrell ran into a Safeway to alert a security guard, but the guard made a comment that the woman was "just a sex worker" and she’d only be arrested anyway.
“By the time I got back she was gone and I think about this woman a lot,” Merrell said.
Something didn’t sit right with Merrell after that day, so she began calling the police department looking for answers. After a few phone calls and emails with city leaders, she recalled being told that if she wanted to make any change in the system, she'd need to get involved with legislation or get involved with grassroots nonprofits.
"So I've done both," Merrell said.
She understands not everyone is in favor of her advocacy work or who she helps but said her clients are humans like everyone else.
"These people are mothers, daughters, sons and they are valuable humans and they're some of the most courageous, tenacious people I have ever met in my life and I am inspired by them daily," Merrell said with a quivering voice.
She started to tear up as she said, “I've been doing this work a long time and I get very emotional about this. I have a kid, and she's 7, and I look at her and I'm like, everyone starts out like this. What happened where all of a sudden I hate these people because they're so different from me?”
Merrell said it comes back to how people treat the most vulnerable people in our society.
Merrell said she serves the community by empowering individuals with holistic resources, case management and aftercare. The Cupcake Girls is both an advocate and ally by providing a nonjudgmental place where people can feel safe accessing vital services.
The nonprofit has recently been working with the Portland Street Response Team (PSRT) to better meet its clients’ needs.
Merrell says this involves training sessions with PSRT involving discussions on understanding the culture of sex work and how to recognize the difference between sex work and sex trafficking.
Since the team is made up of first responders it's important they learn more about the people that they might be interacting with, Merrell said.
Sex trafficking can take many different forms of abuse and present in many different ways.
Sgt. Kristine Butcher, part of PPB's Human Sex Trafficking Unit expanded on why these cases vary greatly for the department along with how it sometimes takes weeks or months before it's determined someone is a survivor of human trafficking.
“One of the biggest challenges is to develop that trust and have them see we understand and we are sensitive to their stories — because each one comes with a different story— that oftentimes they’re not only victims of human trafficking but multiple crimes,” Butcher said.
These crimes range from abuse in the past, sex crimes, or child abuse, Butcher said and she’s sensitive to that. “We know they’re working through a bunch of traumas so one of the main goals is to get them stable and whole again.”
From that point on it’s about helping them further down the road whether that's criminal prosecution or helping survivors of trafficking become healthier, better people through accessing community services.
The HTU’s main focus is juveniles who are victims of sex trafficking, Butcher said.
Butcher hopes there’s not this huge misconception that a sex worker is going to be arrested if they contact the police because that’s not the way PPB handles their calls for service, she said.
“Just because they choose to do whatever they do for money doesn’t mean that we show up and arrest them or cite them. We’re there because a victim of a crime is calling us,” Butcher said.
Portland police haven’t arrested or charged a female with the crime of prostitution in over two years, according to Butcher.
The HTU has a victim-centered trauma-informed approach, Butcher said. An embedded advocate from the HTU works with a victim on what their needs are which could be basic life resources such as clothing or housing.
“If we’re not making the victims safer and feel more whole, then we’re missing the boat,” Butcher said.
Butcher said there are a few ways someone can report they’re a victim of human trafficking.
Any organizations or businesses interested in becoming a partner can contact The Cupcake Girls directly about offering services for their clients.
The Cupcake Girls are always accepting donations to help their cause as well. Anyone can donate by visiting this link on their website.