To the people of Ontario:
For nine long, horrible years, I was trafficked in the sex industry. I was no more than “girl number four,” valued only for my outward appearance and ability to please customers. I regularly saw 12 to 14 men per night. I was punched, slapped, bitten and worse, all in the name of my so-called “job.” My customers wanted the porn-star experience, things that they wouldn’t do with someone they loved or respected. My story is not an uncommon one.
What will be surprising to you is that during the time that I was being trafficked, I was working in licensed massage parlours in Toronto. These are not places where registered massage therapists work, though they may look that way from the outside. Bylaw officers, police and city officials would inspect our facility, and yet it continued to operate. It made me feel that the atrocities that I was experiencing, along with the hundreds of women and girls that worked with me, were acceptable. No one appeared to care or notice that our situation was unbearable.
I hear over and over again that human trafficking is a horrible crime that occurs in other countries, or that it involves women from other countries being trafficked into our big cities. In reality, 93 per cent of victims of human trafficking in Canada are Canadian themselves, most often lured, groomed and eventually trafficked by someone they know.
Growing up, I felt lonely, powerless and unloved. I made decisions that seemed harmless, but in fact were very dangerous. When I was 17 years old, a friend invited me to a strip club north of Toronto, where she’d been dancing. I pictured that it would be an easy way to make money, and empowering even, as I thought I’d be determining who I interacted with. I didn’t realize then that strip clubs are often a gateway to a much darker industry.
During the months that I spent in the strip club, I was pressured to sleep with managers, who threatened to make my life a living hell if I didn’t — though I couldn’t imagine it getting any worse than it already was. The same went for patrons, mostly older, drooling men who wanted to handle me in the most lecherous way. I wasn’t just dancing for them; I was expected to service them. You may be thinking that I was foolish to even consider trying the avenue of stripping. I wasn’t foolish; I was vulnerable, naïve and a perfect target.
At the strip club I met some influential and charming patrons. They lured me into a sales job at a smut magazine in Mississauga by telling me things like, “I can tell you’re different from the other girls,” or “You’re so smart.” A few months in, I showed up for work and the office was stripped to the walls. Little had I known that this was a front for organized crime. I was then advised that I owed a large sum of money to one of the operators. A man I worked with stepped in to stave off these people making demands of me.
But he quickly went from my saviour to my trafficker. He told me that he loved me, that we were building a life together and that prostitution was just a way I could contribute to reaching our goals. I was fragile, and he met my need to feel cared for and protected. I didn’t realize how dangerous he was until I was in too deep.
My trafficker didn’t have to restrain me with physical chains; his skilful manipulation was enough to hold me captive. He isolated me to the point that I had no one else to turn to. Even when I knew very well that I needed to get away from him, escape seemed impossible because, by then, I feared for my life.
All this time, I lived in a very ordinary neighbourhood, in suburbia. I shopped at our malls; I went to our schools and ate next to you at local restaurants. No one noticed me. No one saw my pain.
This is not an easy thing to talk about. I’m sure you’re feeling uncomfortable reading this. You may be generous and have compassion for the plight I suffered, or you may be judging me, assuming that I should have known better or that I could have left at any point. I can only say that to judge me, you truly need to have lived some of my experiences or have some of my vulnerabilities. But what you do need to know is that this abuse is occurring right in your community and you’re likely not even aware. Just this month, York Regional Police and partners raided a condo building in Toronto’s Fort York neighbourhood as part of a broader human-trafficking and organized crime investigation in the GTA and Quebec that lead to 300 charges and 31 arrests.
We can no longer ignore that this is happening right under our noses. We can’t ignore the growing number of young people being trafficked, or that the average age of entry for victims is between 12 to 14 years old. We can’t ignore that the number of licensed facilities in the city are increasing, or that short-term rentals are making it easier than ever for traffickers to move their operation around undetected. We can’t ignore that pornography has become more accessible and is featuring acts that are more violent and extreme than ever before — acts that trafficked and prostituted persons are then forced to perform.
This is why I become concerned when I notice the recent glamourization of women being prostituted, making the sex industry seem more enticing. I hear about “paid to party” girls, or “sugar babies,” or women who casually work at strip clubs. University students are under heightened pressure, and the sex industry is being advertised as a quick, easy way to make money. In my opinion, commodifying a woman’s body is dangerous, always. It sends a message that buying someone is acceptable, enshrining the power imbalance where people from average to above-average socioeconomic status purchase other humans, mainly women and girls who have below-average socioeconomic status and power. Simply being “eye candy” seems like an innocent way to make a dollar, but as someone who spent a considerable amount of time in that darker world, I can assure you it’s not worth the risk.
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The systemic challenges run deep, so how can you help? Look for changes in the behaviour of those around you. Take note if they suddenly have a lot of nice new things, like manicures, shoes or purses. Notice if they become busy all the time, beginning new relationships with individuals you’ve never met or that are noticeably older. Pay attention to someone who’s acting secretive, is protective about their photos or has numerous hotel keys. The signs of trafficking can be subtle, especially in the beginning, but we need to begin to recognize them because there are people who need our help — people whose pain isn’t understood. It’s OK to be wrong, but being right could truly save someone’s life.
Casandra Diamond is the founder of BridgeNorth, a York-based charitable organization that supports girls, women and families affected by sex trafficking. Hear Casandra — and 12 other changemakers — speak at TEDxToronto on October 26 (tickets at tedxtoronto.com). To learn more about this issue, visit helpingtraffickedpersons.org or call the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010 to be connected with support services or law enforcement in your community