Sex workers victimized in every GTA neighbourhood
Published Monday, February 7, 2011 7:21PM EST
The baby-faced young woman sits on a bed in a downtown hotel room and stares blankly at the police officer sitting across from her.
"So do you have a safety plan?" Toronto Police Det.-Const. Leanne Marchen asks.
The young woman's eyebrows furrow quizzically. "Pardon?" she asks.
"Do you have a safety plan?" Marchen asks again.
"What do you mean?"
Moments earlier, the young woman had walked into the hotel room, expecting to service a john.
Instead, she was confronted by Marchen and Det. Paul Gauthier. They are officers from the Special Victims Section, a branch of the Sex Crimes Unit that is solely dedicated to investigating crimes against sex workers.
On this particular Wednesday afternoon, they are looking for underage sex workers – more specifically, those forced into the sex trade by pimps who rape, threaten, beat and deceive to control their prey.
The online classified ad Gauthier answered to set up this date says this woman is 20 years old. Outcalls only, it adds. This means she goes to clients, rather than them coming to her.
Her rate: $220 per hour.
"I'm a police officer, okay?" Gauthier says after answering the woman's knocks at the hotel room door. "You're not in trouble."
Seconds later, the young woman's cellphone rings. Restricted number. She doesn't answer.
"Does anyone know you're here?" Marchen asks.
"No, I just took a cab here," she says.
"So you're doing this on your own or you're doing it with another person?"
Clad in exercise pants, a winter coat and chipped pink nail polish, the young woman denies having a pimp. She got into the business last June, she says, a month after her 18th birthday.
Marchen asks the woman how she keeps herself safe in a world where armed robbers are looking for stacks of cash and pimps abuse sex workers to keep them in line. The woman explains that she looks up addresses on a map before agreeing to dates.
Matter-of-factly, she adds: "I don't go to Scarborough."
But officers in the Special Victims Section know sex workers are victimized in virtually every neighbourhood across the GTA – in hotel rooms, condos, massage parlours and strip clubs. For this reason, they aren't interested in charging the sex workers, but rather extending a helping hand in the hopes that when an exploited young woman is ready to escape and sign a statement against her pimp, she'll call.
They also know that, statistically speaking, this young woman likely has a pimp.
She walks out with a pamphlet about the Special Victims Section and Marchen's business card. Marchen tells her to put her first name and cellphone number into her phone so nobody will know she's in contact with a cop.
Pimps groom vulnerable women
The process of a pimp turning a girl or young woman into a sex slave is called grooming.
Charm is the most common weapon pimps use to lure teenaged girls from group homes, schools and places many Torontonians frequent in day-to-day life: Bus stops, shopping malls, arcades.
They are professionals when it comes to identifying vulnerable girls and their voids that need filling: Lack of love, lack of money, lack of self esteem.
Many pimps tell the girls they love them and take them on shopping sprees for expensive clothes – thigh-high stilettos and colourful costumes used in the sex trade.
When they have the girls wrapped around their fingers, they make a proposition that often sounds something like this: "Now there's something I would like you to do for me."
A pimp may say he's a music producer or a rapper looking for money to launch his career. Or that he wants them to make enough money so they can buy a nice condominium together.
It may take a week, or just a day before the girl is working in a strip club with a fake I.D. or doling out sex from the airport hotel strip or a Kingston Road motel room.
Sometimes, the pimps skip the lure of lies and get straight to the brutality. A torturous gang rape and scars from a lit cigarette may be enough to break a girl to the point that she feels her body is worthless – and to instill the fear necessary to control her.
More and more police officers across the GTA are beginning to charge pimps with human trafficking, a Criminal Code offence that came into effect in 2005.
Most human trafficking cases involve Canadian women and girls pimped out by young Canadian men. Many victims are given daily quotas of $1,000.
The first human trafficking conviction came down in 2008 in Peel Region, where Imani Nakpangi was convicted of pimping out two teenaged girls. One of them was 17 when she escaped two-and-a-half years of sexual slavery at the hands of Nakpangi. The other was 14 and had been recruited by Nakpangi just weeks before his arrest.
Both were forced to have sex with 10 to 15 men a day, every day, in Mississauga motel rooms. They handed Nakpangi every penny they made, money that amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
When the older girl told Nakpangi she wanted out, she was told she needed to pay a leaving fee of $100,000. An armed robbery by a man posing as a john was the tipping point that made her flee, go into hiding and then to police.
'I'm just surviving'
"These are the most vulnerable people in our society and regardless of what they're doing, regardless of what we feel on a moral level, they're victims. They're absolutely victims," Marchen says in an interview.
She recounts a recent story about a teenaged girl who was "severely beaten" by her pimp about six times over the last year, once to the point of hospitalization.
"She had fractures to her face and she still," Marchen says and pauses, "loves him.
"It's sad, but you know, for whatever reason, they're vulnerable to the attention and love."
Many girls believe their pimps are there to protect them.
"Well he'll call me," some will say once confronted by cops in a hotel room.
And so, instead of the girl calling her pimp to say she has been paid, they wait.
"We wait five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, still no phone call. And now they're starting to get a little antsy because, ‘Well, gee, he really isn't calling to see if I'm okay,'" Marchen says. "This false sense of security that the pimp brings…it's all smoke and mirrors. It's all lies. But they buy into it."
Twenty years ago, dozens of girls and young women could be found fighting for corner space at downtown Toronto intersections. The explosion of the Internet – and online classified ads – has created "a huge barrier" for Special Victims Section officers looking for victims, Gauthier says.
Most of the sex industry has moved indoors, masked by glowing red "Massage" signs, dense condo complexes and dark VIP rooms in strip clubs.
"Quite often these girls haven't been appreciated by anybody in their life up until this point and this (pimp) is the first person who's ever actually gone to them and said flattering and positive things about them," Gauthier says.
For one woman who visits the officers' hotel room this Wednesday afternoon, it wasn't a pimp that lured her in, but a dark past that finally caught up with her.
Her ad says she is 21, but her driver's licence tells a different story.
Quiet and polite, this 45-year-old woman explains that she was sexually abused as a child and, after a mental breakdown 15 years ago, decided to profit off her early, albeit uninvited, sexualization.
Employed by an escort agency, she takes home $100 per client, plus tips, she says. And it's not the johns or pimps she says she fears, but the competing sex workers.
"That's the danger in this business," she says. "If you're remotely attractive, they will kill you."
She recalls an incident from last year during which another woman in her escort agency "poured pots of hot water on me and threw me into the wall repeatedly."
When she complained to her boss, "She didn't do anything. She asked me to come back to work," she says.
She switched agencies.
Asked whether she is happy in her job, she laughs.
"Are you? Is anybody?" she says.
"I am," Marchen says.
The woman grows serious.
"I'm just surviving," she says. "I'm just surviving."
Follow CTV Toronto Crime Reporter Tamara Cherry on Twitter: @tamaracherry