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What you don’t know about how sex trafficking happens

Through a real story, learn to recognize sex trafficking—it’s not what you think
MAC x Covenant House feature

Sex trafficking is a thriving, highly lucrative and misunderstood crime: over 90 per cent of sex trafficking victims in Canada come from Canada. Traffickers are master manipulators, skilled at exploiting the vulnerabilities of young people—primarily young women—trapping them in a life devoid of freedom and full of abuse for the traffickers’ personal gain.

It’s why we need to talk about sex trafficking.

Vanessa, from Halifax, was lured into sex trafficking when she was 17—an experience that was both surprising for how quickly it happened, and extremely harrowing. A month earlier, she had been a straight-A student and a Sunday school teacher. But, following some conflict at home, Vanessa found herself spending her nights on a park bench, unable to go back. After a few months of experiencing homelessness, she became the target of traffickers. One day, a group of girls approached her and offered to buy her toiletries at a local pharmacy. “I was a geeky little child, I was very naïve and I needed to be clean,” she says. “Right away, those traffickers recognized my needs and met them.” 

After buying her deodorant, a toothbrush and toothpaste, makeup and clothes, the girls offered to let her stay with them for free. Very quickly, however, Vanessa was required to earn her keep, eventually being trafficked along the TransCanada Highway as far west as Winnipeg before she managed to escape. 

“Every day became about survival, fight or flight,” she says. “Every day I wondered, ‘How am I going to keep this roof over my head? How am I going to not get beaten? How am I going to stay alive?’” 

The tactics traffickers use to lure young people into a life of exploitation are as subtle as they are powerful. This is why it is so important for the public to understand what trafficking looks like and how it can begin. Awareness, education and dialogue are essential for helping keep young people safe. Here’s what you need to know about how it happens.

What sex trafficking really is 

Sex trafficking can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere regardless of age, culture, income, sexual orientation, gender or neighbourhood. Victims are often recruited by someone they know—a person the young person has come to trust, and often someone considered to be a boyfriend or a friend. This forming of a bond—which can happen very quickly—is critical to a trafficker’s success in luring a person into sex trafficking. Traffickers are targeting youth younger and younger—the average age of luring is 13—and, more and more, are trying to target and groom young people online. 

According to Maria, a therapist who started working with trafficked youth at Covenant House 30 years ago, the crime has become more technologically advanced, with traffickers using dating apps, social media and other online platforms. “Today, traffickers are educated, sophisticated, business-minded people with a lot of social capital and social networking at their disposal,” Maria says. “That gives them a whole different arsenal of tools to use.”

Traffickers prey on vulnerabilities all of us have 

Vanessa’s basic need for safety, connection and belonging was very clear to the girls who befriended her that day. Later, she was severely traumatized following the murder of her roommate and friend Kelly, who had also been trafficked. Her traffickers correctly identified that what Vanessa needed for survival was love. They used this tactic to keep her “in the game” and dependent on them for survival, Vanessa says.

“Predators are exquisitely trained at identifying vulnerability,” Maria says. “If there’s a need for emotional connection, that’s their in; if there’s a longing to belong, that’s their in. If there’s a gap in support, that’s their in. And it becomes much more like psychological warfare at that point.” Identifying the need is effective because it convinces the person who is being trafficked that they are benefitting, despite not having agency over their own choices and bodies. Maria says that, as traffickers have become more sophisticated, their targets know no bounds—youth in higher socio-economic communities are just as vulnerable as anyone else if connection is what they crave.

Traffickers’ No. 1 weapon is shame

“Some young people are controlled through threats, some are controlled through violence and some are controlled through drugs,” Vanessa says. “All of them are controlled through shame.” 

Once a young person is lured into trafficking, shame is one of the main ways a trafficker keeps them dependent on them. “You don’t know how to articulate something so shameful,” Vanessa says. “You have the pimp’s voice in in your head saying ‘If you say something, I will hurt you.’” 

It’s important for people to know that sex trafficking is not a choice—it is a crime that thrives in the murkiness of public understanding. That’s what prevents many young people from getting out and getting help. Having caring adults in their lives who know what trafficking looks like and are able to be there for them, no questions asked, can make all the difference, Maria says. “Sex trafficking survivors need judgment-free zones. They need safety. They need hope,” she says. “With compassion, understanding and patience, we help them find it.”

Prevention is possible 

There are often warning signs that can indicate that someone is being lured into sex trafficking. Understanding what sex trafficking is and being able to identify the warning signs of luring, grooming and exploitation is vital to help prevent trafficking, says Brenna, a family counsellor at Covenant House who works with youth who are being trafficked or are at risk of being trafficked. She also works with their parents or caregivers. 

“Luring can be difficult to spot because teenagers are coming into their own and they’re questioning their sense of belonging,” she says. “Parents don’t want to overreact to typical teenage behaviour, given how normal and understandable these vulnerabilities are—but they are also very clear to traffickers. This is why it’s important to be able to spot the warning signs and the way they cluster, which can point to a potential trafficking situation.”

Vanessa’s traffickers took her shopping and ensured her she had a place to stay. Traffickers also use tactics like “love bombing” and isolation to build the youth’s reliance on them, Brenna says. Sudden changes to a friend group—particularly if they’re being secretive about these new friends—can also be a sign, as are any sudden, unexplained changes in physical appearance or use of illicit drugs, Brenna says. Knowing a young person’s vulnerabilities as their caregiver and helping to stay connected with them helps draw power away from the trafficker. 

“You may not like watching the Youtubers your child is interested in, you may not care at all about the TikToks they watch. But that connection can really help keep traffickers at bay.”

So is healing and access to a bright future

When Maria works with youth who’ve been trafficked, she tries to help them challenge the idea that love comes with someone having power over you and to help them find meaning from within and not through someone else’s approval. “It really is a lot about defining healthy relationships,” she says. It’s also important to help victims understand that trafficking is not their fault. “When they understand that, the shame and stigma will fall away.” Vanessa’s trafficking experience is now decades in the rear-view mirror—she is now a practicing lawyer and the mother of a 12-year-old girl. The way Covenant House helps survivors rebuild their lives with safety, therapy and help with finding employment and economic stability, she says, is life changing. “I couldn’t see tomorrow. I couldn’t see anyone who didn’t want something from me. I couldn’t see myself for the queen I was. But I see it now.”

This article is part of Covenant House’s new anti-sex trafficking campaign called Let’s Talk About Sex Trafficking. You can find information on the campaign at CovenantHouseToronto.ca/Protectyourkids. If you suspect trafficking, find more information and support here.

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