WARNING: Some of the details in this story are graphic and could be disturbing to some readers.
Wearing cozy clothing, they quietly walk through the door and squeeze onto a floral couch. They wipe their palms on their thighs — you can feel their nerves — you can also feel their bravery.
They are survivors of the unimaginable. From different cities and backgrounds, they are bonded together by a familiar pain and traumatic journey that eventually led them to each other. Global News is protecting their identities for their own safety.
“There were times when I thought I was going to die,” said Sarah, a sex traffic survivor from Toronto.
“I wanted to die,” said Rene from Edmonton.
“A huge part of being trafficked is, there’s no other choice but you take your own life sometimes. I know I tried to OD more than once,” said Louis, a 22-year-old-survivor from Calgary.
All three are survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking, currently on a year-long journey of healing and recovery at a treatment centre in Calgary. All three have different stories but with a common thread.
Louis was just 18, battling a meth addiction on the streets of Calgary when she met the man who would become her trafficker.
“He picked me up and cleaned me up off the dope. He was really charming and really, he was older than me. I was 18 when I met him; he was 30. He was my boyfriend. I didn’t want to acknowledge that he was my pimp until he started hitting me.”
Rene was 15 when she was first exploited by a man 20 years older.
“He spent a bunch of money on me, he spoiled me and then he introduced me to cocaine. I was young, I was beautiful. The guys just enjoyed being around me.”
Sarah was a barista in Toronto before being recruited into the sex trade by another woman.
“The job that I had, the minimum wage I was getting was not enough. It was excitement at the time for me, it was something new and I wanted to try it and sure enough, it was great money.”
But the “great money” quickly led to something dangerous.
There is a common thread in each woman’s narrative. They were all vulnerable in some way and ended up in the arms of someone they thought they could trust before things started to spiral.
Louis’s life changed with a text message from the man she thought was her boyfriend.
“He said, ‘I need you to sign up for this for me.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean? It’s an escort website.'”
“He said, ‘Look, this is what kind of needs to happen because you are not making anything and I can’t keep supporting you.’ At the time, I was so lost and I felt so saved by this guy that the only option I really had was, ‘OK, you owe him. Why not just give it a shot?'”
Within a week, Louis was working in high rises, hotels and back seats of cars, being sold for sex. She said she would have to give him all the money and when she started fighting him for it, he would beat her.
“The mental abuse started horribly, there was a lot of drugs involved, a lot of sexual abuse… It was a lot and I remember telling him I felt like I was being raped for money,” Louis said.
Tears well up in the eyes of the girls sitting next to her. This story is not unlike their own. Sarah, who is 31, was sold for sex by two different men in Toronto.
She came to Calgary last spring with her parents by her side. But she admits she’s still very much in the grieving process, trying to work through the horrors of her not-so-distant past. Sarah said she was held against her will numerous times by her pimp and his friends.
“A lot of the times it was five men on me, sitting on a chair, my hands tied… And there were objects involved as well, and I can’t fathom how many times I tried to get out of that situation and I couldn’t. I would scream for help and when I did that, they would tie my mouth up so I couldn’t scream. They would withhold my phone so I couldn’t make a phone call,” she courageously shared with tears spilling down her cheeks.
Rene, also 31, has worked all over Canada. She was even once sent to work in the United States. Her abusers were both men and women.
“I needed drugs and I was dating a guy. He said, ‘I’ll still love you, we just need money. Even if you just have sex with him, it’s OK. It’s just sex. I know you love me still. It’s just sex.’ And if we didn’t, we’d end up fighting and it was just a horrible experience. I never want to go back to that.”
Drugs and booze are one promise the women say their pimps always delivered on. It helped fuel their addictions, enabling them to do the job and bring back the money.
“When the drugs came into play, it wasn’t for fun anymore, it was for me to cope with him, with the work, with everything. Crack cocaine — it was a daily thing, drugs and work together,” Sarah said.
“That’s what sucked me into it was the drugs,” she said. “If you mention drugs, I was OK with any of it and it’s pretty sick to think about the drugs make everything seem OK.”
But it got to the point for all three where nothing could numb the pain of their realities.
“The handprints that they leave on you, and I don’t mean bruises and things but sense of handprints and being touched all over all the time 24/7,” Louis said. “It doesn’t leave, it doesn’t stop no matter how much you shower, what you drink, what you don’t drink, it’s constantly there.”
If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, a 24/7 hotline with critical resources is available to Canadians in more than 200 languages. The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 1-833-900-1010.