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08 Dec, Thursday
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Montreal Families

Sexual exploitation – could it happen to your child?

When we think of sexual exploitation and the people who get caught up in it, we often think about a certain kind of girl, one who didn’t have the best upbringing, hangs out in shady places, or fell in with the wrong crowd.

But that stereotype doesn’t always ring true. Two Montreal police officers are on a mission to educate the public about sexual exploitation and their message is simple: there is no prototype, there is no typical situation – anyone can find themself trapped.

In 2011, Josée Mensales and Diane Veillette created the Survivors Program, which focuses on sexual exploitation. Survivors are women who were able to escape from that world, sought help, pressed charges against their oppressors and now help others get their lives back. The two officers have chronicled the stories of six such women in a recently released book, Pour l’Amour de Mon Pimp.

Mensales says pimps target people of both sexes, but the stories they hear most frequently are from teen girls and women. Contrary to popular belief, most victims in Montreal are from the city area, they come from families of every socioeconomic status and they aren’t exclusively young, though younger girls are worth more to the traffickers. Some women who have gone through the program were in their 30s.

Mensales said the goal in putting out this information isn’t to scare people or sound alarmist. They want to start a conversation and get parents talking to their children about this issue. They’re hoping to be proactive and prevent girls and women from getting caught up in prostitution, instead of having to find ways to get them out.

Pimps hang out where their future victims do – near schools, at bus terminals, at malls, and at metro stations. They stand around trying to catch people’s attention until someone inevitably stops, then they go to work.

The first meeting is always unassuming, flirtatious in that movie-like, cute way. They smile, invite them to a party or ask for their telephone number. “It always seems very friendly, so a lot of the kids don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into,” she said. Their goal is to gather information on their targets until they can zero in on what may motivate them to give the sex trade a try, and to get the girls to trust them.

They test the girls’ relationships with their parents, friends, anyone who seems important to them, and if they find cracks, they exploit them. Phrases such as: “Your parents don’t understand you” or “Your friend is just jealous” sound cliché but sometimes they work, creating enough distance between the girl and that parent or friend for the pimp to start worming his way into her life.

Though that process still takes place in the physical world, it’s also going on  online. When it comes to gathering information, social media is a treasure trove. Mensales says teens often share a lot of details about their lives on the Internet, making it even easier for pimps to choose who would be most susceptible to their manipulation.

Younger girls may end up working in massage parlours while older girls and women will work as strippers or prostitutes. Mensales points out no matter how smart, self-confident and well-rounded we may think we are, we all have weaknesses. There’s a belief that only gullible, stupid girls would be lured into working for these men, but even the most intelligent girls can get caught up in the trade, attracted, for example, by the notion that they’ll do it for a little while to make some quick cash and then move on.

But moving on isn’t always as simple as saying goodbye. Some girls end up falling in love with their pimps in a Stockholm Syndrome-type relationship (a term to explain the apparently irrational feelings of some captives for their captors). He may commit a crime in front of the girl and tell her if she goes to the police, she’ll be charged as an accessory. They make threats against her family, friends and anyone she holds dear. They resort to physical violence, including rape. They use any tactics to keep a girl trapped, especially one who makes them a lot of money. “To them, that person is merchandise. And it’s a merchandise he can sell over and over and over again, day after day,” she said.

The key for parents or family members who know or suspect someone they know is being forced into the sex trade is to keep the lines of communication open. Being judgmental won’t help, Mensales said. Talk to a third party, someone neutral, to purge the negativity, but don’t shut the child out. Calling the police for help doesn’t mean the person will be arrested, she said. For those who aren’t comfortable with going straight to police, community organizations such as the Assistance Centres for Victims of Crime (CAVAC) can help. The idea is to make sure the victims know they have a family to come back to, that they’re not alone and that they shouldn’t feel ashamed of themselves.

“A lot of the victims feel responsible because they made that first choice by responding to or approaching that person,” Mensales said. “We try to make sure these victims don’t feel responsible and that they know it’s possible to pull yourself out of the situation.”

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