In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cameron House in San Francisco was a refuge for girls rescued from sexual slavery. Photo: Cameron House

Today is International Women’s Day and one of the leaders in the effort to help vulnerable girls and women is UC Berkeley graduate Rebecca Sorla Portnoff, who uses digital tools to disrupt the business of human trafficking.

Portnoff, 29, earned a Ph.D. in computer science from Cal in 2017. Although her skills could have led her to a lucrative job in the private sector, she chose instead to work for Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, a group that uses technology to fight the sexual abuse of children and human trafficking.

Portnoff uses her computer sleuthing talents to track down and catch sex traffickers. Her efforts, as one woman helping many other women, use cutting-edge techniques, but the spirit of her assistance is not new. I have spent years researching her predecessors: a group of Victorian-era women who shared her concerns. In 1874, these women opened a “safe house” on the edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown called Cameron House.

Like Portnoff’s work, their activities disrupted the thriving trade in women between China and America. They faced physical threats and legal challenges, including sticks of dynamite placed at their doorstep. They offered a guarded place for survivors of sex slavery and other forms of servitude to escape to, with barred windows and latched doors Their work threatened their century’s business model of human trafficking.

There are some notable differences — and at least one surprising similarity — between Portnoff’s work and these early, organized efforts to disrupt trafficking, which took place in the latter half of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th. Few of those women had college degrees (women were first admitted to UC Berkeley in 1871, and far later to most Ivy League schools). Most of them did not work outside the home since many professions were closed to women. And they did not have the right to vote.

Portnoff, by contrast, knew by the end of her freshman year at Princeton that she wanted to follow her father into computer science. And, while most students in her field were men, she wasn’t the only woman as she earned her Ph.D. from Cal. While her Victorian predecessors piled their hair in elaborate styles, Portnoff wears her dark tresses in a bun or ponytail and dresses in jeans and a T-shirt, not corsets and long skirts, to work.

She was inspired to work for a nonprofit by the book HALF THE WORLD: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn.

“I was moved and inspired by the efforts women made to improve their lives,” she told me.

While the Victorian-era activists were known to climb ladders, scramble across rooftops, and barge into brothels to help vulnerable women and children, Portnoff works on a laptop, often tracking down traffickers who are operating hundred or thousands of miles away. She creates computer codes that spot or identify similarities in traffickers’ online ads and to hunt down the Bitcoin accounts used to pay for the advertisements. One bitcoin account spent more than $150,000 for about 5,000 sex advertisements, she said. Most were in the Bay Area and advertised young Asian women, according to the Daily Californian.

UC Berkeley produced a fascinating video of Portnoff’s work (see below). She hasn’t faced the sort of threats that the women of Chinatown’s Presbyterian Mission Home experienced. However, comments have been disabled from the recent video posted of her work, since trolling is one of the hazards that Portnoff and others in her field face. She handles other kinds of threats through teamwork.

“This is not something any single person can do by sweeping in and saving the day,” she says. “I have a team to watch my back.”

YouTube video

There are other clear similarities between then and now. Both instances are examples of women helping other women to find their freedom, deploying teamwork, organization and grit. And both the 19th-century anti-trafficking pioneers and Portnoff were inspired by their religious faith.

“I’m a Christian, and my choice to work in this space is directly derived from my understanding of the core tenents of the Christian faith: to love God, and to love my neighbor,” Portnoff said. “In this modern era, my neighbor can be both my physical neighbor next door, or the child a thousand miles away that I will never meet.”

While technology has changed (and, thankfully, most women no longer wear bustles) the compassionate spirit that infuses Portnoff is similar to that which inspired her anti-trafficking sisters many years ago.

Julia Flynn Siler is the author of ‘The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Trafficking in San Francisco’s Chinatown,’ which will be published in May.