(March 25, 2020) – The first thing to know about sex trafficking is that it’s not a foreign problem.
While we often associate sex trafficking with international crime syndicates and action movies, being trafficked for sex is a shockingly common experience for many young people in cities and towns, large and small, all across Canada.
Youth are being trafficked in our communities. Ninety three percent of them are Canadian citizens. Ninety percent are female. Their average age is 17 years old.
Covenant House, the largest agency serving youth in Canada says that, while traffickers recruit from all backgrounds, homeless youth are the most vulnerable and lower-income young people are often more at risk.
What they have in common is low self-esteem. They are looking for love and acceptance. Traffickers who often start off as “friends and boyfriends” use this as a means to ‘reel in’ the victims.
An estimated 16,000 people are being trafficked in Canada, according to Covenant House.
One victim, Amy, shared her experience,
“I did really well in school, I had a lot of friends, but I really hated the way I looked. I started dating Ryan; he just seemed really interested in me. He gave me a lot of attention. He loved me. He just made me feel really good about myself. We talked a lot about what we wanted and the future. I was in love with him. After two months he started telling me he had money problems. He told me his friend’s girlfriend was opening a massage parlour, and I should go and work there.”
More than 30 per cent of young women at Covenant House have worked in the sex trade at some time, including exchanging sex for food.Traffickers understand the vulnerability.
Government of Canada calls human trafficking, “one of the most heinous crimes imaginable, often described as a modern-day form of slavery.” In September 2019, it announced an investment of $57.22 million over five years to combat trafficking.
But Covenant House knew sex trafficking was a big problem long before 2019. How? They listened to the stories of its youth clients.
In 2016, it launched a $10 million Just Like a Girl You Know campaign to combat sex trafficking and help young people escape it.
“Sex trafficking is a crime,” they said, “but it’s also a business. After a pimp identifies an emotionally vulnerable girl (or boy), he can make 250,000 dollars a year, per youth.”
The campaign covered the costs of building a home where six young women could live for two years and a range of education and wraparound support services.
But Covenant House manager of research and evaluation Amanda Noble says the systemic barriers facing these young people are difficult to surmount.
“It’s not just about services,” she says. “It’s about issues of colonization, gender and race.”
Noble oversaw Covenant House Toronto’s recent national research project Getting Out: A National Framework for Escaping Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation in Canada.
Covering sex trafficking in eight Canadian cities—Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Niagara Falls, Thunder Bay, Montreal, Halifax and St. John’s—the report was based on interviews with focus groups, 201 shareholders, and 147 organizations. These included service providers, health care professionals, and police, in addition to 50 survivors of sex trafficking.
The stories victims tell about their escape attempts are harrowing.
“My journey of getting out was four years of just trying to get out. A lot of leaving and then coming back, or hiding and then coming back, and then being found and dragged back.”
The report found that “a disproportionate number of survivors identified as Indigenous … and that victims face judgement from service providers, friends and family and/or their community. This is internalized into shame and self-blame for their current situation.”
“We are making progress, we have police and health workers that have specialized training, but we still have a long way to go,” says Noble.
“Services must be trauma informed. We want to disseminate our report broadly, reach out to different sectors and make it available to the public. We want to de-mystify this misunderstood crime.”
Covenant House has recently wrapped up its Shoppable Girls campaign designed to raise awareness among young people that they are at risk. Adweek called it A Provocative Fake Site Where Girls Are ‘Shoppable’ Aims to Raise Trafficking Awareness.
“I do speak a lot about the barriers to exiting,” says Noble, “but I don’t want to give the idea that it’s hopeless. We spoke to 50 survivors who managed to exit, so it is possible. There is hope.”