Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking

Manitoba has a strong sex trafficking pipeline due to vulnerabilities such as poverty and lack of education, Dr. Bob Chrismas told seminar participants at Robson Hall on Oct. 2, 2019. He is a researcher and a Staff Sergeant with the Winnipeg Police Service. The average starting age of trafficking victims appears to be between 12 and 14. Canadians are familiar with the Highway of Tears – the corridor of Highway 16 in British Columbia where many women and girls disappeared. Chrismas said the real highway of tears runs through all of North America. Despite recent concerted efforts by provincial and federal governments, many girls are still being trafficked, sexually exploited and murdered.

For his doctoral dissertation in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Manitoba, Chrismas conducted research on sexual exploitation in Manitoba. He interviewed a range of people, including sex trafficking survivors and community leaders, social-services workers, activists, police, government service providers and prosecutors. He also interviewed federal and provincial politicians because he saw that previous research on the subject excluded politicians and bureaucrats responsible for formulating relevant policies. His research indicated that the background for sexual exploitation is socio-economic vulnerabilities as well as lack of access to opportunities to reduce those vulnerabilities. “People’s resilience … would be a lot stronger if they were educated and better off economically,” he said, noting there is a rural-urban pipeline for trafficking in Manitoba.

Another key finding relates to culturally inappropriate service provision. Service response needs to be intersectional, flexible and culturally appropriate. These services must be “victim-centred” and sensitive to the victim’s trauma. There is also a need for effective collaboration between local, provincial and federal governments to enhance synergy in addressing and responding to sex trafficking issues. Resources must be channelled into establishing more safe and transitional houses for survivors of sex trafficking. Medical, social, police and emergency workers should have compulsory training to improve their knowledge and enhance their capacity to provide meaningful services to victims and survivors.

Chrismas concluded that further research is needed on childhood warning and interventions, the impact of technology and social media, the demand side of sexual exploitation, mental health of both victims and health practitioners.

Systemic Advocacy

Cathy Cook, Dr. Karlee Sapoznik-Evans and Tanis Hudson of the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth shared insights from their experiences working with sexually exploited children. Sexual trafficking is the most common form of human trafficing and is a modern form of slavery, Cook told seminar participants. The Manitoba Strategy on Exploitation considers child sexual exploitation to be the involvement of a child in sexual activities, including the sex trade or pornography, with or without the consent of the child. Consensual sex with a child does not exist because children are unable to consent to sexual exploitation.

The underlying causes of child sexual exploitation include lack of education, a child’s sense of isolation, discriminatory government policies and legislation and family fragmentation. Risk factors and indicators that may point to a child’s vulnerabilities include secrecy, chronic absconding, unaccounted monies, family breakdown, child welfare involvement, drug or alcohol use, violent behaviour and family involvement in sex trade.  Child victims of sexual exploitation may resist intervention because of trauma-bonding, previous crimes and mistrust of adults. Victims of child sexual exploitation “must be heard and honoured in order to develop and maintain programs and resources designed to provide support for healing,” Cook said.

Hudson shared insights from the story of Angel, who exemplifies the system failure that exposes children to sexual exploitation. Angel experienced childhood trauma beginning at 21 months when she was sexually assaulted. She was neglected, placed in different homes, battled with insecurities and suicidal tendencies, and was sexually exploited her whole life. She asked for help and support but service response was inadequate. She died of an accidental overdose at the age of 17. Risk factors in Angel’s life included intergenerational trauma, health problems, sexual abuse, child welfare involvement, placement breakdown, lack of a sense of belonging, and drug and alcohol misuse. The systemic failure might have been avoided if support services workers had specialized training in child sexual exploitation, Hudson said.

Tina Fontaine experienced similar childhood trauma that the system failed to address, Dr Sapoznik-Evans explained. Research points to systemic failure as the main cause of sexual exploitation. For example, there is a pattern of victim blaming in the investigation of child sex trafficking. Early detection of child sexual exploitation is also a challenge – the average age for child sexual exploitation is 13 while the average age of detection is 15.

Approximately 90 per cent of exploitation now occurs online, so programs need to be designed accordingly. Findings also indicate an increase in substance abuse in what Sapoznik-Evans termed the “meth epidemic.” Methamphetamine is the predominant substance abused because it is cheap and highly addictive. There is also the problem of “perfect victims” – people with co-occurring challenges such as mental health, addictions and cognitive vulnerabilities who are easy victims for child sexual exploitation.

How can the system be improved? Placement systems are in need of urgent reform and abuse investigations should be improved. A trauma prevention and response plan should be implemented, culturally appropriate responses expanded, capacity of schools to help children and youth must be enhanced and children and youth should be involved in service planning.

Questions

Are the pipelines for sex trafficking organized or isolated events?

The pipelines are co-ordinated by organized crime groups motivated by the strong economic incentive flowing from trafficking, Chrismas said.

Should Canada switch to the Swedish model of prostitution legislation?

The Swedish model legalizes prostitution but criminalizes the demand side of sex work. The problem with this is that it fails to consider the entities in charge of the supply side, Chrismas said. Legalized prostitution is co-ordinated by organized crime groups who are also in charge of trafficking. Simply switching criminalization to the demand side does not eliminate the problem of trafficking.

What is the obvious gap in Canadian laws on sexual exploitation? 

The sentencing threshold is much lower in Canada than the U.S. The sentences need to be harsher to serve as deterrence, Cook said.

Do you often encounter intervention resistance from trafficked youth?

Yes, because they do not recognize that they are being trafficked, Sapoznik-Evans said. Another reason for resistance is the fear of losing the lifestyle they are accustomed to.

Why are there so many children in care in Manitoba?

Hudson said there are a couple of factors, key being the socio-economic challenges in many communities that negatively impact children.

What is your opinion of secure care? Should children be held against their will?

Secure care should only apply to those who are at imminent risk of death, Sapoznik-Evans said.

Listen to podcasts from seminars in this series.

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