At Next Step Ministries, we choose to use the phrase sexual exploitation instead of human trafficking when describing the hardships our women have been through because they often do not identify as human trafficking victims. The United Nations defines human trafficking as, “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”
However, the women we come into contact with will say that they have not been trafficked but rather have either been forced into prostitution by others or have in fact exploited themselves by selling their bodies for self-preservation, or to take care of any addictions they might have. Since the women we are serving do not identify as trafficking victims, we do not label them as such; rather we choose to use the language of sexual exploitation to describe the situation the ladies we serve find themselves in. But to know what these women have been through, we must have a better knowledge of what sexual exploitation looks like.
While we inherently know that exploiting anyone is wrong, there are far fewer people that know what sexual exploitation is, or what it looks like. The definition given by JIBC about sexual exploitation is, “The sexual abuse of children and youth through the exchange of sex or sexual acts for drugs, food, shelter, protection, other basics of life, and money. Sexual exploitation includes involving children and youth in creating pornography and sexually explicit websites.”
This definition doesn’t just apply to children or youth, it also relates to any adult that is being taken advantage of, or being used for the forced sexual gratification of another. The Canadian Criminal Code section 153 (1) states that, “Every person commits an offence who is in a position of trust or authority towards a young person, who is a person with whom the young person is in a relationship of dependency or who is in a relationship with a young person that is exploitative of the young person.”
However, when we read definitions like this, it’s fairly easy to disassociate them from the people they are talking about. It becomes easy to forget that these definitions are the realities of so many women in our world today. This means that we have to consciously take a step back, readjust our lenses, and see the people in front of us rather than the statistics on the page. So what does sexual exploitation look like in our nations, our cities, and our neighbourhoods?
There is no specific characteristic that causes one person more prone to exploitation than another, but there are some striking similarities that ring true for many victims and survivors of sexual exploitation. These factors include but are not limited to under education, backgrounds of abuse, and various forms of addictions. It’s important to remember that people who experience or have experienced exploitation are more than the sum of their parts. They are more than their past or their present, and that they were never at fault for what happened to them.
In all of this, it’s really easy to get swept up in the horrifying grandeur of it all and forget that this injustice does not just happen in other cities, but it happens in our hometowns. According to a StatsCan study in 2012 that approximately 20% of offences against youth are sexual offences, and 4% of offences against adults were sexual nation-wide. In Alberta, there was an average of 195 cases per 100,000 people, with the national average only barely ahead in cases sitting at 205 people. To bring it closer to home there were potentially 1989 victims of exploitation in Calgary alone, and that was in 2012 with the number having risen since then.
The main target of sexual exploitation is young females anywhere between the ages of 12 to 25 years old. These are our neighbours, the girls on their way to school, and the women at the mall. The saddening truth is that the average age of entry and induction into exploitation in Alberta is 13 ½ years old. These are the girls and women on our blocks, the people that we love and care about. That’s why it’s so important that we look after each other; that we make sure that the hurting people in our lives know that we’re there for them, that we care, and that we’ll help them work through the pain. Sexual exploitation is rampant in our world today, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. We have the choice to stand up and change the status quo, to make sure that what is normal today does not remain normal tomorrow.