I grew up in Scarborough, Ont., during the ’80s. My father loved me and my older brother to death. But he often worked two or three jobs and was rarely home. My mother had a very serious undiagnosed mental illness. She’d fly off the handle and become violent really fast, so we were always walking on eggshells. As soon as she became upset, we’d scramble outside. The door would shut behind us, and there was no going back in.
There was a creek behind our house and, a few doors down, a clearing hemmed in by shrubs. I’d play there for hours—host tea parties with my imaginary friends. One day, when I was about four and a half, I was outside playing when a man grabbed me. He picked me up like I was a six-pack, took me to the back of the treed area and raped me until I passed out.
Later, when I regained consciousness, I just stared at the sun. It was so bright. Do you remember jumping beans? You’d put them out in the sun and watch them jump, like magic. My dad had given me one, days before this. I was ecstatic. I would put it out in the sun and just watch and watch. So there I was. My body didn’t know what to do. My head didn’t know what to do. I lay there and looked up at the sun, and it was jumping like my bean. Saying, “Look at me, I’m dancing for you.” That’s how young I was; that was my world view. Slowly, I realized I had to get up and go home. I walked into my house and went to bed. Nobody asked me anything, and I didn’t tell them anything. There was nobody looking after me. I had a problem: it wasn’t safe inside my house; it wasn’t safe outside my house.
Soon after, the older neighbourhood boys started chasing me. They’d take me to the area where I had been raped, strip me completely naked, steal my clothes, poke me with sticks. I felt so humiliated, but I fought them off until one day I finally gave up. I had no way of stopping it; there was nobody to help me, so I figured, Let’s get it over with. That’s the same mentality I carried with me later, into the sex trade.
At home, things got worse. Every Christmas, we visited my mom’s family in northern Ontario. It was during those visits that my grandfather started bringing me into his basement workshop. He was a trapper, and the room was lined with hunting gear—bullets, guns and traps. It was terrifying. Porn magazines were stacked everywhere, and he’d show them to me, as if to demonstrate this was the normal way adult women behave. He started touching me, and the abuse didn’t stop until I was 10, when another family member told my parents. One day, I pulled up to my house on my bicycle, and my mom was standing outside. She asked me if it had happened. My first response was no. But my body betrayed me: I got off my bike and let it fall to the ground. I began to shake and cry, and my mom took me inside. She told me my grandfather had also abused her when she was a child. After I said the words out loud—“Yes, I was abused”—two policemen came. They kept asking: Did he do this? Did he do that? I was so scared, I thought I’d vomit on the both of them. Finally, they said I had to tell them what happened so it didn’t happen to another girl, but they didn’t seem to really care about me. They wanted information; they wanted to lay a charge. They didn’t ask if I was OK, didn’t make sure I was in a safe place. From then on, I distrusted every man I met, aside from my father. It was: When are you going to get me? And: How can I keep myself safe from you?
My mother testified at my grandfather’s trial, and he was sentenced to two years less a day, a duration that meant he didn’t have to go to a tougher federal institution. He was released after eight months for good behaviour and married a woman from the Philippines, a mail-order bride, who he sponsored and brought to Canada. She had a five-year-old daughter. There is no question in my mind about what that girl’s life became.
While my grandfather was in jail, my parents split up. My brother and I lived with my father. He did the best he could, but he was under tremendous pressure to make ends meet. We moved around a lot and started to live in worse and worse areas of town. I wasn’t doing well in school because I didn’t care what adults said to me. Adults weren’t safe.
There was only one exception to this rule: a woman named Kathy, who had rented our basement in Scarborough when I was a kid. We kept in touch, and as a teenager, I practically lived at her house. She had two young daughters, and I watched how she cared for them. She read them stories at bedtime. They were in nursery school, playgroup, skating lessons. I became pregnant at 16, and watching how Kathy looked after her family made me realize there was no way I could do any of that for my child. No way. So I chose adoption. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. When they laid my baby on my chest, this feeling came over me that I’ve never experienced before or since: I loved him so quickly and deeply. When I had to leave the hospital alone, it broke me. That’s the day I gave up on my life.
I started stripping while I was still in grade 12. At first, it made me feel powerful. Men were giving me so much attention, and I thought I was controlling it. Pretty soon, a friend suggested I try massage parlours. They’re essentially licensed to sell hand jobs, but everything else goes on there, too. On my first day at the parlour, the police busted the place. I didn’t even see my first client. The cops booked us on the spot. All they wanted to know was the name of the owner. Nobody said, “Gee, what are you doing here?” Nobody said, “I know of a place where you can talk to somebody and check out other life options.” They fingerprinted me and wrote me up. I was a criminal.
After that, I didn’t want to go back to the massage parlour, and I didn’t want to strip anymore. I decided to call a friend from high school, to catch up. She was in college, and her whole life was coming together. When I told her I was stripping, I could feel her judgment. I hung up the phone and thought, I am exactly what my grandfather and those boys and that man did to me.
I moved to Toronto to sell ads for a smut mag. At least I’m keeping my clothes on, I thought. The job didn’t last very long. One day I came to work and the place was demolished. The walls were on the floor. It was all a front for organized crime—and the boss had been killed. Soon after that, one of the men from the company called and asked if I’d like to work in one of the licensed massage parlours he managed. I didn’t see any other options. I said yes. I thought, OK, if men are going to use me, at least I’ll get paid for it. I pretended that by being an indoor girl (which is what parlour girls are called because they don’t solicit outside), I wasn’t really a prostitute. I started to deceive myself: I chose this; I’m making my own money. In hindsight, there wasn’t much choice involved. It wasn’t work; it was trafficking. I had no control over my life. I was told how to dress, who to have sex with and how to do it, where to live—everything. All my decisions were made for me, and I was scared all the time. For me, and so many of the women I worked with, prostitution was about having sex with guys you would never, ever have sex with by choice. It was about sitting at the public health building once a week because some customer ripped his condom off halfway through. It was saying, “I only do vaginal sex” and then getting flipped over anyways. It was about going into a room feeling fear permeate your entire body when you closed the door behind you, which sometimes happened eight, nine, even 12 times a day. It’s feeling that fear even 15 years later. I had no idea what I was getting into—or that I wouldn’t get out for nearly 10 more years.
I ended up at the biggest licensed massage parlour in Toronto (which is still in business). There were 40 to 60 girls on rotation. We had 10 rooms, and they were always busy. We’d get $10 commission per client, but only if we didn’t have a fine. And we could get fined for anything: being late, talking back or not having a perfectly primped body. Officially, the massages included hand jobs and, at our place, they were priced at $40 to $50. Then, we had a sort of unofficial menu that came with things like topless and nude massages. But girls could earn between $100 and $200 by doing everything else—and there was constant demand for everything else.
The manager took a shine to me. He was showering me with attention. This guy wanted to climb the ranks of organized crime, but he was told by the higher-ups that he couldn’t have a “whore” for a girlfriend. So he flipped me. I became the manager of the parlour—I got out of the rooms to become a real-life girlfriend. But it wasn’t a rescue. When I started stripping, I thought I had control but quickly realized I didn’t. When I started massage, I felt that power again, and then, of course, it was gone. But the first time I welcomed a customer, took his money and told him what girl he was going to have—well, wow, that felt like real power. My hatred for men had grown so deep and so bitter, and now I felt superior to them without having to perform any sexual activity.
My “boyfriend” worked hard to convince me I was helping these women. I made the men take showers; I wouldn’t let drugs in; bad clients were out. I never had the girls parade out in front of the men, like they do at most places. I even told the girls they didn’t have to have intercourse—they could stick to what’s on the menu. I felt genuine affection for these women and thought I was taking care of my family. But in a real family, I wouldn’t have had to worry about scheduling too many black women because customers prefer white women or watch a 60-year-old desperately enter the trade because her husband had an accident and couldn’t work. I was not the kind of family they needed.
It took a long time for me to see that. Years. My boyfriend’s voice buzzed in my ears, like the world’s most persistent bee. Even though I had my own apartment, I was only allowed to stay there one night a week. He preferred me at his place, where he could watch me. Our parlour brought in at least $1.7 million annually, but I barely saw any of it. He paid me an hourly salary that wasn’t enough to live on, so I was still dependent on him. He chose my friends. I only saw my family with his permission. One time, he told me the thing he liked best about me was that I had nobody else.
Then one of his family members got sick, and he told me to stay at my own place. Suddenly, the buzzing died down, and I had an inch of personal space to think. I’d been calling this man my boyfriend, but that wasn’t the right word. He was my pimp, and I was his property. I realized I was bonded to him by trauma, not love. I didn’t want that anymore. And yet, I stayed for two more years, until he finally left me for another woman. I knew he’d been cheating for months, and I didn’t care. That was my chance to be free of him.
We weren’t together anymore, but he wanted a guarantee I would still manage the parlour. I felt trapped. He knew where I lived. He knew my family. I worried constantly that he’d send me back to the rooms. One day, he called me into his office and told me I couldn’t run a spa for anybody else. He said, “If you become my competition, you will have a hard time breathing.” He meant it. And so I waited, planning for the day I would leave. I had to get out.
During this time, I moved into Kathy’s basement and started doing regular things, like walking to the store with her kids to get Slurpees. I was 27 and started to understand my life had not been normal. I had no education, no job skills. What was I going to put on my resumé? Where have I been for the past 10 years? I didn’t even have social skills. I would tell jokes that were so crude, and then I wondered why people weren’t laughing. I realized that the past 10 years of my life had been a f-cking nightmare. It was time to wake up. On Sept. 11, 2004, I walked away.
That makes it sound like it was easy, but it wasn’t. It took eight months of slowly standing up to him; of breaking away, bit by bit, of telling him I couldn’t stay much longer. Then one day, he said I could start training his new girlfriend for my position. I was too scared for myself to feel sorry for her and, in a twisted way, I got lucky: she was jealous of me and wanted me gone. And so he agreed to let me go.
The week I left, I told some of the girls I was planning to go. Then I ghosted. By the time I got home on my last night, I was so exhausted I cried until I fell asleep. When I woke up, I cried, then fell back asleep only to begin the whole cycle again. I didn’t get out of my pyjamas for probably three weeks—or leave Kathy’s house for the next three months. It was like I’d been through a war. I was battling, battling, battling, and then there was a ceasefire. Kathy’s family is Christian, and there was a Bible in the house. I wasn’t religious, but I’d always believed in God: I wondered why he seemed to have abandoned me. I wondered if he had the answers, because I had none. I really had it out with him, and I started going to church because, really, what else was I going to do? At first, I’d put out my cigarettes in the church’s flowerbeds, but eventually I found a community there. My dad helped me get a job at a local scrapyard. I was so angry at the world, and throwing around thousands of pounds of metal was a good outlet, plus I was outside all day. Two years later, the owner offered me a job bookkeeping, and I took it. I had exhausted my anger.
I hardly spoke for those first two years; I was just watching these normal people do normal things. I learned how to talk, how to dress. It was such a revelation the first time I complained about a guy catcalling me on the street and the women around me agreed it was gross. I learned what it was like to be supported—and I wanted to share this feeling with other girls, women. I called up an old friend who was still working at the parlours, and she called a few other women. Together, we sat around a table, and ate and talked. I told them if they wanted out of the trade, we could all help one another. Two of them took me up on the offer. We met regularly, and I helped tutor their kids. Eventually we figured out how to make a better life.
Around the same time, I got a one-year contract working at a women’s centre as a case manager for human trafficking. I spoke out at a lot of events. I told my story and shared how it was possible to exit the trade. I wanted these women to know they weren’t alone—that they could rebuild their lives, like I did. Still, the job wasn’t the best fit. The organization does amazing work, but it has a firm harm-reduction mindset and works mainly to give those in the trade a safe environment. As a survivor, I believe we must tackle the systemic problems—inequality, misogyny, poverty and often racism—that foster trafficking in the first place. I don’t just want to make the industry safer, I want to dismantle it.
I know some people view selling sex as a legitimate career. I agree it’s valuable for us to discuss whether or not a grown woman can engage in consensual sex as work. I know people advocating for better worker rights and protections, and they certainly deserve it. To me, it can never be work, particularly when it involves young girls. This is an industry in which your boss can say, “No black girls today.” Women of colour are treated so terribly in the sex trade—and they have no recourse, and it’s not like they can launch a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal. Many young women have no say in where they work and are trafficked all across the country. Drug addiction is often encouraged and fostered. Extreme violence is common. That’s not work at all. I’d rather help these women and girls find jobs that make them feel happy, safe and secure.
So I approached my local church about creating my own program to mentor and support sexually exploited women and, to my surprise, they said yes. I launched BridgeNorth two years ago. Women can come to us for clothing, medical care, food, counselling, educational opportunities and exit strategies. So far, we’ve helped more than 60 women. While the program is a local one, focusing on Ontario’s York region, we now advocate for women nationally—more out of necessity than strategy.
In 2014, I spoke out against sexual exploitation before the Committee on Justice and Human Rights. Along with many other women, I advocated for Canada to adopt a Nordic model of law, which penalizes the buyers, while decriminalizing the sellers. If this law had existed when I was younger, I wouldn’t have been arrested. I would’ve been offered resources and exit strategies, instead of being treated like a criminal. We succeeded (Bill C-36 became the law known as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act), but that was only the first step. My work now focuses on shifting the way we, as a society, value women.
We need to be respected for more than our bodies and our sexuality. Education is key to what I do. I advise other jurisdictions working on anti-trafficking initiatives. I also recently became an advisory member for Covenant House, a Toronto crisis care centre for homeless youth. This past January, the organization kicked off a $10-million fundraising campaign for its transitional housing program for women and girls who have been involved in trafficking. It’s a 24-hour safe house that’s set to open this spring.
People don’t realize the extent of human trafficking in Canada. We tend to think it’s an international issue, but stats show 70 percent of trafficking cases in this country happen domestically, and the Internet has made it easier to lure girls. Most cases are in Ontario, and Toronto is a major hub. I recently had a call from a family whose daughter was taken. They were middle class and seemed to have done everything right: her childhood was not like mine, and yet she was still vulnerable. She hadn’t even turned 18. I get a lot of calls about helping girls that young—they’re just children. This shouldn’t be happening.
But I am so hopeful. I see the strength inside these women. They’re entrepreneurs; they’re leaders; they’re moms; they’re so important to their communities and could be so influential. There are still some days when it’s hard to see myself as a good person. But more and more, I do believe I am a human being who has an inherent right to breathe the same air as everybody else. I have a voice now, and I’m using it to help the next generation of women make better lives than I had. I’ve chewed up that old life and made a new one. I didn’t think that was possible only a few years ago. But here I am. —as told to Lauren McKeon