In societies across the globe, women and girls face inequality, discrimination, violence and control. Human trafficking in the sex trade is one of the most extreme forms of gender-based violence and disproportionately affects women and girls. 

Marginalized and racialized women and girls experience added layers of discrimination and barriers to support, as well as youth in care and youth with mental health issues. Colonialism and systemic racism have created intergenerationally marginalized communities that are targeted by exploiters. Indigenous, Black, and other racialized women and girls often lack social supports, leaving room for exploitation under the guise of love, community and a better life.

Aura Freedom’s counter-trafficking work stresses the importance of empowering youth to make safe and healthy decisions in their lives and reach out for support when they need it. We do not engage in ‘rescue industry’ activities. Our work aims to prevent human trafficking by advancing equity.

For a look at our youth-led Peer Prevention Project that prevents human trafficking and gender-based violence, click HERE!

Important Considerations

  • Aura Freedom recognizes that human trafficking not only happens in the sex industry, but in many others, including the service industry, farming industry and in domestic labour. Forced marriage, forced crime and organ trafficking are other forms of human trafficking.
  • Aura Freedom welcomes the distinction between consensual adult sex work and human trafficking. Indeed, we work with women who have engaged, or still engage in consensual sex work for various reasons. Yet, we urge readers to refute claims that human trafficking is rare within the sex trade in Canada. On the contrary, our experience with survivors has shown that human trafficking is prevalent in Canada and there is considerable work to be done in order to address and prevent it.
  • Aura Freedom recognizes the continuous debate within the feminist movement as to whether all forms of work in the sex trade (sex work, pornography, body rub parlour work, exotic dancing, etc.) are exploitative. It is a polarizing and volatile subject in many feminist circles, which only hinders us from truly addressing what we all agree on: forced prostitution and child exploitation are wrong.
  • Through our work, we hope to inspire solidarity in the simple fact that everyone wishes to live in a world where women, girls and gender diverse people can live healthy and vibrant lives free from violence, coercion, exploitation, inequality and stigma. Let’s continue to be brave. Moreover, let’s be willing to feel uncomfortable and listen to opinions that are different from our own. The only way forward is to be open and inclusive of all those affected by gender-based violence.

Human Trafficking is a Human Rights Abuse

Human Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is a form of gender-based violence that we address at Aura Freedom.

An excerpt on human trafficking from ‘Relentless Resilience’ – our 2020 Beijing +25 Parallel Report on gender-based violence- can be found below:

Human trafficking is highly underreported due to its hidden nature. Many of the survivors Aura Freedom has worked with have and never will report their trafficker to police for fear of retribution and many of our partners have indicated similar patterns. Therefore, any statistics that have ever been reported with regards to this crime will never bring a complete picture, but only highlight police activity.

Tip of the iceberg.

It is important to dispel the myths about human trafficking – what it looks like, who is trafficked, and how it is done. Many Canadians still think that human trafficking involves crossing international borders, kidnapping and organized crime, but it’s not always the case. The ‘face’ of Canadian human trafficking can look very different. Right now, Aura Freedom and other Toronto grassroots groups are seeing 16 and 17 year old boys trafficking their classmates for money, notoriety and as a way to validate their masculinity. We are also seeing young women getting involved in the recruitment of those trafficked into the sex trade, even if oftentimes they are being exploited themselves.

Don’t think Hollywood.

During the luring and grooming stage, a trafficking situation can start out looking a lot like a romantic relationship or a friendship before the exploitation begins.

To understand human trafficking in a more simplistic manner, we need to first understand it as exploitation and a form of gender-based violence. Our own work at Aura Freedom and that of our partners has highlighted that this extreme form of exploitation and violence manifests as intense interpersonal trauma for the women and girls that survive trafficking. By viewing human trafficking through a lens of exploitation and trauma, the constant calls of holistic wrap-around services for trafficked persons may actually be heard and (finally) implemented.

It’s about more than convicting traffickers. Human trafficking is indeed a crime, but more importantly, it is a human rights abuse.

The Gender Factor

As an extreme form of violence against women and girls, a strong, intersectional gender lens must be used when addressing sexual exploitation. Ultimately, the existence of sexual exploitation is due to the long-standing societal norm of gender inequality, which has given rise to the hyper-sexualization, dehumanization, and commodification of girls and women.

Traffickers prey on the growing insecurities of adolescent girls, which are fed by the deeply sexist nature of the media and entertainment industry, resulting in extreme physical and psychological trauma. The unrealistic expectations of women and girls in both the media and real life cannot be denied. This is in addition to the increasing need for popularity on social media. Moreover, young men are living in their own gender boxes and many feel pressure to prove their manhood in violent ways, leading to toxic masculinity and rape culture. When mixed with poverty and the inability to recognize unhealthy relationships and what true consent means, girls are left vulnerable and boys are unable to express their need for help or support.

Youth who identify as transgender or gender non-binary face even more discrimination and often lack social supports, leaving them vulnerable to violence, homelessness, addiction, and human trafficking.

Social media is increasingly used to target, recruit and groom young women and girls and ultimately exploit them. Indeed, many of the youth Aura Freedom has supported who were exploited in the sex trade were targeted and groomed online. Traffickers exploit vulnerabilities created by sexism, racism, poverty, gender inequality and toxic norms, lack of education, social supports, employment opportunities – and loneliness. Social media is a tool for traffickers looking to exploit these vulnerabilities in young women and girls through grooming practices, such as befriending them and giving them attention, stability, and gifts that young women and girls are usually unable to access in their day-today lives. They get a glimpse of a “dream life” before the rug is ripped out and the exploitation begins.

The Trafficking of Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada

Although anyone can be trafficked, marginalized groups are the most targeted. Indigenous youth are the most at risk. Indigenous women make up only 4% of Canada’s population, yet nearly 50% of human trafficking survivors (Roudometkina and Wakeford, MWAC, 2018).

The ongoing colonial sexualization and dehumanization of Indigenous women’s bodies where Western ideology positions Indigenous women as inherently “violable and less valuable” than non-Indigenous women (Roudometkina and Wakeford, NWAC, 2018: 3) is but one small factor that has led to the higher risk Indigenous women and girls experience regarding human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Testimony from the National Inquiry into MMIWG (2019) has highlighted the fact that human trafficking is strongly linked to the disproportionately high rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls. The extent of human trafficking and victimization of Indigenous women is grossly under-reported (Public Safety Canada, 2019).

The National Inquiry into MMIWG heard several stories about women and girls in the sex industry who experienced sexual exploitation, violence, and human trafficking – many spoke about daughters, mothers, and sisters who were murdered as a result of trafficking (MMIWG, 2019). When genocide, intergenerational trauma, racism, sexism, poverty, insecure housing, and overrepresentation in the criminal justice and child welfare systems are combined with a lack of comprehensive culturally sensitive social supports and barriers to accessing education, employment, health care, and cultural healing avenues, one cannot be surprised that the trafficking of Indigenous women and girls is happening at such a crisis-level rate in Canada.