Editors Note: Originally published in February 2013
It could have been miniature chocolate cakes made with love in the Holly Hobby Oven, figure skating costumes, ethereal with endless layers of tooling and giggling late into the night at sleepovers. But it wasn’t.
Instead Aubrey was raped when she was nine years old and tried to kill herself three times before she was eleven years old. And still when those cries for help weren’t loud enough, weren’t heard, Aubrey tried one more time and ran away.
“The first time I remember anyone noticing me was when I ran away in the middle of winter. The cops were out with their dogs and the helicopters were out sweeping the ground with spotlights. I lived in a small town and that sort of thing didn’t happen often. I spent the night in an apple bin and was found the next day.”
The officer hauled out her little shivering body from the bin and condemned her behaviour saying that she was ‘ungrateful’ and ‘needed to go home and listen to her parents’. For Aubrey, it was just another hard learned lesson that there wasn’t anyone who was going to help. “I just remember thinking ‘well the next time I do this I know not to get caught’.”
Not before long Aubrey was back on the lam. “I was twelve years old hitchhiking down the highway to Vancouver. I got on the Sky train and literally eeny meeny miiny mowed the stops. And of course the one I hit is Kingsway and Broadways, just a couple of blocks off of Hastings. What are the odds? It’s like when you’re in the pits you’re just gravitated towards a never ending downward spiral.”
Vancouver has been consistently ranked in the top ten of the most liveable cities in Canada. The city is one of the largest industrial centres in Canada, home to a vibrant arts and culture scene and its beautiful location makes the city a popular tourist destination. In 2010 Vancouver was host to the Winter Olympics.
Vancouver is also home to the poorest postal code in the nation. Sometimes referred to as Misery Road or Vancouver’s Third World, the oldest neighbourhood in the city-East Hastings is a gangplank crowded with panhandlers, junkies and prostitutes.
Twelve year old Aubrey spent her early days on the streets in East Hastings panhandling, trying to feed herself, finding places to sleep and avoiding harm. If she couldn’t raise enough coins begging Aubrey would steal food or items to sell on the street. When she was arrested for stealing she was tossed into a juvenile detention centre where she was first introduced to hard drugs. Aubrey didn’t ease herself into the drug culture, she leapt into it.
“I didn’t have an addiction when I ran away from home. But after my first arrest and incarceration I was introduced to some pretty hard core drugs.” Now Aubrey was not just trying to feed her tummy on the streets, she was trying to feed her newly acquired addictions as well.
The first time Aubrey shot up she was fourteen years old. A forty year old man tied her off and stuck a needle in her arm. “I never got hardened to needles and I’m pretty lucky for it. Who knows where I’d be today if I had.”
Aubrey would spend the next five years bouncing in and out of the treatment/penal system. The youth courts quickly ran out of ideas about how to deal with Aubrey’s needs. The youth detention centres weren’t equipped with the human expertise or resources to offer appropriate intervention and support to Aubrey.
“A lot of the treatment centres I went to didn’t know how to deal with me. They could handle the kid that smoked pot or drank too much but I was heavily addicted to crack and heroin.”
Aubrey was shuffled within the social and judicial system without any youth agency having the courage to claim responsibility for this little girl. The Courts responded to this shortfall by tossing Aubrey into the adult penal system when she was just thirteen years old. While the majority of girls her age were picking up new skills through the educational system Aubrey was developing her capacity within adult correctional institutions.
“If you don’t want to be there jail to get clean, you make the best of it and learn new ways to not get caught. Everytime I got put into jail or treatment I came out with a new trade. I learned how to break into cars and then I learned how to deal drugs. And that’s where I learned about the sex trade. Now I have a way of supporting my habit without getting busted for theft. And that’s how I became stuck in the sex trade culture.”
Aubrey found a family on the streets of East Hastings. It was a bit makeshift and a bit shifty but it would do. “At the end of the day, at the end of a long night on the streets the girls in your group got really close. If somebody got hurt we were there. And as bad as it sounds and because withdrawal is such a brutal thing, if one of the girls needed heroin we would share.
We looked out for each other as best we could. As much as we protected each other, it was a survival method as well. If somebody had an apartment for a month we would all reap the benefits.”
The family of women was just as dysfunctional as the childhood home from which Aubrey fled. It was not uncommon that an older prostitute was pimping out the younger prostitutes in the circle. “It was just a reality of those street level types of relationships. One minute she’s ready to kill a john that hurt me and the next minute she’s punching my lights out. It’s ok for her to do that but not anybody else.”
Consumed by self-loathing, Aubrey didn’t have a rock bottom. Over the next several years she would be beaten to near death and overdose on drugs to the point of requiring medical resuscitation. She was familiar with Robert Pickton and she knew the face of one of his victims.
“I was sold like a material object in the sex trade. I was tied down and raped and abused for three days in order to ‘break’ me. And I witnessed a murder which included having an abuser play Russian roulette with me and another girl. I won.”
Still after surviving all of this she would return to the streets, to the place that she felt most accepted and most safe. And to the place where after a night of hopping in and out of cars, she could self-medicate with a few rocks of crack and forget.
When 12 yr. old Aubrey ran away from home, she fled from a life coloured with sexual abuse, neglect, emotional battery and her own attempts to end her life. She ran without a plan and with a hope that anything out there was going to be better than what was disappearing in the dust of her tracks.
She spent those first months on the streets in downtown East Hastings, panhandling and executing the five-finger discount to survive. It was around the age of 13 yrs. when her fist pimp rode in and swept her off her blistered, wet feet and whisked her away to his palace.
She was adorned with beautiful clothes, expensive shoes, spa treatments and all the drugs her little pre-pubescent body could absorb without fatal consequence.
“It was very glorified when I started. My first trick was two guys. They were friends of my pimp. When you’re 13 yrs. old and all alone and you have a couple of 30 yr. old guys buying you drinks and drugs, how do you say ‘no’?”
Thirteen year old Aubrey looked too young to pass in the strip clubs and didn’t even try to. She was given a role at the Penthouse Night Club in Vancouver, a central location for many of the gang run prostitution rings. “I was going to parties, dressing up and wearing sexy costumes. You could give a guy a blow job and he’d throw a handful of $100 dollar bills at you instead of $1 dollar bills. I was on the high track. I was getting the hockey players and the business men. ”
A tactic of pimps is to get the girls hopelessly addicted. “I started getting hooked on drugs and that’s where the breaking of girls happens. They try to get you as high as they can without overdosing you. They break you down emotionally and make you feel so bad about yourself. And you need the lifestyle to support your addiction so you can’t leave.”
Working in the upper end sex businesses such as the Penthouse means keeping up a fresh, ripe appearance. If you look like a strung out drug user your number is up. “If your addictions are starting to take over you’re out on the street. You’re still on the high track but on the lower end. Eventually you become so addicted to drugs that you don’t need a pimp to beat you up to keep you turning tricks.”
Towards the end of her two year stint on the high track, Aubrey was tossed to the streets. No longer working in the Penthouse, she still looked ‘healthy’ enough to put on a cowboy hat and boots and hook for businessmen. It was somewhere near the end of her time, on the lower rung of high track, when Aubrey stared into the eye of death, down the barrel of gun pointed in her face.
“At that time another girl and I were working together. So if we got a date we would go together. We were working twice as much but that meant if one of us made an extra $20-30 we could smoke together. So that meant we were spending twice as much to do twice as much drugs. That pissed off our gang of pimps. We were doing too much drugs and that meant we were basically at the end of our life as a profit.”
The gang owned a few apartments where their girls could crash. It was at one of these homes where Aubrey and her street partner were dealt with. No longer useful to the gang, they became things to have ‘fun’ with, not unlike a rusty heap of steel that was a car- something to kick, piss on and destroy.
“It happened really, really fast,” Aubrey is quiet. “They played Russian roulette with us. I don’t remember how many times it went back and forth.” She stops speaking for a spell. “I …I…I just heard a ‘pop’! I didn’t know if it was real. And then they started getting all hyped up. And then I was dragged out and they doped me up to shut me up…because drugs make everything better…” her voice trails off.
“It’s like domestic abuse. What does the abuser do? They go and buy flowers. Flowers make everything ok.”
The pimps that murdered Aubrey’s street partner weren’t high. “They were always very ‘business’. They never used their product. The only thing I knew that they would use was pot.”
After making sure that Aubrey was well doped they sent her back out on to the high track, back on to the streets. It was just a matter of days before they dropped her altogether. Aubrey spent the last two years working the low track. That meant no place to crash at the end of the night, going without food and hooking just to keep the monster fed.
The next three years of her life on the streets on the low track are like a blur. Like a dark watercolour, murky and smudged. “I don’t really know how long it was. I just know that I was off the streets by the time I was 17 yrs. old. There were times when I was smoking crack regularly and I wouldn’t sleep for four or five days.”
Those hours, days- whatever they were, bled together. Still today, ten years later, a repressed memory will rear its head and catch Aubrey off guard. “I’m better at dealing with those flashes of memory now. I can deal with it in a healthy and quicker way.”
But if there is anything that she remembers about those last days on the streets it was the crippling agony of hunger and withdrawal. The cops became familiar with Aubrey. They found out how old she was and began trailing her. She became taboo on the streets. Johns wouldn’t pick her up and dealers wouldn’t sell to her.
Aubrey was in a constant state of withdrawal. Unable to maintain her addiction, let alone eat and stay warm, all she wanted was to get dry and fed.
“I had always prided myself on being able to avoid the police. It was a game of cat and mouse. I knew what their cars looked like at night. I knew the distance between their headlights. When I saw a cop car I made myself scarce, made myself invisible. The better I was at that the more successful I was out there. I don’t know how many times I hid under cars…”
But on one miserable rainy winter night, Aubrey gave up her pride. “It was raining. During the winter in Vancouver it doesn’t snow, it rains. The snow you can hide from but the rain is inescapable. I was wet. I had nowhere to sleep. I couldn’t remember the last time I ate or showered.”
It was that night that Aubrey made a decision, driven by an unfailing will to survive, that would reset the course of her life. “I was so cold and hungry. And I knew that someone needed to save me ‘now’ or I would die.”
When the police began their cruise Aubrey didn’t move, she didn’t take cover. “I just wanted them to take me in. I knew they’d haul me off to CAS and that CAS would ignore me again and that I’d walk out there front door again. I didn’t care. All I knew was that ‘tonight I wanted a bed.”
Surely enough Aubrey was picked up that night. And as she expected, was thrown into juvy. She spent six weeks in isolation detoxing. In the juvenile system treatments aren’t set up to deal with Aubrey’s hard core addictions. “Underage treatment is set up for kids at home with parents or some type of exterior support system. It’s for the kid that’s smoking too much pot or partying on the weekend. They weren’t set up for a kid like me.”
By the time Aubrey was permanently pulled off the streets she weighed under 100 lbs. “I was put into solitary confinement for six weeks. That’s how they deal with you in juvy. They stick you in a little room with nothing on the floor and everything is taken, even the drawstring in your pants so you can’t hang yourself. You don’t get medication when you’re in juvy. You don’t get weaned off your drug. You’re stuck in a room that is filled with piss…It’s just a gross, foul room and you’re left there until you’re done detoxing.”
For the conclusion of Aubrey’s story, she will be sharing it in her own words. It is a sensitive reflection about her life after the streets, her courageous recovery and her unquenchable spirit.
Even among sex trade workers there exists a hierarchy. Up at the top are the high end escorts and call girls, the girls who claim to like what they do, the supposed sex addicts and women who call for worker’s rights and making sex work a viable option. I don’t believe any woman would choose sex work unless there were no other options to choose from.
I showed up on the doorstep of an adult recovery program- in a new town with new people but old fears, behaviours and thoughts. During this time I got overloaded with people in helping professions- social workers, child and youth workers, therapists, psychiatrists and dentists.
I was officially diagnosed with PTSD, ADHD, insomnia, and social anxiety. I was given medication in order to combat all of these mental health issues that I now know to be false. I didn’t have ADHD, I was just appeared to be hyperactive due to withdrawal from drugs. Medically speaking it can take up to a year for the physical symptoms of heavy drug use to subside and for normal brain chemistry to resume.
My insomnia occurred from years of having a sex trade workers sleep habits- sleep during the day and up all night. My body was wired to be awake when I was supposed to be asleep. Social anxiety, I still battle with this, although I don’t think it is social anxiety as described by the DSM but instead a lack of social skills. I grew up in an unconventional way and didn’t learn healthy social behaviours. PTSD is the only diagnosis that I can agree with today. Extreme trauma forces our brain to constantly be in a heightened state of fight or flight and hallucinations and other difficult things can happen. This diagnosis is the reason I was moved to another treatment facility in another city twelve hours away from Vancouver. I couldn’t walk down the street without anxiety of someone seeing me or finding me, and at times my mind created what I was scared of. I would see the people I was scared of in the eyes of complete strangers.
I couldn’t even think about beginning to heal in a world that was so filled with fear. My concoction of medication served the same purpose as the street level drugs. I didn’t feel. I appeared to be relatively unscathed form my experiences as the medical world had returned me to a state of being an empty shell. Eventually this white haze had to come to an end. Some of the amazing women at the treatment center saw right through this mess and helped me find a physician who was able to handle my issues based on reality and not the easy way out. I was supplemented by having a psychologist volunteer his time to work with me. I wouldn’t talk to him. I stared at the walls and tried to hide.
I wore big sweaters so people wouldn’t see me, even in the middle of summer. I cut my hair so men wouldn’t see me as anything like they had, and I cut my arm because that was easier to deal with than the tidal waves of feelings within me.
I still cut or change my hair color on a regular basis because I am never satisfied with how I look. I think I am ugly and maybe if I change my hair I can be pretty again. If someone hurts me, I cut my hair because I can. It is a form of self-control, something I never had as a child, even over my own body. I even went as far as to become a hairstylist, to work with the median that held so much emotional power over my own thoughts and feelings. A counsellor once pointed out that for someone who thinks they are so ugly, entering an industry that is based on beauty is strange and out of the box. What they never saw was my ability to make others feel good about themselves, even if I couldn’t do the same for myself.
I do not believe sex work, even at the top, is enjoyable. If a woman loved sex so much, sex work would be the last career she would want because the woman receives no pleasure in the exchange. It is solely about the man’s pleasure whether the woman is getting paid $2000 or $20, the buyer wants to get what he paid for, which does not include the woman’s enjoyment.
I was waking up from a bad dream and all I wanted was my mom, but she was nowhere to be found. I felt so alone. I started realizing just how stigmatized sex trade workers are. I learned that society hated me. I learned that I would eventually have to leave my new nest and fly out into the world where no one wanted me to be. I relapsed. I used prostitution to feed my addiction once more and brought the remnants of my night back to the treatment center. They were going to abandon me anyways I’d better at least give them a reason to do it.
Instead they showed me love. It was the turning point in my recovery.
My hero, my inspiration- told me that she wasn’t going to give up on me when I needed her the most, and then she hugged me. I don’t know if she remembers this, but I sure do. It was the first time someone had hugged me without wanting something more. She hugged me not for her emotional safety net but for mine.
I hug very rarely, it feels awkward to ask someone to touch me when I have done such dirty things. It feels wrong to think that someone actually just wants a hug. Every hug I give I am prepared for inappropriate groping, fondling or sweet whispers told in my ear. It hasn’t happened in ten years, but survival instincts don’t just go away.
I entered treatment as a raw, vulnerable defensive child filled with hate and anger. Two years went by to make me the youngest graduate, and the longest residing client the center had ever seen. I felt like a person, not a whore, but a girl.
This success in my life happened by using unconventional methods, not programming tied in place by best practice policies or government funding requirements. I was allowed to make mistakes like every other person does as they grow and learn. I was forced to look at my trauma in intimate, horrifying ways with soft gentle hands to guide me and rebuild me. They went as far as to call in their resident police officer to stand guard as I broke glasses in a parking lot and screamed at my counsellor who was pushing my buttons- the buttons that hurt. I couldn’t imagine being responsible for saying hurtful truths to a child with the goal of helping them hit a catharsis in order to be able to rebuild their hopes and dreams.
I believe that it takes more courage for a woman to admit she was hurt and victimized. To admit this means that you have to feel the hurt and pain that accompanies it and this is not easy. To say you enjoy your work and it is your choice is easy. To shove down your feelings and admit that they don’t exist is easy. To stand up and not only face your feelings, but deal with them and move on is the hard part.
Two years set me on a path to regain a piece of myself but it by no means made me whole. In the past eleven years I have met the love of my life, a man who taught me how to make love instead of just having sex, and gave birth to two beautiful daughters. It’s hard. I have had some of the best moments of my life and some of the worst. My family has had to grow and learn with me.
I still can’t make love to my husband without seeing his face, or I return to dangerous places that create hurt and insecurity. I am learning to be a mother by trial and error, without a role model to lean on. I do not have anyone to phone when I don’t know how to cook a turkey. I burnt mine for the first three years. My husband has some horrendous cooking stories to be told.
I have moments where I sit in my shower, my new safe dark space and feel pity for myself, I dream about the mom I wish could hold me, or the dad that would call me his princess, but in the end I have realized that I have the best of it all as I have been given the gift of choosing my family. Of creating something special where there was nothing before. I wouldn’t change what happened to me for anything in the world as it made me who I am in all my glory.
Aubrey’s narrative is a powerful testament to the value of the women among us who are working on the streets and a reminder that they also have a story to share with us.
Aubrey is a member of the Coalition of Women In Numbers. CWIN aims to provide outreach in the form of prevention for women who are considering entering the sex trade, and harm reduction and exit strategies for women involved in all levels of sex work. CWIN is comprised of former sex trade workers and their allies who understand that related issues such as homelessness, addictions, poverty and violence often co-occur in the lives of women who are contemplating involvement or are involved in the sex trade.