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Fighting the World’s Oldest Oppression

In the second of two parts, Convivum contributor Deborah Rankin talks with front line warriors against human sex trafficking. Despite tough laws passed by Canada in recent years, the battle in the street is far from over. 

8 minute read
Topics: Crime, Justice, Public Life
Fighting the World’s Oldest Oppression February 7, 2018  |  By Deborah Rankin
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Joy Smith runs a registered charity in Winnipeg that supports and provides funds to front-line organizations across Canada to rescue and rehabilitate victims of human trafficking.

The former Conservative MP for Kildonan-St. Paul has dedicated much of her professional life to eradicating all forms of human trafficking and to educating the public about this heinous crime. In fact, the Joy Smith Foundation grew out of awareness she gained when her police officer son brought the reality of sex trafficking to her attention.

In the early years, when she was a high school math and science teacher, she would go "on the stroll" to meet young girls who were being trafficked on the streets and would offer them help to leave the sex trade. Smith has personally intervened in more than 4000 cases.

"I have been rescuing young girls from traffickers my whole life," she says. As an MP, she was the leader in passing a law that requires minimum mandatory sentences for child trafficking  (Bill C-268). It received bipartisan support from the Conservatives and Liberals, with the majority of the NDP caucus voting for it. 

Smith also supported former Bloc Quebecois MP Maria Mourani's bill recognizing sexual exploitation as a category of human trafficking. Today, she takes the Joy Smith Foundation's ground-breaking documentary Human Trafficking: Canada's Secret Shame into schools to raise awareness among students and teachers about the very real dangers of sex trafficking in today's global Internet environment.

"I'm in favour of passing as many laws as possible against human traffickers,'' she says.

However, she doesn't think the problem with human trafficking rests entirely with lack of enforcement of current laws or weak, ineffectual laws. She thinks it has more to do with lack of resources.

"I believe there are not enough police officers, social workers or others to suppress human trafficking in Canada," she says. "Police may have the laws, but many do not have the training in the police academies to recognize human trafficking, nor are they aware of the laws that are in place that they can use." 

The belief has lent particular urgency to her lifelong campaign to inform the public about what is really going on in the sex trade.

"Prostitution is commonly known as the 'oldest profession' when it is really the 'oldest oppression' against young women," Smith says.

She started educating people about sex trafficking by giving seminars.

"Young girls started showing up at my seminars. They would show me their tattoos, and told me these tattoos indicated who they belonged to. They were literally branded like cattle. I was horrified at what was happening."

She discovered that at the time there were no laws against human trafficking in Canada. It propelled her on a "journey" to help rescue young victims and eventually into Parliament where she could do something to end the legal vacuum around the horrendous crime she describes as "modern-day slavery". 

According to Ronald Lepage, director of The Way Out, a Montreal organization that provides counselling, support, and practical assistance for young women wanting to leave the sex trade, the average age of entry into prostitution is 12-14 years of age.

Startlingly, a young girl may actually believe she is consenting to work in the sex-trade. In fact she is complying with someone else's wishes or demands, and doesn’t even realize it. The confusion is rooted in biology. An adolescent's brain isn't sufficiently developed to make informed decisions.

So says Dr. Miriam Grossman, author of Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student, a critique of prevailing sex-education and sexual healthcare practices.

In her role as an advocate for sound public policy based on science, she has been trying to drive home the message to educators, counsellors, parents, and decision-makers that adolescents simply can't make responsible decisions about sexuality in the same way as adults.

"We didn't know until recently that the brain area that is responsible for making rational, thought-out decisions, the area that considers the pros and cons and consequences of decisions, is immature in teens. The circuits aren't complete; the wiring is unfinished," she says.

During her 12 years as a campus psychiatrist at UCLA, Grossman saw thousands of students. She said she wrote the book because she became concerned about young women who she felt had a sexual lifestyle that put them at risk for disease, emotional distress, and infertility later in life. Despite her message, the simplistic notion of 'choice' in prostitution, free of any detrimental consequences, has some traction on college campuses and is trickling down to high school students. 

At least some of those students risk being pimps-in-training rather than the direct victims of sex trafficking. It's not only adult males who lure teens into prostitution, after all. Peggy Sakow, co-founder of the Temple Committee Against Human Trafficking at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Shalom in Westmount, Quebec, says it's not uncommon for pimps to have very young boys working for them.

It's easier for young boys to recruit girls into prostitution because they move freely in their world of school and social activities and may readily play the role of the tag-along little brother, she says. They don't come under suspicion from authorities and, more importantly from the trafficker's perspective, can't be tried in court as an adult if they're caught.

Sakow says boys should be enlisted to protect girls who fall prey to trafficking instead of thinking they can make money as a pimp.

"I definitely want boys to be involved in this, to help girls who are being trafficked."  

In working with the survivors of human trafficking, Joy Smith also discovered that some were also being trafficked by women. Indeed, some girls trying to escape from male predators were re-victimized by women.

"Young girls turn to women who offer them a 'safe' place to stay, a warm bed and food. Sadly, many of these women work for traffickers and get paid when they bring them a young, fresh girl. The young girls trust women and will move in with them more readily than if a man offers them the same thing. Traffickers use 'motherly' type women to attract girls who will eventually be trafficked," Smith says.

In a surreal twist, there are news reports of young girls being trafficked by other girls. Predatory girls may pretend to be the victim's friend buying her special gifts, paying for her meals or bus tickets, or lending her clothes, forging a particularly close bond in the mind of the unsuspecting victim before the inevitable bait & switch, which is the modus operandi of traffickers.

"Traffickers outside the school will have girlfriends who attend school. They use these girls to befriend another girl within the school population, and they groom her to be trafficked gradually over time," Smith says. 

Not all female traffickers are accomplices or use the soft touch. Some are running their own prostitution rings and are as vicious as any of their male counterparts. One notorious 14-year-old girl who was pimping out her friends boasted that she had punched her mother in the face, beat up other people for fun, and used weapons whenever she liked.

Regardless of the age or gender of traffickers, Smith believes combatting sex trafficking ought to be given the highest priority.

"It takes a nation to make our youth a priority, to educate them so they can protect themselves against being bought and sold into the sex trade by these traffickers. They need to know how the traffickers gain their trust, and then how the whole situation changes once they are under the trafficker’s control." 

While it might be obvious that all public institutions and youth organizations should be involved in the campaign to eradicate the sexual exploitation of minors, not everyone sees it this way.

Head & Hands, a Montreal youth center that is known for its kink-themed dance parties and peer-based sex-ed workshops given in between classes at school, at drop-in centers, and in group homes states on its website that it gives workshops on "sex work". Generally, the publicly funded youth organization whose "street workers" go only by their first names takes a "non-judgemental" approach to all the burning questions about teen sex and drugs, promoting what it calls "safer partying and drug use".

Head & Hands has raised more than a few eyebrows over the years by distributing free crack inhalation kits to street kids and by its unabashed support for youths to change their gender.

Stella, an organization run by and for sex workers has long argued against the prohibition of prostitution and disputes claims about exploitation of young women and girls by men in the sex trade. However, in 2012 the Council on the Status of Women reported that 89 per cent of sex-workers wanted to leave the sex trade.

Proponents of prostitution often cite economic reasons for keeping it going but there isn't a clear line from poverty to prostitution. By some estimates, half of all trafficked women and girls come from middle-class backgrounds. What is rather the case is that young girls and women on the margins of society are more likely to be taken advantage of and victimized. Some research shows that Indigenous women and girls are disproportionate victims of sex trafficking, a view Peggy Sakow supports.

It may prove to be an important consideration in regard to the work being done by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, whose five Commissioners are tasked with identifying systemic causes in the disappearances of so many Indigenous women and girls from their families and communities.

In Montreal, The Way Out is focused on supporting exit strategies for young women between 18-35 years old who want to leave the sex trade.

"The common link is their desire to get out," Ronald Lepage says.

The organization receives federal subsidies and provides whatever practical assistance a survivor needs, be it immediate lodging or permanent housing, food, and clothing. It receives referrals from police and has its own outreach workers who promote its services to the public.

Once a client has been welcomed, the next step is to see a social worker who will evaluate her practical needs, mental health status, material well-being, and social skills.

 According to official reports cited by The Way Out, there are about 4,000 male and female youths aged 12-15 who are engaged in commercial sex activities in Montreal. Lepage says young men and boys can fall prey to sexual exploitation as well, though for the time being, The Way Out limits its outreach to young women.     

The organization also funds research into the housing needs of women who need safe spaces to exit the criminal milieu of prostitution. Without secure housing, survival isn't possible.

Former MP Maria Mourani, who is also a sociologist, heads up the research arm of the operation known as the Horizon Research Project. Its goal is to qualify and quantify the housing needs of victims of sexual exploitation in Quebec. The Way Out plans to open its own shelter in the near future to provide transitional housing for survivors. 

Those are very helpful steps and hopeful signs, but they also point to a long-term challenge that makes human trafficking so difficult to effectively combat. Montreal police officer Diane Veillette, a member of a special unit that helps victims of sexual exploitation, notes that even once those who have been trafficked make their escape, they have a long road back to health. Very young victims often continue to experience considerable psychological distress even after they succeed in freeing themselves from the criminal world of sexual exploitation, and embark on a new path as survivors, Veillette warns.

Did you miss the beginning of the series. Access Part One here

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