Human Trafficking on Peterborough Highways: No easy out for victims

By Melodie McCullough

Glancing recently through Peterborough’s (an online site for advertising sex), Carly Kalish, in the space of five minutes, found numerous and obvious signs of human trafficking of women in the city.

“It’s incredibly lucrative, and incredibly hard to prove,” said Kalish, a social worker and trauma counsellor innovator at East-Metro Youth Services in Scarborough, and advocate for survivors of gender-based violence.

womans-tied-wristsAs guest speaker at the annual general meeting of the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre in Peterborough, Ontario, she told the audience that the city is part of the Toronto trafficking circuit because of its proximity and highway connection to the bigger city, with easy access to hotels and the promise of new clients. Yet, it is distant enough to reduce the chances of being caught.

The average age of entry into the world of sexual exploitation – being “in the game” as it’s known in trafficking jargon — is 14 to 15 years, Kalish said, and the majority of victims are Canadian-born. While men do traffic men, and women traffic women, women are disproportionately recruited by men and most traffickers are not strangers – there is some sort of vague connection between the pimp and the woman in the first place, she continued.

The statistics say there are 160,000 people being trafficked in Canada. Ninety per cent are female, and 63% are between the ages of 15 and 24, Kalish said. Pimps can make an average of $280,000 a year with one woman.

Through the trauma specific counselling that she does, she has come to realise that a major part of the pimp-victim connection is “relational” – the girl/woman thinks the pimp is her boyfriend.

“Eighty-five per cent identify as being in a relationship with them,” she said.

And this is exactly what the pimp wants everyone to think — it makes it much harder to recognise as trafficking, and it keeps the victim emotionally tied to him.

How does this happen?

It starts with luring, turns to grooming, coercion, manipulation, “and then the full-on sexual exploitation sets in”, said Kalish.

The pimp first finds his prey by noticing a vulnerable young woman – and soon sets out to find out why she is vulnerable. He discovers her needs and then fulfills them all — boosting her self-esteem,  making her feel protected, safe, secure. It’s a skill that is deliberate, planned and aimed at a specific target using specific tactics to lure and exploit.


Carly Kalish

Typically the victim will be someone with some of the following: low self-esteem, family issues, school problems, developmental disabilities, instability in her upbringing and a definite feeling of not being loved.  Risk factors are: being female, a trans-woman, racialized, aboriginal, or a newcomer. The number one risk factor is having previous trauma in a relationship, said Kalish.

“They are looking for the person who may be walking with her head down. They find out about them. They find out their dreams. Then they make them feel like the most special person on the planet, and that their dreams will come true. Love, attention and nurturance are part of the exploitation,” she said.

“They will be incredibly loving and caring —  and then they start to pull away.”

And the girl/woman thinks: I’ll do anything to make it go back to the way it was before.

Why does she stay? Kalish explains:

The pimp desensitizes the girl/woman with rough sex. He isolates her. He threatens to expose their sex photos to friends and family members. He physically abuses her. He tells her they are a team “in this together”, saving money for their dream house with the white picket fence. After sex with him, he starts to give her presents, and then money  — teaching her to connect sex with rewards.

The fear of leaving is stronger that the nightmare of what she knows at the moment, which she is living and what she knows she can survive.

Red Flags

So what were the red flags that Kalish saw in the Peterborough ads that showed signs of exploitation? She said they said such things as: no restrictions; will work 24/7; no Black men (pimps think all Black men are pimps, and would therefore be trying to steal their girls/women, explained Kalish); links to other ads by the same user, showing the user has multiple girls/women; and the ad’s photos are not selfies — they have been taken by someone else.

Kalish points out that counselling women in these situations is tricky.

You cannot assume that they want to leave,  she said, and you cannot reason with them about how bad things are for them. Instead, you have to work as collective agencies, share resources to meet all their needs, reconnect them with loving supportive people, and boost their self-esteem  — in other words, replace the pimp, but without any sort of exploitation or expectations of anything in return.

“That’s the only way someone will safely exit.”

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