Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sex trade: The girls next door

Sex trade: The girls next door


Being made to work in strip clubs is the most basic form of sexual exploitation, says Det.-Sgt. Dominic Monchamp, and it’s the daily reality for countless women in the city.
Photograph by: MENAHEM KAHANA , AFP/Getty Images file photo
MONTREAL - In a drab room above a shopping mall one recent morning, Det.-Sgt. Dominic Monchamp has an unlikely request for his fellow Montreal police officers.

Imagine you are a stripper.

He’s not trying to poke fun. Thirteen years ago, when Monchamp started on the vice squad, he too thought little of the girls and women who chose to prostitute themselves for a quick buck and who told cops like himself to “fuck off” on a regular basis.

If they weren’t obviously breaking the law, he too walked away.

After all, these women are consenting adults, the argument goes. It’s their choice. We’re a free and liberal society.

But now Monchamp wants these cops, especially the men, to think about why these girls and women take their clothes off and turn tricks, and why they are so damaged by it. He wants cops to think of the girls as victims, not criminals, and to put themselves in strippers’ shoes.

You work in a club, Monchamp begins, often in a private booth.

There you are groped and fondled for $10 or $15 a pop.

The first woman who comes in is cute, she’s nice and fun, you dance, she fondles you. It might not even be so bad.

The second person is courteous and nice. Not so nice to look at, you wouldn’t necessarily want to go out with her, but business is business.

The third woman is ugly and drunk.

The fourth woman is drunk, too, but she is also disrespectful and laughs at you. She pinches your nipple as she pushes past you.

The fifth one has paid her $10 and she puts a finger in your ass. She’s not supposed to, but she does it real quick anyway. Just for fun. It turns her on.

And on and on it goes, hour after hour.

At the end of the night you arrive home with your pile of $10s and $20s. Your girlfriend looks at you and asks, is that all you made?

You’re a fucking loser, she says. You’ll have to work a double shift tomorrow to make up for it.

At the end of the exercise, the officers in the room sit in stunned silence. Monchamp’s portrait of a dancer has shaken the toughest cops here, some of whom have undoubtedly frequented the same strip clubs off-duty, all of whom now have a fresh perspective on sex in this city.

It’s not sexy, and not really about sex at all, Monchamp says – it’s about human trafficking, right here in Montreal.

Being made to work in strip clubs is the most basic form of sexual exploitation, he explains, and it’s the daily reality for countless women in the city, who more often than not are also subject to violence and sexual assault, followed by post-traumatic shock.

“It’s normal that these girls tell you to f-off. That they have bizarre reactions. It’s normal. Don’t look at the result but at the person and ask yourselves, ‘Why is she like that? What could have happened for her to be so screwed up?’ And that’s when you’ll be able to intervene and we’ll manage to help them.”

According to the United Nations, 2.5 million people worldwide have been trafficked at some point in their lives, 80 per cent of them for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The global sex trade is the fastest growing commerce and is worth $32 billion a year – second in value only to drugs, though unlike a kilo of cocaine, a girl can be sold over and over again.

But while the popular imagination may conjure the faces of women and girls found in containers at the Old Port, or tied to a bed in a sleazy motel in Belgrade, Monchamp and his fellow officers at the vice squad in Montreal are concerned about victims much closer to home, possibly the girl next door, and the economic forces that keep them in bondage.

Girls like Annie, a private school graduate from an ordinary family, who starts working at a strip club to pay her rent. When she tries to stop, however, her “partner” tells her to fork out $5,000 she doesn’t have. He knows where her sister and mother live, he tells her.

Or Linda, shuttled from her Longueuil home to the dance club by her pimp, not allowed to even look out the window.

Or Cindy, who at 17 went straight from a group home to turning tricks in the private booth of a strip club, never keeping a cent of her earnings.

Monchamp knows all three women, because he and his team helped them get out of the sex trade, and lay charges against their pimps.

These survivors – or “Survivantes” as they are called – now tell their cautionary tales to other vulnerable girls, and to the police, through a program started last year to change attitudes about prostitutes, especially among those in uniform. They want cops to understand that what may seem like a case of domestic violence, may really be a case of pimping, and that someone doesn’t need to be tied to a bed to be a victim of human trafficking.

In the majority of cases, Monchamp says, girls make their own way to strip clubs, massage parlours and escort agencies and return to their pimps at night with the money. Why do they do it? Why don’t they leave?

“If you’ve had a gun to your head, if you’ve been raped by five guys, you know what your trafficker is capable of. You know what will happen if you don’t bring the money back … That’s human trafficking and that’s what’s happening on our territory and those are the people we’re trying to help.”

The Montreal police don’t have figures for how many girls are beholden to how many pimps. The RCMP estimates some 2,000 people are brought into the country and are trafficked through Canada every year, but they don’t have statistics on “domestic” victims, because they are largely hidden behind legal fronts – like strip clubs and massage parlours.

Up against the very powerful lobby of the sex industry, the women themselves have no voice, and when they do speak, no one is listening.

The RCMP has calculated however that as of late February 2011, in addition to ongoing investigations, there were at least 46 human trafficking cases prosecuted by Canadian courts, involving 68 accused trafficking offenders and 80 victims. This, since human trafficking was recognized as a crime in 2004.

But police know that the demand for and supply of sex-trade workers is strong, with 30 strip clubs on the island of Montreal alone (compared to two in Vancouver) offering lap-dances or “danses à $10,” and more than 200 massage parlours.

Then there are the Yellow Pages, newspapers, and the Internet, with sites like Craigslist advertising Mermaid Massage – “They pretty and nice body and open mind. … You never feel disappointed” – and countless other agencies selling women of all nationalities, with big mirrors and showers in each room. Just call this number.

“In Montreal you can order a girl like a pizza,” Monchamp says. “You can choose her hair colour, the colour of her eyes, her measurements, her weight, and she will be delivered within half an hour.”

Last year, the U.S. State Department named Canada a major destination for sex tourism.

But it’s the pimps making all the money, Monchamp says – a lot of it. Each girl brings in $400 to $2,000 a night. Most pimps have at least two girls, who work six or seven days a week. The math is simple: $1,000 X 300 days X 2 = $600,000 a year.

“Now you see the images of guys … driving huge caddies or BMWs, range rovers.”

Not all pimps are gang members, Monchamp says, but most gang members are pimps.

“It’s the way they get their money. Buying a kilo of coke takes money and it has to come from somewhere. There’s armed robbery or fraud, but it’s much easier to seduce a girl and break her, and she brings home $1,000 a night. For free. She does it all alone. The money comes in.”

Cindy, for example, was a good worker.

Everyone remembers their first shift at a club à gaffe – the kind of strip club on the outskirts of town where for a certain price a client can do whatever he wants.

“It’s like remembering the first time you had sex,” says Cindy, who was 17 at the time.

“At first you’re insecure, you don’t know how it’s supposed to work, you go and flirt with the client, and get him to follow you into a private booth. I wasn’t super confident. I wasn’t a skinny girl with a perfect body. Then you realize it doesn’t matter. A woman is a woman whether she’s thin or fat.”

After her first 12-hour shift, paid by the song – a “complet,” typically including sexual intercourse or fellatio over three songs, fetches between $120 and $200 – Cindy went home and took a bath in liquid bleach.

“You feel dirty, you feel disgusting. Your pride takes a huge beating.”

That first night was the beginning of her descent into four years of physical and mental abuse at the hands of her pimp.

Like so many girls staffing the ever-growing number of strip clubs in the province, Cindy was willing to get into “dancing,” maybe even dabble in prostitution, to pay off a debt.

But then the door closed behind her.

Sitting in a small conference room recently at a police station in St. Laurent, Cindy, now 27, recounts how she ended up selling sex almost immediately after leaving a group home 10 years ago. She wasn’t abused as a child, she explains. But by the age of 14, she was a wild child – drinking and skipping school – so her mother handed her over to Quebec’s youth protection department.

“In a group home, they mix everyone up. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you did, what your background is. It’s like a prison.”

There, she reconnected with a friend from elementary school and three-and-a-half years later, both of them were out on their own.

Her friend was going out with a guy in tight with the gangs. And he had a friend for Cindy.

With her jet black hair and unwavering blue eyes, large tattoos on each arm, Cindy doesn’t look like the kind of girl who gets pushed around. In her case, domination began with seduction.

She remembers how she and her man would talk for hours on the phone at night. They were going to build a life together. But to make that happen they got into fraud. And when a particular scheme didn’t work out, they amassed a huge debt. So he asked her to work in a club, to pay it off.

“I felt disgusting but he was there right behind me saying, ‘You see? You made some money, you’re beautiful, you shouldn’t think about what happens in the booth, just think about the money.’ There’s a lot of brainwashing involved and my pimp was really good at it.”

It wasn’t long, however, before the compliments turned to insults, and work and violence was all there was.

Like many sex trade workers who are being exploited – police believe 80 per cent of strippers, masseurs and escorts have been exploited at one point in their lives, typically handing over 50 to 100 per cent of their earnings to someone else – Cindy worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and didn’t get to keep any of the money.

Her pimp made sure she wasn’t “stealing” any money either, by routinely rifling through her handbag and strip-searching her when she got home.

Once, Cindy rolled up some of the bills she earned and put them in a condom that she inserted into her vagina. He found them. She took a particularly severe beating that night.

“After I started working at the club he changed completely. It was like he had a split personality. If I was late, he beat me, if I didn’t make enough money, he beat me. Any excuse would do.”

Cindy, who speaks quickly to begin with, picks up speed as she glosses over the myriad ways in which he hurt her:

“He would whip me with a belt, he would drag me around on the ground with a belt, he would hit me with an iron bar, hit me over the head, bash my head into the wall, into a mirror, he would burn me with a cigarette, threaten me with scissors …

“That’s when I realized I was in a fucking pattern. Even as big as I am, and he was not a big guy, when he decides to drag you around with a belt around your neck in the basement you remember it. And you think, did I really accept this? All the beatings I took, all the atrocious things he did to me I felt I deserved them because I had accepted them. You’re no longer there. You’ve lost your mind.”

At one point, Cindy tried to make friends at the strip club, but it was impossible. Her pimp wouldn’t allow it, and if he found a phone number on a piece of paper that couldn’t be explained …

“You’re so alone you hope one of the girls will be good to you and be your friend – you know, like in elementary school. It’s like that. You want a friend but ultimately you don’t have one.”

Still, Cindy looked forward to getting to work every day because she knew at least there she wouldn’t be beaten, injured or killed that day.

“In the end you’re afraid. You think you’re going to die. But do you have the courage you need to get away? Courage is a long way off at times.”

Then one night after work her pimp beat her unconscious.

Montreal police Commander Antonio Iannantuoni says nothing much has changed since he walked the beat, rounding up prostitutes considered a “nuisance” in the neighbourhood.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, we didn’t talk about human trafficking,” says Iannantuoni, in charge of the Survivantes program. “But it was the same thing, the same girls. We would pick them up, take their photo, fingerprint them and release them where they began. We were just doing stats. But if we don’t do things differently, nothing will ever change.”

Change is on the horizon, however. In the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough, where residents have been complaining about being solicited either by prostitutes or their clients on the way to the dépanneur, the borough mayor, Réal Ménard, wants to create a “tolerance zone” – where prostitutes would be left alone to ply their trade. He has asked the police not to apply laws against solicitation in that area.

Meanwhile in Ontario, the province has another nine months to come up with new legislation to replace the laws prohibiting common bawdy-houses (brothels), deemed unconstitutional by the Ontario Court of Appeal because they deny the right to free choice and security of person. Sex workers, it is argued, would be safer if they were allowed to work indoors.

Iannantuoni and his team, however, want to end the sexual exploitation. Period. And that begins with an understanding of who the clients, pimps and victims are.

Based on two years of research, they say the typical client – be he construction worker, cop or lawyer – is between 30 and 50, mid to high-income, most often married, and wants something quick with a young girl on the way to or from work, to do things he can’t do with his wife, or to exert power over her.

Invariably he thinks he’s helping her pay for her studies, by working in “the oldest profession in the world.”

The pimp, for his part, can be a lot like the glamorized version in a Snoop Dogg video – an extreme narcissist who’s into flashy cars, a master manipulator who uses women as “coin.” Then again he – or she – may be a lot more subtle.

Joëlle Ghosn-Chelala, a.k.a. Sabrina, was an Outremont real-estate broker by day, allegedly turned escort agent by night. She was arrested during the Grand Prix in June 2011 at a hotel in Place Dupuis, where police found $1.3 million in cash. She has been charged with two counts of living off the avails of prostitution and possession of the proceeds of crime.

Then there was Alain Jean-Pierre, a métro cop who recruited runaways on the job and had them working from residences in Brossard, Anjou and Toronto – each one thinking she was his one true love. When police notified them of the others, they agreed to talk about their experience with Jean-Pierre. In 2007, he was sentenced to five years in jail.

But to provide help, police and the various social organizations they are working with have to understand the victims as well. They may come from a variety of backgrounds, says Constable Josée Mensales. But the outcome is often the same.

Some may voluntarily enter the sex trade at a time of crisis. Women like Annie, for example. She needed to make $600 in two days to pay her rent, so she answered an ad for a “scantily clad masseuse.”

She ended up working the private booths of a strip club, and handing over 50 per cent of her earnings to a pimp. When she told him she was quitting, he demanded $5,000, or he would hurt her family.

“I may have chosen to get into prostitution, but I couldn’t choose to get out,” she said.

When Annie approached police for help, two female officers said with disdain, “You chose to prostitute yourself – do you have any proof?” (At the insistence of her boyfriend, Annie went back to the police, and was given a more sympathetic hearing.)

The hardest ones for police to reach, however, are those Mensales calls the Sex Slaves – girls who have been sexually abused, have zero self-esteem and are passed around like objects.

Nadine was one such case. Taken away from her parents by the youth protection department at five years old – she had been kept in a cage, and was unable to walk or talk at that age – she nevertheless thrived in foster care. But like Cindy, at 18 she was on her own, and fell in with the wrong crowd. When after weeks of partying she refused to prostitute herself to pay for her crack, a pimp held her by her ankles over the railing of the 13th-floor balcony of her apartment building. She went to work the next day at a massage parlour.

Monchamp, who was one of the investigators in Nadine’s case, readily admits that she would probably still be working in the sex trade if it weren’t for the involvement of a social worker, a woman who looked after her for 12 years while she was under the care of the youth protection department, and sensed something was wrong.

“If you had met Nadine, you would have seen a girl from a group home, a rebel, a girl on crack. We only managed to work with her because of that trusted person.”

In many cases, fear of dying stops victims from talking to police or anyone else about their situation, Monchamp said. But in 13 years, not one girl who pressed charges against her pimp was subsequently assaulted.

The police might also have overlooked Cindy, shuttled to and from work seven days a week, beaten and left unconscious on the floor.

When Cindy awoke, naked, badly bruised and bleeding, she decided she’d had enough.

She quickly dressed, grabbed the peanut butter jar filled with $1,000 bills and left with the proceeds from her years of abuse.

Cindy ran away to the Laurentians, and with the money she took started binging on cocaine. A few days later, she called her pimp and asked him for help. He said no, and told her not to bother calling her mother. “She knows you’re just a junkie,” he told her.

“I hid out for a month after that, thinking no one wanted anything to do with me. They want you to feel so alone, and it worked.”

Finally she called a childhood friend who came to get her and brought her back to her mother’s house. Her mother set up a room for her, and called the police.

With their help, Cindy pressed charges against her pimp, who was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for aggravated assault, assault with a weapon, and living off the avails of prostitution.

She still has the marks from being cut with a knife and burned with a cigarette. But the deeper scars are from the mental abuse. She says she tends to be very aggressive, and has a hard time trusting people.

“Today I’m no longer in (physical) pain. But the mental violence, the insults, the manipulation, the betrayal is there for life. I rose above it, but there’s still part of your head and heart that is damaged and will stay damaged, no matter what you do.”

With the rest of the money from the peanut butter jar, Cindy paid for a large tattoo on each arm – the one on the right says “eternal,” the one on the left “life” – she quit drugs and went back to school. She re-did five years of high school in two, and is now studying to become a machine repair mechanic. She is also raising a three-year-old boy.

Meanwhile her pimp was paroled after serving three years of his sentence – less time than Cindy spent living in fear. No one bothered notifying her he was getting out.

“He’s probably pimping someone else now,” she says.

Twitter: @csolyom

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1 comment:

  1. I hope this changes the way people look at us strippers.


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