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Don’t Forget the Men: Supporting Male Victims of Sexual Exploitation

Whom do you picture when you hear the words “sexual exploitation?” How about “human trafficking?” “Prostitution?”
Research suggests you’re probably picturing a woman, as this is the image associated most strongly and persistently with victims of sexual exploitation. The media have been instrumental in perpetuating this stereotype, even though it silences and ostracizes an important demographic: men.
We may think of men as perpetrators of sexual exploitation far more often than as victims, except perhaps when it comes to prison culture. When society addresses sexual violence and exploitation, particularly in the trafficking industry, it’s usually addressing young women.
Besides the fact that men outnumber women in industries outside of commercial sex trafficking (such as labour trafficking), they also make up a not insignificant number of victims in the sex trade. After all, one victim is still one too many.
Focused as it is on hypermasculine ideals of manly strength and power, society’s reaction to the notion of male victimhood makes it more difficult for men to report their experiences. They may feel emasculated by what they have done and had done to them, believing their manhood has been compromised. While they generally have the same reactions women do when dealing with sexual violence, men may respond more readily with anger, and tend to turn to substance abuse to erase or at least manage the effects of trauma. As they confront these issues, they are left to do so mostly alone, with few front-line workers from schools, shelters and other social organizations available to offer support. For many front-line workers, sexual exploitation of males just isn’t on their radar.
Worse still, men can face resistance and stigma when they do choose to report. If they are believed, which is not a given, they may make themselves vulnerable to ridicule and shame. Enduring the victim-blaming typically aimed at women victims is hard enough: why didn’t they just leave? Was there any chance that they deserved to be abused? Was it really exploitation if they were “working?”
In addition, they must battle questions geared more toward masculinity: why did they allow themselves to be exploited? Were they not “man enough” to find a way out? Some victims even struggle with the physiological responses of their bodies—did they secretly enjoy what was happening to them? Has their victimhood been cancelled out by physical processes beyond their control?
So, what with prescribed gender roles, societal expectations, and a misinformed public, what can be done?
The consensus seems to be that barriers between men and crucial supports need to be removed. First responders and other Front-line workers who administer help and guidance to victims of sexual exploitation need to remain aware that men are potential victims. Men must have ready and barrier-free access to support as they navigate away from exploitation and toward personal freedom. Men must be believed, validated, and empowered. Most importantly of all, sexual exploitation of men must be studied more comprehensively so that the best possible support can be provided. The field is flooded with statistics about women; it’s time more research targeted men.
One of DECSA’s main goals is to help both men and women free themselves from sexual exploitation. We run a 20-week Transitions program, open to men, women, and transgender individuals who have past or current involvement in the sex trade. In January, two groups—one for those identifying as female, the other for those identifying as male—begin their journey in the Transitions program. While women participants have already begun, the men’s group will start on January 27th.
If you wish to exit the sex trade, we encourage you to contact us to see whether you qualify for one of our program groups. We welcome the opportunity to help, so please get in touch.


Q & A: What Does Prostitution Really Look Like?

It may be difficult to fathom how prostitution could ever be considered glamourous, but in recent years, a combination of popular media and prominent sex workers has begun to change the face of prostitution. High-class call girls like Samantha X, who were fortunate enough to work for agencies that vetted clients, speak openly about the empowering nature of their work. Belle De Jour, later revealed to be a PHD student trying to make easy money, published a blog and book that painted a glossy, alluring portrait of prostitution as a get-rich quick strategy with an edgy side.

Meanwhile, the media has capitalized on the image of prostitution as a profession for sexually powerful people who love their work and, of course, make plenty of money doing it. From the fictionalized version of Belle de Jour in Secret Diary of a London Call Girl, to the student-turned-escort from The Girlfriend Experience, to the sweet-faced protagonist of Pretty Woman, the media offers palatable, seductive depictions of the world’s oldest profession, selling empowerment, agency, and a healthy side of glamour.

DECSA’s Kathy Brown, manager of our Transitions program, tells a different story. Having


Kathy Brown, Transitions Program Manager

worked closely with women in the sex trade, she’s witnessed the ugly, undignified, and exploitive side of prostitution—the one both media and activists don’t necessarily discuss. Using her outreach experience among sex trade workers as a guide, she joined DECSA to make a difference to victims of sexual exploitation.

Here, she deconstructs the popular view, giving us a glimpse of the real face of prostitution.

Q: What is your background?

A: My previous job was the director of the Women’s Outreach of the Salvation Army Crossroads Church in downtown Edmonton.  For the past three years, I was the volunteer team lead for the Women’s Outreach Van, which travelled through the hotspots for the sex trade in downtown Edmonton on Monday nights.  A team of four or five women went out from 9 pm to 2 am to provide bag lunches, clothing and community to the homeless, addicted and/or sexually exploited on the streets.

Photo of girl cryingQ: The media often presents sex workers as either drug-addled victims or icons of feminine power. Is either of those close to the truth?

A: Neither of those is a very apt description of the people I have met in the sex trade.  For the most part, I have met workers who are simply doing what they have to do to get by while living in a very expensive area of the world.  Just like everyone else, they have dreams and aspirations that have not come to fruition.  The family and/or community of their childhood most often was broken, causing trauma that often goes unattended and unhealed.  There is a deep desire for community and belonging that is often perceived to be a chasm too large to attempt to cross.  They are not to be pitied or glamourized.  Their resiliency, however, is admirable.

Q: What kind of women did you meet?

A: Our target population was sexually exploited women and we would see anywhere from 10 to 50 women in a night.  The majority were Aboriginal and the age range was 15 to 65 years of age.  Most did not have stable housing and were clearly socioeconomically disadvantaged, since they were hungry and needed clothes.  Typically, women on the streets suffer with drug addiction as well.

Q: What led them to the sex trade?

A: In terms of women on the streets, we found that a common story was that most if not every one of them were sexually abused as children by someone in their immediate or extended family.  Then usually by the age of 13, an older man would approach her, tell her how much he loved her, and ask if she would come with him.  He might even promise they would get married.  The girl would leave with the man and begin living with him.  He would introduce her to drugs and she would get addicted.  Then, the man would either claim he did not have enough money for rent and ask the girl to “work” to earn the necessary money, or he would tell the girl she owed him money for rent and drugs and threaten her with harm if she did not go “work”.

Q: The media and pro-prostitution activists talk a lot about choice. Do you think sex work can ever be a real, informed choiceBe free of sexual exploitation. Graphic of man in hoodie?

A: This is difficult to answer as there are many different opinions, even among those who work in the sex trade.  One of the most impactful events I have been involved in was at City Council when they were deciding whether or not to lift the moratorium on body rub parlours earlier this year.  I was there to tell the story of one body rub parlour worker who was working minimally in the parlour to earn enough money to get diapers and formula.  I brought her diapers and formula the following week, and she exited the business.  She entered school to train to be an aide in the health care field.

At the same City council meeting, there was a body rub parlour owner who spoke as well.  This owner claimed that those working in the parlours made an informed choice, but she said that, of course, no one wants to work in the sex trade.

Q: So, what proportion of the women you’ve worked with want to exit the sex trade?

A: 100%

Q: If they want to leave so badly, why do they stay?

A: When I think of the young woman in the story above, and others that I know, I believe that most do not have marketable skills and are unable to find alternative employment. I also believe that many simply don’t know how to go about getting into mainstream employment and education. There is often a great deal of healing that needs to happen in the person’s life, along with life skills, understanding the trauma that they have often been subject to, and assistance in becoming employment/education ready. The employment climate in Edmonton is dismal right now and we do not have sufficient affordable housing and transportation, in particular, to inspire this population of women to make a choice to leave their current work.

Q: Would you say that the public view of the sex trade is inaccurate?

A: When I was recruiting volunteers to minister on the street, the most common misconception they had was that women working in the sex trade would be glamourous like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.  They were quite surprised when women would sit and talk and be dressed just like most of the volunteers were dressed.  I remember the first time one of my friends came out with me – she thought there would be lots of drama and fighting among the women.  She ended up in tears most of the night as she realized how different the reality was from her misconceptions.

I would like the public to know that most if not all sex workers arrived at this point not through a series of choices, but through a series of traumas.

DECSA’s Transitions program, which has been running for over fifteen years, aims to bridge the gap between sex work and conventional employment. The program helps clients learn life and employment skills so that they can begin to rebuild their lives, adopt healthier lifestyles, and find employment that will lift them out of poverty. Meanwhile, we help our clients work through trauma, understand their worth, and free themselves from sexual exploitation.

If you or someone you know needs assistance exiting the sex trade, contact us. We are here to help.

Road to Hope: DECSA Transitions Program

Shaw TV has produced a Road to Hope feature on DECSA’s Transitions program!

Watch the video below to hear about the difference DECSA has made in the lives of three women who exited the sex trade.

If you would like to donate to DECSA or volunteer, please e-mail Deborah Rose at

Transitions Graduation & Beatrix’s Story

Beatrix at the Transitions graduation

Beatrix at the Transitions graduation

This week, another class of participants graduated from our Transitions program, which is for males and females (including transgendered individuals) who have experienced sexual exploitation or been involved in the sex trade.

Participants receive pre-employment and life management skills with the goal of moving into mainstream employment or education.

The program includes financial literacy, Basic Shelf cooking program, work experience, bus passes, counselling services, relapse prevention, cultural activities, Women in Motion, impacts of prostitution, relationship and family dynamics, skills development, career development, exposure courses and further education.

Beatrix, one of the graduates, took a moment to speak about her time in the program:

Coming to this program, I still carried a lot of shame and guilt. This program helped me realize that my past and the things that I’ve experienced – prostitution, drug addiction, domestic violence – didn’t make me who I was. I’m still a human being. Transitions gave me my self-esteem back.

And I don’t live in the past anymore. I’m living in the present. My facilitator here taught us that. So that’s really helped me. At first I argued with him about it – you don’t know what I’ve been through, all that. But it really made sense because living in the past can hold you back.

There’s a lot of honesty and unconditional love and acceptance at DECSA. You walk up and down the halls – the facilitators and participants and even staff in other programs, we all see each other and smile every day. And there’s kindness and there’s gentleness and there’s no judgement.

I’ve been in a lot of programs before, but Transitions has turned my life around. I got accepted to Yellowhead Tribal College. I start tomorrow, doing upgrading for the social work program that I’m going to take. I got a scholarship. I had a lot of fear about it. I still have some fears now, but that’s normal, right? Because more and more, I’m embracing the confidence and passion.

I’m not ashamed of my past anymore. I have a voice and I’m a woman who will use my past to help in any way I can. This is what Transitions did for me – I am so grateful to DECSA. And now I’m genuinely happy. Hiy Hiy!

To enroll in the Transitions program, you do not need a referral. Call us at (780) 474-2500 or visit us at 11515 – 71 Street to take the first step away from sexual exploitation and towards a better future.

Thank you to Beatrix for contributing to this blog post.

Video: Patti Shares Her Transitions Story

Have you ever wondered what our Transitions program is all about?

Watch our new video below to see Patti share her Transitions story and explain the program.

Click here for more info.

To enroll in the Transitions program, you do not need a referral. Call us at (780) 474-2500 or visit us at 11515 – 71 Street to take the first step away from sexual exploitation and towards a better future.

Transitions Graduation & Mina’s Story

Last week, another class of DECSA clients graduated from our Transitions program, which is for males and females (including transgendered individuals) who have experienced sexual exploitation. Clients receive pre-employment and life management skills with the goal of moving into mainstream employment or education.

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The cake is cut as Transitions clients gather to celebrate their graduation

Mina, a current Transitions client, came down to the celebrations at Kinsmen Park to support her peers who were graduating from the program and to honour their achievements. “I’ll miss some of the group members who are going to be leaving, because we’ve made bonds,” she said.

Mina first came to Transitions after being referred to us by Alberta Health Services – Addiction and Mental Health. “I knew I was in a very bad place and I needed some help getting on a better path. Addiction and Mental Health thought the program was a really good fit, so that’s why I ended up at DECSA.”

Transitions consists of two parts: 1) pre-programming, and 2) core programming. The length of pre-programming is different for each client, and core programming lasts 20 weeks. Pre-program content includes outreach support (housing, legal, income, addictions, etc), community referrals, and bus tickets.

Mina skipped the pre-programming and jumped right into the core programming. She now has 5 weeks left. “The best part of the program is the incredible self-awareness that I’ve gained – how I behave and think, how I move through life,” she said. “And through that self-awareness, I can make shifts and changes to make my life better.”

Jason, a class facilitator, notes that the program is performance based and targets specific behaviours. “The program is intense. It’s about what you can do, what you can change in the present moment to relieve stress,” he said. “And it works.”

Portion of Transitions MuralMoney was the biggest factor in Mina’s involvement in the sex trade. “That was probably where most of the bad behaviour in my life comes from – finances or lack thereof. So that fuels me to make terrible decisions,” she said. “I found that the financial literacy program offered at DECSA was hugely impactful. I learned awareness around how I spend, why I spend, what happens to my money, budgeting, building credit, and getting things a little tighter.”

Core program content includes financial literacy, cooking program, work experience, bus passes, counselling services, relapse prevention, Women in Motion, impacts of prostitution, relationship and family dynamics, skills development, career development, and further education.

Mina is currently seeking employment, and when she graduates from the program, she plans on returning to school and pursuing a degree in fine art. “Art is something I had done my whole life,” she said. “I just hadn’t taken it seriously. I was strongly discouraged from it from my group of peers and family. It had a huge effect. If I can’t construct, I will destruct.”

Constructive versus destructive behaviour is an idea that Mina returns to time and again.

“It’s always been a battle between self-loving and self-loathing,” she said. “These two extremes needed to come to some kind of balance – and leaning more towards the self-loving acts. Recognizing the negative side and acknowledging it, but not resting there. Resting on the positive side and then moving through life in the middle ground.”

Going forward, Mina wants to give back as a member of society. “I’ve learned that if you have no love inside of yourself, then you have nothing to give to anyone else. And I want to be a viable part of my community. I want to be able to give back some things that I’ve gotten, which is love and understanding and support.”

Transitions clients come to DECSA every weekday for class from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The structure is something Mina appreciates. “Routine is paramount for how I can constructively behave in this world,” she said.

To enroll in the Transitions program, you do not need a referral. Call us at (780) 474-2500 or visit us at 11515 – 71 Street to take the first step away from sexual exploitation and towards a better future.