When it’s Not A Choice: Living the Sex Trade in Sault Ste. Marie

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Caution: Some content may be offensive or upsetting to some readers.

Editor’s Note: Over the past five years the Canadian landscape has witnessed an embroiled national debate regarding the legalization of certain aspects of prostitution laws. While prostitution itself is legal several provisions around the business are not. Most notable is Terri Bedford’s Charter challenge against sections of Canada’s Criminal Code. Bedford v. Canada challenges the laws around prostitution that compromise the safety of women working in the sex trade.

On September 28, 2010, Justice Susan Himel struck down Canada’s prostitution laws, stating that the provisions meant to protect women were putting their lives at risk. If Himel’s decision stands, prostitutes will be able to communicate freely with customers on the street, conduct business in their homes or brothels and hire bodyguards and even accountants without exposing them to the risk of criminal sanctions.

The federal government responded to the Supreme Court ruling six months later with Bill C-36. Bill C-36 sets out to firmly define the laws that challenge a sex workers ability to conduct her work with greater visibility and safety. In other words- advertising, communication and safety mechanisms such as indoor venues, security or screening would be illegal.

However, long before this rigorous judicial debate, the moral dilemma of the sex trade existed and always will. On one side is the argument that women are free to choose to sell their bodies for sex; and on the other side is the argument that women are entrenched in the business of selling sex and are victims of abuse in need of rescue. Both sides argue for the safety of women and both sides are correct in doing so.

Safety is a constitutional right for all women.

The meeting point of the two extreme positions on sex trade is ‘choice’. At some point all women who have offered their flesh as a commodity stand on one side of the choice debate. Some, and perhaps the most vocal, declare ownership over their body and a right to use it as they desire. And others assert that they never really had a choice and that consent isn’t always willing.

The nation has become sidetracked by a moral argument. But where is the passionate debate about poverty, unemployment, hunger and inadequacies in the social security net?

This story is about a young woman who believes that it was the absence of choice in her life that obligated her into Sault Ste. Marie’s sex trade. It is not every sex trade workers story.

But it is her story.

*****

It’s a crisp and sunny October morning- the first sweater worthy day in Sault Ste. Marie. The little girl is riding her tricycle on the sidewalk, tightly gripping the handlebars with her pink mittened fists. Every so often she glances over her shoulder. Her young mother is peeking into the stroller to make sure that her baby sister is still snuggly beneath the Dora the Explorer blanket that she helped tuck over her tiny feet before they left the driveway for their walk.

She’s ahead by about the length of a front yard when her mom calls her back. She swings her tricycle around and is riding back to her mom when a diesel run truck, jacked up on a huge set of tires, pulls over and drives slowly alongside the curb.

A man is leaning out the driver side window and yelling things at her mom. She doesn’t know what they mean but she knows that the things he’s yelling are bad. She peddles slowly, right next to her mom now, and she looks up at her face. Her mom is staring at the sidewalk and walking faster. The little girl has to pick up the pace and pumps her legs, peddling as hard as she can. After a little while the man goes away but her mom is still walking fast, still staring at the pavement.

*****

Angie was 18 years old when she absconded from the province of Alberta for Ontario. She left behind a complicated relationship with her mother, who experienced a bi-polar diagnosis and spent much of Angie’s childhood in and out of institutions, and a broken relationship with her physically and emotionally abusive father.

In Ontario, she applied for welfare and rented a room from the parents of a high school friend. The family had relocated to the Sault but before leaving Alberta had promised Angie that she would have a place to stay if she ever wanted a fresh start. The arrangement was short lived, ended by a disharmonious relationship between Angie and the family’s youngest daughter. Angie was asked to find other living arrangements.

She was alone, young, unemployed and a stranger to the Sault. Angie was a vulnerable youth without the confidence or the resource to barely survive let alone change her circumstances.

The urgency of her situation forced her to grab the first affordable housing option available. Flipping through the newspaper she found a room and board deal that she jumped at without any pre-screening on her part. She regretted the move upon the quick discovery that her new roommates were big partyers. One might expect that because of her youthfulness she would celebrate the uncensored freedom that accompanied an adult/rule free environment but not so for Angie. The young girl packed up her few belongings and moved into the Women in Crisis Centre (WIC).

WIC assisted Angie with securing a new apartment. “They helped me with calling places because I was having a hard time finding landlords who would speak to me,” she said. “I sound a lot younger on the phone so they weren’t that eager to rent to me. So WIC was really helpful to me that way. And they offered counselling to me as well.”

Alone in a city that she didn’t know Angie quickly formed an intense relationship with a young local guy. Ten months later her first daughter was born. The security that Angie was looking for in this quick made family was elusive. By this time she had moved in with her infant daughter’s father and grandfather- a decision that she would immediately regret. Her boyfriend was increasingly abusive and she soon found out that her daughter’s paternal grandfather had collected three charges of sexual interference towards children.

Angie returned to WIC with her daughter until she found an apartment and a roommate to share in expenses. Angie worked hard to create a stable life for herself and her daughter. She paid her roommate or a babysitter to watch her daughter so that she could work full-time at a call centre. But it was just a matter of months before the roof caved in yet again. Angie’s sitter quit and her roommate moved out. Angie was unable to maintain her full-time position at the call centre and part-time hours were available to students only.

Angie was back on welfare and trying to cover full market rent, bills and buy groceries for herself and her daughter. During the middle of the month her income was supplemented with the Canada Child Tax Benefit (CCTB).

*****

Today, a single mother with one child is entitled to $344 plus rent up to a total maximum of $596 per month from Ontario Works. The same single mother would receive the maximum CCTB of $416 per month. That’s a monthly total of $1012 to apply towards rent, groceries, transportation, bills and any other incidental that comes up throughout the month.

Average market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Sault Ste. Marie is just over $600 per month. For people like Angie who find themselves ‘apartment poor’ at the end of the month there are limited resources. Current wait times for rent-geared -to -income housing in Sault Ste. Marie can range from 1 to 2 years. There is a ‘special priority’ exception for individuals who are living in a home where abuse is occurring. That individual must have left the situation or be in the process of leaving. There must also exist recorded documentation of the abuse such as notes from doctors/counsellors or police reports of domestic violence to support the expressed need for special priority.

People who are hungry in the Sault tend to stay hungry. The Soup Kitchen located in the far west end of the city isn’t always accessible for those living in other parts of town and there is always a need for increased community support. The Soup Kitchen also hosts a good food box program. A box of fresh produce can be sponsored and delivered once a month to those in need. The Salvation Army operates a food bank and provides emergency non-perishables to families in need. The service can be used by individuals once a month.

To put today’s local economic challenges into further perspective, a single mother working full-time at minimum wage ($11.00 per hour, no benefits) earns about $1500 dollars per month. Knowing that minimum wage jobs are often shift work and do not provide childcare supplements, a woman with one child could pay up to $700 in childcare per month. After paycheque deductions mom is now earning less than the person she is paying to watch her child.

Poverty is often defined by low-income cut off measures. According to the most recent Statistics Canada findings, in Sault Ste. Marie low-income cut offs in lone-parent homes have been established at $27, 243 after tax per year. Half of family homes where mom is the sole provider are only slightly above the low-income cut off and after taxes earnings are at or below $28, 585 per year.

Most recent data from Stats Canada’s National Household Survey demonstrates local employment rates using information from 2010. Participation rates indicate that just over 10% of individuals involved in the labour force were unemployed.

These findings also show that individuals between 15 yrs. -29 yrs. make up the highest percentage of that figure. There is a 30.50% unemployment rate among those who are 15 yrs. – 19 yrs., 25.60% unemployment rate among those who are 20 yrs. – 24 yrs. and 12.5% unemployment rate among those who are 25 yrs. -29 yrs.

Angie was 21 years old and struggling to find employment as a single mother. “I checked the internet every day. Welfare had a job board and I went there all the time. The job bank helped me do a resume up. I only got one call and I didn’t get the job. Welfare wasn’t enough. I’d been to the food bank but you can only go so many times and then they can’t help you anymore.”

She was desperately digging to the back of all of the kitchen cupboards that night when she would make the phone call that changed her life forever.

“My daughter was about two years old. I didn’t have any food in the cupboard for her. I only had peanut butter. I was feeding her peanut butter from a spoon. I don’t think I had eaten in a couple of days. I had tried to find another job to help with what welfare wasn’t giving me. Every time I looked in the paper I couldn’t find anything. The only thing I ever saw was the escort agencies and they were hiring. So like, feeding her the peanut butter was my breaking point. And I called and got a job.”

*****

The escort agency wasted no time and put Angie to work right away. The owners picked her up the next day and brought her to their house/business to ‘interview’ for the position. After she signed something verifying that she was over 18 years old they had her pose for pictures for their website. During the photo shoot a client called and before Angie could really process what was going on she was in the owners’ vehicle being driven to her fist call as an escort.

“I couldn’t believe what I was doing. I was out of options. I didn’t have a choice. I just kept thinking that this was the only thing I could do to feed my daughter or I was going to lose her.”

On the way to the call the owners were peppering her with the do’s and don’t’s of the business. They assigned her a work name and she was told to never talk about her ‘real’ life with any of the clients. She was on auto-pilot when she walked up the driveway and knocked on the guy’s door.

“I was so scared. But he knew it was my first time because she told him. He gave me a glass of wine. He was actually pretty nice. And then we just did it and they came and picked me up. I had mixed feelings. I was so happy that I had $90 in my hand and that I could buy groceries. But I was also thinking ‘what am I doing? This isn’t me.’ But at least I could feed my daughter and myself.”

The agency started Angie off slowly with one or two clients during the evenings she was free. The courts had ruled that custody of Angie’s daughter would be shared with the father. Angie was only taking calls on the nights her daughter was out visiting her father. But the agency pressured Angie to start taking calls when her daughter was in her care.

In the sex trade business when a client wants to have sex they want to have it ‘now’. Angie saying ‘no’ to a call would mean a profit loss for the agency. But this was the one job that Angie had that also provided free childcare services. “After my daughter fell asleep they would send over their son or son’s girlfriend and they would babysit so I could go out and take calls.”

The family owned and operated escort agency also provided opportunities for Angie to retain the entire $170 collected during a one hour out call. Usually the agency would take an $80 cut but Angie could hang on to that amount if she performed oral sex on the driver/co-owner while he was driving her back home or to the next call. “I didn’t want to at first. He was disgusting. But he kept asking and asking and I thought ‘well I’ve done worse at this point’. So I just did it.”

Angie worked the trade for about fourteen non-consecutive months.

During the early months, when Angie was still getting her feet wet, the agency eased her into the culture of the business. “They gave me all the nice clients at first. But then towards the end I was being sent to people that were pretty gross and rough.”

Alcohol and drug addiction would become an issue for Angie a bit further down the road but the dependence on easy money and a new social network was the quick and sharp hook. “It stopped being about being able to support me and my daughter. It became a lifestyle. I had more than enough for groceries and I could take her out for lunch every day. I would shop for clothes and whatever I wanted because I had the money to support it.”

Her new and obvious wealth attracted attention and suddenly she was surrounded by people who wanted to spend time with her. She bought them gifts, paid for their drinks and gave them money. Angie knew that the relationships were purchased but after a battered childhood and the events that led her to that lonely night spoon feeding peanut butter to her two year old daughter, she didn’t care.

Six months into her new career she met someone. She quit the business and went back to university. The change was short lived. The relationship failed and her poor performance in school cost her the loss of OSAP. She was alone and broke again. Angie called her former boss and she was immediately back on the rotation.

Angie’s life went off the rails.

*****

Angie was in bondage to the lifestyle that the sex trade provided her with and more so, the industry had become her only source of financial security and social connection. It is something that many women who have exited the sex trade understand. Former sex trade workers often share the sentiment that they were obligated into the business after seeking support where it didn’t exist in the community or in personal relationships. The sex trade offered them not only financial stability but also a sense of community.

It is not uncommon, as in Angie’s situation, that a woman may have a sincere desire to leave the business and do so, but return to it months or perhaps years later. Exiting the sex trade is not as simple as walking away from it. Often times these women leave the sex trade and return to the life they left behind, except they’ve brought back with them a new set of problems- perhaps an addiction, a newly existing post-traumatic stress disorder or overwhelming feelings of low self-esteem.

Organized community support for former sex trade workers in the way of housing, employment and counselling are a few resources that need to be established for these women to be successful in their exit. Just as importantly, these services need to be informed by former sex trade workers alongside professionals in the community.

*****

After a few months out of the business Angie was back in the line-up. This time she wasn’t saved for the ‘good’ clients. The good clients had decent jobs and led respectable middle class lives. Some were business men from out of town or travellers passing through the Sault.

The agency started sending Angie to clients who lived in filthy conditions and were potentially dangerous individuals- possibly punishing her for having left in the first place. But Angie attended the calls and hoped that her work conditions would improve as she regained the agency owners’ trust.

She hadn’t been back to work more than a few weeks when she would experience the worst call of her life. Angie credits the lingering terror left by the memory of that night as the breaking point that led to her conscious choice to begin heavily drinking.

“It was such a scary situation,” Angie recalls. “It was two guys and a girl. The girl was from another escort agency. And they were all doing drugs. This was the first time I had ever seen people doing drugs. They were all smoking crack and I had never seen that before- ever. They had me there for three hours and it was the three people that I had to go around and do things with- all three of them. They were using needles and stuff and there was blood everywhere. I was terrified. I thought I was going to be killed. They weren’t regular people. When I was waiting for the driver I was shaking and crying. I sat in the bath for two hours after. And I didn’t answer the escort agency’s calls the next day. It was right after that that all the drinking and stuff started.”

Despite that traumatic situation Angie did continue to work. For Angie, the sex trade was the only viable financial solution to take care of herself and her daughter. She consumed alcohol to excess now to manage the stress, unpleasantness and fear that she associated with the business.

“Drinking made it easier. And once the agency realized that I had started drinking they just kept sending me to the drug users in town. The guys would be doing crack or cocaine the whole time I was there. And then I started doing it. Coke was my thing. I started doing it regularly but I never had to buy. Guys always gave it to me. Even outside of work they gave it to me because they knew what I did. They just thought it would make me more willing to sleep with them. And it did.”

*****

It’s been four years since Angie left the sex trade. It happened unexpectedly. She met her husband, Jake, when she was still working for the escort agency. They began dating and it was a couple of months before Angie left the business for good.

Jake had quickly fallen into love with Angie. He recognized that she must have been struggling as a single parent and she was still trying to make it through her second semester of university. He assumed that she was surviving on her student loan. Jake helped her pay bills and made sure that Angie and her daughter always had enough to eat.

Eventually guilt took its toll on Angie. “When we first met I still had to support my daughter. I didn’t feel like I was cheating on him at first. I completely zoned out when I was at work. Then things started getting serious and I stopped but it was really hard giving up the money. But I was starting to love Jake and it didn’t seem ok anymore.”

Jake found out about Angie’s past but it didn’t come from Angie, it came from Angie’s friend – someone who wanted Angie back as a drinking buddy. When Angie gave up sex work she also gave up old friends and old ways. She was settling into a new life with Jake.

Jake recalled of the moment he found out about Angie’s past, “The only thing I wanted to know was if she was done doing it.  I told her that as long as she was done there wouldn’t be any issues. I wanted to know if she had any interest in going back because I obviously wanted to have a long term relationship with her.”

Jake and Angie are sitting in their living room. Angie is curled into an oversized chair and Jake is sitting in a recliner with his feet up. Angie’s daughter and the couple’s newborn are fast asleep for the night. In the corner of the room is a loaded toy box. Their chocolate Labrador is curled up against the couch.

It wasn’t until about a year and a half into the relationship that Jake found out the truth about Angie’s exit from the sex trade a couple of months after they had begun dating. “The night I found out about all of it we were lying in bed. She was pregnant at the time. I was telling her how she was a wonderful fiancée and how she was such a great mother. She was just kind of down and I asked her what was wrong. It was at that point she told me all of the secrets she had been hanging on to. I went for a drive to let off some steam.”

As difficult as the honest moment was the young couple loved each other. Jake understood why Angie kept the truth from him and forgave her. With so much time and love invested in the relationship they were both eager to move forward and were married shortly after.

“I just loved her,” Jake remarked. “She was the girl for me. It didn’t matter what we were doing, she always enjoyed herself. She was a good mother and was always there for her daughter. She was always talking about the future and marriage and more kids and living on the water. She was the kind of girl that talked about a nice life. I never had doubts about wanting to be with her. Even after I found everything out.”

He glanced at Angie. “And it helped that she was pretty cute.” They both caught each other’s eye and laughed.

Jake is pretty happy. “We have a wonderful family, we’re married and we have nice home. I love watching her work in the garden and seeing how she can make things grow. We’ve gone on some nice trips. It’s just the daily stuff that’s the best thing about our relationship. I love coming home and seeing her.”

*****

Angie’s story isn’t exactly a ‘happily ever after’.

She has left the sex trade but the small town of Sault Ste. Marie is full of people that remember her from her old life. She runs into former clients, girls she turned tricks with and her old bosses. Her past lurks everywhere and sometimes comes back to life.

“I was walking with my daughters and one of my old regulars spotted me. He kept trying to talk to me. I was freaking out. He was yelling out at me, he was yelling my old work name. And it wasn’t the first time that it happened but it was the scariest. He just wouldn’t stop. He followed me. He was driving right beside me while I was walking. And then he’d drive around the block and then come back and do it again. I told my husband that I didn’t want to take the kids for walks anymore. I’m afraid he’ll find out where I live.”

Sometimes her past clients will approach her while she is shopping with her children and ask her when she’s going back to work. Every now and then Angie’s former boss drives by while she’s walking with her daughters or downtown running errands.

“Sometimes I’m afraid to leave the house. Every time I see a truck go by like his and I have a panic attack. When he drives by he’ll whistle or yell out sexual comments. And it makes me feel very uncomfortable. He does it whether I have the kids with me or not.”

Angie has nightmares about past clients and her former boss finding out where she lives. She expressed that she experiences fear and anxiety on a regular basis.

Angie also struggles with low self-esteem. She refers to her middle class life with her young family. “I feel like I don’t deserve this at all. I feel like what I deserve is to be an escort and lose my children. I know that it’s not right to think that but that’s how I feel. My husband tells me that I’m being silly and that he feels like he doesn’t deserve me.”

Though her husband earns enough to care for the family and manage household expenses Angie wants to work. However, her condition of anxiety has made it difficult for Angie to find and maintain her employment.

“It would be awesome if I could find a job but because of my past I have huge anxiety. I’m sure that people who interview me can tell that I do. I got a job at a grocery store and saw one of my old clients. I had a panic attack and I quit.”

The reality that her resume is pretty sparse doesn’t help Angie’s situation of unemployment either. “It’s very hard to find a job because there is so much dead space on my resume. I can’t write down that I was an escort or that I lived on welfare. The reality is if I didn’t have my husband I’d still be working as an escort. And I’d be hugely into drugs right now. Because that’s where my life was heading.”

The recurring themes in Angie’s story are poverty, unemployment, unreliable child care, food insecurity and the absence of supportive social networks.

A handful of grassroots efforts are underway to address the needs of women in sex trade and recently local police services have shifted their approach from punitive reaction to supportive intervention for women working as prostitutes and escorts. However, there is much work that needs to be done at a local level before the most basic needs are met let alone the development of complex and holistic support strategies for all women who are at risk of entering, involved in or seeking exit from sex trade work.

Angie knows firsthand that this should be of utmost priority. “I wish there was something for girls that are in the same situation that I was in so that they don’t have to go through what I went through. It was the worst experience of my life. For a while I felt like I was at the top of the world but it led me to being on the very bottom. It’s not worth it.”

*****

Coalition of Women In Numbers: “Our vision is harm reduction, non-judgmental support and providing exit strategies as needed to those involved in the sex trade.” cwin.ssm@gmail.com

Northern Womens Connection: “Creating healing and support for women who have had involvement in the sex trade.”   northern.womens.connection@gmail.com

Yes You Can Employment: Provides assistance to those who experience barriers to employment. Barriers, in addition to visible disabilities, can include mental health issues such depression, PTSD and lack of experience.yesyoucan@shawbiz.ca

Neighbourhood Resource Centre (SSM Police): Storefront on Gore St. Officer on duty provides attention to issues in the downtown area. Point of contact for other supportive community services. d.rossetto@ssmps.org

Women In Crisis: Free temporary emergency shelter and support services 24 hours a day to women and their children who have experienced violence. 705.759.1230

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