PORTLAND, Ore. (WOMENSENEWS) — In Oregon, teenagers are partying at trap houses, successors of crack houses of the 1980s and ’90s. Besides drugs, today’s trap houses host games of bondage, dominance and sado — masochism — also known as BDSM — for which there is no “safe word” that says “stop” and no exit without consequences.
These places aren’t what trap shooters use at country clubs. The Urban Dictionary defines “trap house” as an apartment or private house, sometimes in public housing projects, where multiple drug dealers (known as “trap stars” or “trap lords”) do business. Trap houses attract teens from a wide variety of backgrounds. On the other side of the country from Oregon, a female student at the University of Connecticut recently tweeted, “Come on over to my trap house!”
Trap houses have been glamorized by trap music, a rap genre that originated in the South in the 1990s. Trap rap is going mainstream: One rapper in Atlanta opened a clothing store decorated to look like a trap house, with crack — cooking equipment. And on Aug. 8 in Seattle, Taylor Swift performed a duet with rapper Fetty Wap on his 2014 hit “Trap Queen.”
Portland, Oregon‘s largest city, was hard hit by the crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s. Sex in exchange for crack in a ’90s crack house in North East Portland, historically an African American neighborhood, is indelibly described in novelist Mitchell S. Jackson‘s “The Residue Years.” Today, on Oregon‘s coast, similar “tweeker houses” hawk methamphetamine.
Lonnie Nettles is the manager of community justice for Multnomah County, which includes Portland. She said trap houses are often houses built in the so-called shotgun style, with only one door: “one way in, one way out.”
Some women’s safety advocates in the state suspect trap houses — however they are constructed — are putting girls at risk of sex trafficking. Oregon provides plenty of reason for such suspicions. It has more sex offenders per capita than any other state, and the second highest incidence of rape, after Alaska.
After Seattle, Portland has the second highest incidence of sex trafficking of any city in the country. The city has been called “a sex worker’s paradise” by the editor of the story collection “Portland Noir.” There are more strip clubs per capita in Portland than in any other U.S. city.
Nowadays, contemporary trap houses in Oregon are associated with BDSM parties, as well as drugs.
One habituee, a high school junior I located through a local female teens’ advocacy group and interviewed several times, said Portland trap houses are always crowded with young people, especially female teens. She knows about more than 20 trap houses in the city’s North East and South East neighborhoods as well as many more in Vancouver, Wash., just across the Columbia River from Portland. She has gone to more than 30, and said she really enjoys the parties.
She said the first one she visited was in North East Portland, where she lives. One evening in summer 2014, she and a group of friends had nothing to do. They turned to Facebook and posted a question: “What’s doing out there tonight?” An older boy, 19, replied, “Come on over to my trap house,” and gave them a nearby address.
When they arrived they found a gathering known as a kickback. “These are pretty cool,” said the teen, who asked to remain anonymous. “The first time, you pay to get in; $10 for boys, $5 for girls after 9 p.m.” The next time, she said, entrance can be gained by a “blunt,” or marijuana cigarette. Guests at kickbacks sit around smoking marijuana, watching music videos and playing Xbox and other video games.
Trap houses also host sex — game parties that are “open to random things,” the teen said. Since females can get in for free until 9 p.m., the teen said, “there are always lots of girls” at trap house parties. To join in, this teen and her friends went to a shopping mall and bought a card game called Fifty Days of Play. Inspired by “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the popular trilogy of novels about BDSM, the first of which was made into a 2015 movie, Fifty Days of Play is a game of dare that requires players to choose cards whose colors range from virginal white to vanilla to deep grey to seductive black (the most extreme). The colors correspond to what degree of BDSM a player is willing to do.
Each card directs a player and partner to perform different acts in front of others in the trap house, including role — playing and bondage. For example, the game defines relatively mild vanilla as “teasing tasters building anticipation.” Drawing a vanilla card might mean that you and your partner watch an erotic film together and “let the film carry you away.” Black is defined as “kinky and erotic concepts for raunchy fun,” with acts including gagging your partner with a leather glove, tying them to a chair with rope or blindfolding and using ear plugs so your partner “will have no idea where you are or what you are doing.”
“Vanilla and black are the most fun,” said the teen.
Boys on Top
While the card game does allow females to play dominatrix roles, that doesn’t happen in Portland’s trap houses. The teen said the script there aligns with the film “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Males are always on top, so they can show off their masculinity to their friends.
Even if a safe word were available for either partner to call out to halt the sex play, it might not be possible to utter one, depending on how a player is bound and gagged. “Usually it’s a girl who’s uncomfortable,” the teen said. “You get called names — ‘you’re a ho!’ — if you quit the game. You’re messing it up for other players.”
In Portland, older male teens usually host parties at trap houses they share with roommates, or at home while their parents are away. A Teen Voices correspondent, Lee Ann Montgomery, approached three male organizers of trap house parties to find out how much money they make and how they attract party guests. None would talk. One male teen asked for money or marijuana in exchange for an interview.
Portland trap houses attract professional sex workers, too. My teen source noted that prostitutes come looking for drugs and clients. Some of the biggest trap house parties — known as “mansion parties” held at Halloween and Christmas — for example, are hosted by escorts. Sometimes professionals try to recruit female teens. My source said she “got into a fight” once at a trap house with a prostitute who was inveigling a friend her own age.
The only time the teen said she has seen police at a trap house was in Vancouver, where a fight broke out among some male teens. But she did not have any direct contact with police, even then.
Sinister Soirees And No Recourse
Far south of Portland, at Marta’s House, a shelter in Klamath Falls for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, staffers knew nothing about trap houses until January 2015, when they convened a group of 42 teens from Klamath County’s Hispanic farming and Native American communities for input on a video for the teens’ peers. One young Hispanic woman offered, “What about the trap houses?”
Wanda Powless, executive director of Marta’s House, recalled, “The other teens got that ‘deer in headlights’ look. They were very hesitant to talk.”
After assuring the group that no names would be used and no reports made to police, staffers learned — mostly from the girls present — that at local trap houses, “if you walk in the door, you understand that you will have sex, whether you want to or not. You can’t say, ‘I don’t want to participate,'” said Powless. “You don’t have a choice.”
Outside Klamath Falls, in Klamath County’s rural areas and very small towns, trap houses are usually empty, abandoned homes. Girls are given wristbands, whose colors (red, blue, green, etc.) signal what each wearer is willing to do. If a girl leaves the party or helps another girl get out, punishment can be dire.
For more than a year before the film “Fifty Shades of Grey” was released and made trap houses more popular among teens, Powless said Marta’s House was already receiving odd reports. “If girls talked to anyone in authority or reported that something had happened to them, they were beaten up by other girls. We knew that there was a group of girls — and some boys, too — who were intimidating.” Some female teens had been shunned or banned by bands of their friends.
Powless is sure she sees the seeds of sex trafficking in local trap houses, but “the code of silence and secrecy is so strong” that she can’t confirm her suspicions. The teen group refused to talk at all about who was organizing the sex parties — even to say whether they were men or women — at trap houses or how a party is assembled. Powless suspects organizers recruit female teens “in a roundabout way” to bring others to the parties. The organizers, she said, seem to target girls who are vulnerable, naïve, from marginalized communities.
“The girls probably send out texts to one another. The man or group of guys in charge of the trap houses lets the girls do the work of recruiting other girls to come to parties, and so he would be able to walk away from being charged,” she said.
Donald Rees, chief deputy district attorney for Multmonah County, had not heard of trap houses. But he confirmed that Oregon state law requires consent at every level of sexual act, and that the age of consent is 18. However, there are exceptions for teens close in age: “Legally, teens can have sex if they are within three years of age of each other.”
Law Enforcement ‘Non — Existent’
Although the odds that an American Indian woman or girl will be raped are 1-in-3, two staffers for the Klamath Tribes (Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin) said that law enforcement in Klamath County was “almost non-existent for everyone, not just the tribes.” The Klamath Tribes do not have their own police, and Oregon is one of only six states where the state has civil and criminal jurisdiction over Native Americans.
Powless said some teens told her and other staffers at the center: “‘What difference would it make to report [rape or sex abuse]? Nothing is done anyway. No one really believes us because we’re young.'” According to Powless, local schools “refuse to take trap houses seriously.”
The county sheriff has reportedly denied any sex trafficking in Klamath County. In late August, the Oregon State Department of Justice announced it was launching a criminal investigation of the Klamath County sheriff. He and seven deputies are on administrative leave for the investigation’s duration. Powless added that some teens “even seemed to think what happens at trap houses is normal: ‘What’s the big deal?'”
This does not surprise Lea Sevey, chair of the board of the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “Fifty Shades of Grey” and online porn, she pointed out, give young people the impression that sex is “rough, violent and against someone’s will.” Sevey also noted that trap houses would be attractive to traffickers, who generally seek victims between the ages of 12 to 17, and look for them where young people congregate — “malls, video — game arcades, treatment facilities, shelters” — and trap houses.
Back in Portland, our high school source called the BDSM games of Fifty Days of Play “a modern version of spin the bottle.” She said a trap house is very “easy to find: ask the drug dealer in your class or ask on Facebook,” which has a page called Your Nearest Trap House. Elsewhere, Yahoo Answers includes “Where’s the nearest trap house?” – and answers, as well.
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