The last thing Melissa imagined when she started her first year at Western University was that she would become an exotic dancer and fall victim to sex trafficking.
Melissa, whose name Global News has changed to protect her identity, had plans to become a lawyer. In 2010, she was in her second year studying English, when she says a woman approached her about exotic dancing.
Melissa is part of the Phoenix program, one of two the London Abused Women’s Centre offers to women and girls who are victims of sex trafficking. Because funding for the Phoenix program comes from the province, it will continue, but for LAWC’s Choices program, federal funding is being shut down. Melissa is sharing her story to highlight the importance of supporting women and girls who are victims of trafficking.
“At first, I was disgusted by the idea,” says Melissa, who grew up in a small town outside of London, Ont. At the time, she was working in a coffee shop for extra money.
“It was the cost of an LSAT prep course that eventually pushed me over the edge, and I needed to make $2,000.”
Melissa spent $300 on the outfit and shoes for her first performance at a local strip club. Her memory of her first night dancing at an exotic club is hazy, she says.
“I got so belligerently drunk because I couldn’t face what I was doing that I ended up throwing up and getting kicked out,” she says.
She agreed to go back for another night of dancing and made $500, which is when she says she “got hooked.”
“You can be living such a lie where you’re telling your parents and your siblings and your friends one thing, but in reality, you are, like, putting yourself at risk every single day,” she says.
Because of London’s proximity to Detroit and Toronto and its multiple highway access points, the city is a hub for sex trafficking, according to Megan Walker, executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre (LAWC).
“We have a university and a college, so it’s not only a city where traffickers bring women they sell. It’s a community where traffickers come and actively recruit women and girls to take out of the city,” says Walker.
Statistics Canada reports that between 2009 and 2014, there were 396 victims of police-reported human trafficking, the majority of whom were women. Walker said the issue with these numbers is that they only include cases where police were involved and “on almost all cases of sex trafficking, women will not disclose to police because of fear and because even if there is a conviction, there is rarely a consequence.”
Through its Choices program, LAWC, an organization that provides support to abused and exploited women and children, has helped a total of 650 individual women with counselling and 939 women and girls at risk of being prostituted/sexually exploited since 2015.
Tricked into the sex trade
One night in 2012 after Melissa had started dancing, a woman suggested they take a weekend trip to Toronto to work at an exotic club there.
“It actually wasn’t in a strip club,” says Melissa. “It was a hotel room.”
She was put on the classified advertising website Backpage, which, before getting shut down in 2018, had become the largest online advertising platform for buying and selling sex.
Throughout that weekend in Toronto, Melissa says she met and had sex with several men. She paid a portion of what she made to the person who brought her to the hotel.
“When you’re living in that world, things happened really fast, alcohol and drugs are playing a factor, and you’re really not in a clear mindset,” she says.
Scared her family would find out what had happened and feeling like she still had things under control, Melissa says she left after that weekend and went back to London to finish school.
“I did graduate on time with good marks and I was able to really manage having that double lifestyle,” she says.
After graduating from Western, Melissa went back to working in exotic clubs until 2015. By then, she was living in a house with the women she danced with. After a while, Melissa noticed her money was starting to go missing. A woman she lived with encouraged her to go dance in Calgary.
“I think she took advantage of the fact that I was naive and alone because I was in complete isolation,” says Melissa.
At the time, Melissa’s family was still unaware of how she was making money and thought she was moving to Alberta to work as a waitress.
“We drove to Toronto, and I got introduced to the pimp, and he gave me a cellphone and he put me on a plane,” Melissa said.
She and the woman arrived in Calgary in late February 2015 and were put up in a condo, where she was once again placed on Backpage. The woman who brought Melissa to Calgary had complete control over her.
“I was under her full control. I wasn’t able to leave. I wasn’t able to make any decisions for myself, and every dollar that I made went into her wallet,” says Melissa.
This is common, according to Walker, who says sex traffickers use women to recruit other women.
Because it’s illegal for anyone to recruit someone into trafficking, Walker said in cases like Melissa’s, traffickers will often pick one woman to manage the others in exchange for that woman not having to meet the same quota as the others.
“Strip clubs are actually the introduction into trafficking for many girls and women,” Walker said.
Before she left London, Melissa had enrolled in a post-graduate program for public relations and communication at Western that was set to begin in May.
“I kept saying, ‘You know, I think I should go back and do this program,’ and they were saying, ‘No, you’re staying here,'” she says.
Melissa was only allowed to leave when she went on calls to meet men.
“When you open the door, you don’t know what you’re going to get,” she says. “You don’t know what this person’s going to look like and you don’t know how they’re going to treat you.”
During this time, Melissa remembers drinking a lot of alcohol and taking drugs to numb the pain. In other cases, it was given to her by the men she saw to keep her complacent, she says.
“There would be days I would wake up, and like, I would have no idea what happened the night before.”
Melissa continued for weeks on the same route until one night, she went out on a call with someone who wanted to help.
“I wasn’t doing anything sexual with him, and he was just talking to me. He’s like, ‘You’re like a beautiful person. You shouldn’t be doing this, you need to leave,'” Melissa remembers.
After hours of talking, Melissa says she gained the courage to go home, but leaving would not be easy.
She returned to the apartment to collect her things, and the woman who brought her there tried to force her to stay, threatening both her and her family.
“She chased me. She said, ‘I’m going to beat your a–,’” says Melissa.
A friend drove her to the airport, and she got on a plane to go home to Ontario. While on the plane, Melissa says she received several messages from the traffickers demanding money. Afraid of what would happen, she sent them the last $1,000 she had.
“One thing that hits me so hard every year is that when I left that condo, I had been in there for so long that it had been winter when I walked in, and when I walked out, it was spring, and there were leaves on the trees,” she says.
Melissa went back to school, graduated and started working, but for years, she struggled to come to terms with what happened to her.
“It was always really conflicting for me that people had a certain perception of me, but in reality, I have a dark past and some really traumatic experiences,” she says. “I struggled for so long that it got to the point where I had so much guilt, so much shame and I harboured so many memories.”
Melissa tried to seek help to deal with the trauma of what she had been through, but she says it was several more years before she learned about the services offered through LAWC.
“I was really hurt for all the other women who access these programmes because I know that funding is always a hard thing to come by no matter what you’re trying to achieve, but this is some really essential stuff that’s happening here,” Melissa said.
Along with other organizations, LAWC was receiving funding through the Measures to Address Prostitution Initiative (MAPI) fund, a five-year program that ended in March 2020. Walker said LAWC and other organizations were directed to apply for funding under a new program but that her organization could not access funds.
From 2015 to 2020, LAWC’s federally funded program has helped a total of 3,107 trafficked, prostituted, sexually exploited and at-risk women and girls in London. This includes long-term, individual trauma-informed service to 650 trafficked and sexually exploited women and girls, 939 at-risk women and girls who attended groups, 173 family members from across Canada looking for their missing daughters and 1,343 at-risk women and youth through community outreach.
Through the provincially funded program, LAWC has helped 656 women and girls over the last three years, including 241 women and girls who have been trafficked.
In September 2019, the federal government announced $75 million in funding to create the National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking to rescue and prevent women and children from being forced into the sex trade.
A spokesperson for the ministers of public safety, Bill Blair, and women and gender equality, Maryam Monsef, responded to a Global News request for an update on that funding.
“Our government launched a new comprehensive National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking to combat it in all its forms, as well as better protecting survivors,” the statement read. “We have increased funding for women’s organizations to historic levels across the country, including over $100 million in funding this year, to provide vital services in our communities for women and girls, address systemic barriers and advance gender equality.”
The issue remains, though, that LAWC and other groups are being forced to shut down their programs while the government decides how to distribute money to address human trafficking.
Since the cuts in federal funding, several agencies across Canada have been forced to close down. Walker said they have lost a network used to keep women and girls safe.
“We need agencies across the country doing this work because these girls will be trafficked across the entire country and we need a place to be able to say when you’re in Calgary, this is a safe place, and when you’re in Montreal, you can go there, and that’s been removed now,” Walker said.
LAWC is now petitioning the federal government to restore its and other organizations’ funding so they can “continue to provide life-saving exit and recovery services to trafficked/exploited women and girls.”
After eight months with LAWC, Melissa says she has overcome so much, from leaving an abusive relationship to a dependency on cannabis.
“I’m no longer ashamed of my past,” she says. “And I’m starting to own the story with pride because it is part of my journey.”