Definition of sexual exploitation
Sexual exploitation involves a person profiting from the use of another person’s body in a sexual manner in order to benefit (financially or otherwise).
In general, the perpetrator of sexual exploitation takes advantage of their victim’s vulnerable or dependent state, including addictions to drugs or alcohol. The perpetrator can be male or female, an adult or a minor, and can act for their own personal gain or for the benefit of a criminal enterprise (street gang, organized crime).
Various forms of violence are used by perpetrators of sexual exploitation to maintain their hold over their victims and force them to engage in prostitution. For example, perpetrators can:
- lie to their victim by promising them gifts or rewards (psychological violence)
- manipulate their victim by appearing to be vulnerable and destitute, in order to initially gain the victim’s emotional support and, later, their financial support (psychological and economic violence)
- make their victim believe that they are madly in love with them (psychological violence)
- blackmail or verbally threaten their victim (psychological and verbal violence)
- borrow money in their victim’s name (defrauding their victim) (economic violence)
- lead their victim to commit criminal acts in order to better manipulate them in the future (psychological violence)
- control their victim by physically threatening them or hitting them (physical violence)
- threaten to hurt members of their victim’s family (psychological violence)
- sexually assault their victim (sexual violence)
- confine their victim, or deprive them of food or clothing in order to control them (psychological, economic and physical violence)
It is essentially impossible to discuss sexual exploitation without first defining prostitution, in order to better contextualize related concepts.
Prostitution is offering sexual services in exchange for compensation, usually in the form of money but, occasionally, as services, drugs, etc.
In Canada, providing sexual services is not illegal. However, the act of purchasing and using sexual services is illegal. Clients, who are primarily men, are therefore committing a criminal act by contacting someone in order to obtain sexual services or by shopping for or purchasing or using such a service, regardless of whether or not the person providing the service is a minor.
By law, the following are considered to be sexual services:
- sexual intercourse
- oral sex
- lap dancing (which involves sitting in a person’s lap and simulating sexual intercourse)
- sado-masochistic activities, provided that the acts can be considered to be sexually stimulating or gratifying
Sexual services offered over the Internet and in front of a camera are also considered prostitution.
Although there are people who choose to engage in prostitution, in the majority of cases, people engaged in prostitution are being exploited by someone else in order to extract profit for themselves, a street gang or organized crime.
Prostitution may be less visible on the street now than it has ever been, but it has not disappeared. On the contrary, it has diversified, and the demand for sexual services provided by increasingly younger people has risen. Buying and selling sexual services takes place largely online, which makes it even easier for abusers to control their victims.
Forms of sexual exploitation
The forms of sexual exploitation have different names depending on the age of the individuals involved, the context or type of contact they engage in and what the law states with regard to different situations of sexual exploitation.
Procuring and human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation
In Canada, procuring (pimping) and human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation are comparable, since in both cases, a victim is coerced into providing sexual services. The difference between the two concepts is essentially a legal matter. Moreover, human trafficking in Canada largely affects Canadians: only 10% of trafficking cases involve people from another country.
Procuring or human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation takes place when a perpetrator uses various methods to force another person to offer sexual services and collects a part or all of their profits. The perpetrator may be:
- a partner or spouse
- a friend
- someone posing as a protector
- a pimp/procurer
- a trafficker
- a sugar daddy
Initially, victims are generally put in contact with the perpetrator through shared friends or common acquaintances, sometimes on social media or elsewhere on the Internet. Some perpetrators also approach young people directly in bars, malls or outside of schools or youth centres. At first, they do not present as someone who will exploit the young people they approach. Instead, perpetrators seduce, are generous with (gifts, free drugs, trips, etc.) and protective over their victim.
Later, once the victim is in love with or dependant on the perpetrator (for their affection, connections with a group, money, drugs, social status, etc.), the perpetrator can manipulate and push, meaning force, the victim into offering sexual services to:
- pay for drugs offered
- pay for gifts offered
- contribute to shared expenses
- remain in a relationship with the perpetrator
- stay alive
The perpetrator can use various forms of violence and other, more restrictive, methods to achieve their goals, such as:
- use the victim’s status as an undocumented immigrant to manipulate them
- confiscate the victim’s identity documents to limit their ability to travel
- threaten to hurt the victim’s family if they disobey
- force the victim to consume alcohol, drugs or medication to disorient them
- confine the victim and be physically violent towards them
- sexually assault the victim or have them be sexually assaulted by others
- isolate the victim by moving them between cities or forcing them to end their relationships with close friends and family
- force the victim to have the first or last name of their abuser tattooed on them as a sign of ownership
Adolescents and young women, for the most part, who are made to provide sexual services are often lured by the jet-set lifestyle introduced to them by their abusers and the social gratification available to them. Glamorous all-inclusive parties, designer clothing, large quantities of makeup and jewelry, riding around in luxury cars, trips, etc. are all methods of manipulation used by perpetrators to seduce and mislead their victims, who then become easier to manipulate and even dependent on their abuser.
For many victims, the decision to offer sexual services (by becoming an escort, masseuse, exotic dancer, etc.) was not a free and informed decision. They are often in love with and feel safe with their abuser and wish to show their commitment or solidarity. Often, sexuality has been deconstructed: it is “love” with the abuser and “just sex” with clients. Some victims are also gang raped as part of an initiation. The gang rape may also be recorded and the victim threatened with the video being sent to others.
In general, young people who agree to provide sexual services intend to do so temporarily. For example, they will do it to pay off their debts or help their abuser improve their financial situation. However, the reality is different: it is very difficult to cease these activities and leave this environment afterward. Debts owed to the perpetrator or the amount of the “exit clause” (amount that the victim must pay to be released from their abuser’s control), drug or alcohol addiction, the feeling of having no other options, shame, guilt and the fear that members of their family are aware that they are providing sexual services are all major obstacles. Considering these obstacles, escaping and hiding can sometimes be the only option for victims who wish to leave.
Although it only represents 10% of the cases of trafficking from another country to Canada, the sale of young women as slaves disguised as marriages or work offers exists here, as it does elsewhere in the world. For more information, see the guide titled L’égalité dans le couple et la famille (PDF 249 Kb) (available in French only). The victims, who are nearly all women, are deceived by the perpetrators. They often find themselves completely isolated, confined without the right to leave, which makes it very difficult to know that they need help.
Sexual tourism is when individuals travel to another country for easier access to people engaged in prostitution (often children and adolescent boys and girls) outside of the jurisdiction of their country. However, Canadians who travel for this purpose are still subject to Canadian law. In fact, the Criminal Code specifically forbids sexual tourism involving children. That being the case, any citizen or permanent resident of Canada who breaks this law, even if they do so in a country where prostitution is legal, can be indicted and prosecuted in Canada for these crimes.
As this form of tourism allows visitors to purchase sexual services, it also opens the door to the purchase of women and children as intended sex slaves. Some countries are recognized sources of this type of transaction, which are often disguised as marriages, work offers (help at home, nannying), bursaries for studies, mentoring, etc.
Some major events (sporting events, cultural events, etc.), in Québec and elsewhere in the world, have been identified as causes for significant increases in sexual tourism. Sexual tourists are often looking for young people engaged in prostitution who seem “exotic” to them, including those who speak a different language.
Child pornography is a type of sexual exploitation of minors in Canada. It is considered child pornography when a person views, possesses, produces or distributes (over the Internet or by mail) material (photos, videos, audio, written text) representing parts of the bodies of underage individuals for the goal of sexual satisfaction or depicting underage individuals participating in a sexual activity.
Minors who participate in child pornography are not always aware that the sexual activities they are engaging in are being filmed or that the material will be published or posted. Often, these children and adolescents are sex slaves who are forced to participate in these pornographic activities under threat of being starved, beaten, raped, etc.
The website cybertip.ca provides information about child pornography as well as other types of abuse, such as luring children over the Internet. This website also allows the public to provide information on individuals they suspect of participating in sexual exploitation.
The SansStéréotypes page also provides information about sharing sexual images. Sharing sexual images without the consent of the person depicted in the image is considered to be possession of pornographic material, regardless of the age of the people involved.
Consent and sexual activities
In situations of sexual exploitation, the person being exploited is dependent on or under the control of another person, so their consent to sexual activities is not valid. Therefore, an adolescent who is being exploited or who is dependent on their abuser is unable to consent to sexual activities.
Additionally, the sexual activities that clients are seeking to participate in are not necessarily activities that individuals engaged in prostitution would choose to take part in: some clients are looking to satisfy their impulses (often to control or dominate) or to carry out specific fantasies. However, clients cannot force a person engaged in prostitution to provide a service they refuse, in part or in whole, to provide. In fact, individuals engaged in prostitution have the right to consent to only some of the sexual activities requested and they have the right to withdraw their consent at any time, regardless of whether the requested sexual service has already begun or the amount of payment is increased. Nevertheless, it does happen that clients use physical force to compel the person engaged in prostitution to satisfy their desire. These situations are not without consequence for the victims.
People from all walks of life can become victims of sexual exploitation, but there are some factors that increase the risk. Certain situations make people more vulnerable to the traps set by pimps, for example:
- Conflict with parents or running away from home
- Drug or alcohol addiction
- Thrill- and adventure-seeking
- Social isolation or exclusion
- Stressful events like a difficult breakup
- An unstable home environment (no matter the family’s income)
- Experiencing abuse or sexual violence at an early age or in a relationship
People who leave their country to settle in Quebec or who leave their community for the big city are ideal victims for sexual exploitation. They don’t always speak French and sometimes have difficulty with English, they often need money quickly, they have to create a new social circle or find a place to sleep, etc.
Impacts of sexual exploitation
The majority of victims suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their time in this kind of environment. They may experience:
- A sense of intense fear, shame, horror, and helplessness, accompanied by one or more physical ailments
- Flashbacks or obsessive thoughts
- Distress that manifests as anxiety or depression
- Difficulty feeling certain emotions, such as tenderness or sexual desire
- Difficulty focusing or sleeping
- Hypervigilance, a constant state of alertness that makes them jumpy or highly reactive
Over the long term, spending time in the sex industry may lead to:
- Difficulty finding or holding a job
- Substance abuse
- Difficulties with interpersonal relationships
- Stigma, social exclusion
- Contempt and loss of self-esteem
People who provide sexual services are exposed to many dangers. They are at a high risk of physical, psychological, or financial abuse at the hands of both their clients and their pimps. Their mortality rate is 40 times higher than the Canadian average.
Reality: In Québec and in Canada, prostitution is not recognized as a form of employment, and the purchase of sexual services is a crime. It is also recognized that people engaged in prostitution have a higher risk of being victims of sexual exploitation and developing post-traumatic stress disorder1.
Some people who engage in prostitution may have chosen to work in the sex industry. They freely engage in sex work, feel empowered and take full responsible for their choices. It is important to note that these individuals are also of legal age, manage their own schedules, choose their clients, retain their profits in their personal accounts and can leave the industry if they choose to.
Have individuals engaged in prostitution who, in most cases, have been sexually abused for part of their lives and decide to sell their bodies as a way to survive really chosen this field?
Reality: In the vast majority of cases, the only individuals in the sex industry that make significant amounts of money off of prostitution are perpetrators of sexual exploitation. A large number of individuals involved in prostitution do not control their own work conditions, as they are under the control of a procurer. For example, 80% of nude dancers are or have been exploited by a procurer.
In short, prostitution is not generally lucrative for the people actually involved. In fact, almost all of the money collected from clients is given to the procurer, and whatever amount left for the victim must be used to accentuate their body and appearance in order to meet client demands.
Reality: Movement of persons is not a condition required for something to be considered human trafficking. Often considered to be a form of modern slavery, human trafficking implies that people are recruited, transported and housed, or otherwise have their movements controlled or influenced in order to exploit them, usually for sexual purposes or as forced labour.
What to do if...
I am a victim of sexual exploitation
If you need immediate help, dial 9‑1‑1.
If you have been sexually exploited or abused or if you need help from a resource person specialized in sexual exploitation, call Sexual Violence Helpline at 1-888-933‑9007. This helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It will put you in contact with resource persons who are there to listen to you, reassure you and answer all your questions in full confidentiality. You can also view the sexual assault or conjugal violence pages, if they are relevant to your situation.
I am a parent, friend or relative who has witnessed sexual exploitation
If you have witnessed a situation where someone needs help immediately, dial 9‑1‑1.
Witnessing sexual exploitation can put you in a difficult position. You may feel uncomfortable with “getting involved with something that isn’t your business,” however, you should know that it is perfectly legitimate to want to help a victim of sexual exploitation. The best option is to contact Sexual Violence Helpline at 1-888-933‑9007. You can also:
- report the situation to your local police or anonymously to Info-crimes Montréal
- ask for help from school, community or health resources
I purchased the services of someone who was being sexually exploited
Becoming aware that you may have contributed to the sexual exploitation of a person can be extremely unsettling. It can be difficult to look reality in the face and take responsibility for what we have said and done. Contact the Sexual Violence Helpline at 1-888-933‑9007 or the Centre d’intervention en délinquance sexuelle in Laval at 579 641‑3941.
Last update: August 31, 2023