First Person

I Didn’t Realize I Was Being Sex-Trafficked

As a teen, the writer fled her abusive family for life on the streets. It wasn't until later that she understood just how much she had been exploited.

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“Stop, you’re hurting me,” I wailed.

“If you can’t take this, then how can you take a penis?” the doctor said, glaring at me while she shoved the massive, ice-cold, metal speculum deeper inside my vagina.

I winced. My face scrunched, eyes shut tight, I cried as the she forced it in. As it scraped along the narrow walls, I tried to pull away, but only made it worse.

“Doctor, please! Stop!” I bawled, writhing in pain.

“Stop,” she yelled. “Stay still or I can’t do this.”

I was 16. It was my first time ever seeing a gynecologist.

I had been a healthy child, so I’d rarely ever even seen a pediatrician, except for a few extreme situations: when I was rendered unable to walk from a urinary tract infection at age 8; when I’d sprained a palm and thumb at 9; and when I’d hemorrhaged, a few months prior to this, during my first-ever period. It was brought on by miscarriage, after I’d lost my virginity on my 16th birthday. I’d thought that because this doctor was a woman she would be nice. I was wrong.

A girl I was staying with took me to this doctor after she and her boyfriend suspected I had contracted an STD. The girl, a few years older than I—maybe 19 or 20—looked like a movie star. She was a prostitute. Her boyfriend was a tall, exotic-looking man, Caesar, from Montreal, who I found out later from the police was a pimp. He and the girl had recently moved to the picturesque but murderous city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, where I had moved with my family just a year earlier. That year had easily been my worst so far—and my childhood thus far had been far from easy. Abandoned, neglected, and violently abused throughout my young life by those charged with loving me, the beatings took a sexual turn as a prepubescent teen with my stepfather’s demand that I “lift up my nightgown” to reveal my naked backside while he whipped me. I ran away, fleeing for the frigid streets –preferring risk to certain, rage-fueled insanity. I was picked up for shoplifting soon after, and my parents legally abandoned me, making me a ward of the court.

Within weeks of leaving juvie jail for my crime, and getting placed in a group home, I met Caesar at Le Chateau, a hip store downtown where all the runaways convened. Caesar seemed charming and kind—he introduced me to his beautiful girlfriend, and offered me a warm place to stay. Eager to flee the cycle of moving back and forth between maniac-filled group homes and juvie jail—both replete with hardened, drug-addled kids who were having sex and fighting viciously all day—I moved into Caesar’s plush pad.

“She’s got something,” the doctor said to the girl who brought me. Ripping off her rubber gloves, looking disgusted, she snarled, “probably syphilis.”

The girl nodded knowingly, paid the doctor with a stack of bills, and we left.

Since both Caesar and the girl were involved in prostitution, the doctor must have assumed I was one, too. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being sexually exploited, just one of 320,000 children in Canada, U.S., and Mexico, who are part of the $32 billion global human-trafficking industry.

I had never seen any money exchange hands when a man, someone Caesar said he knew from Montreal, had sex with me in a hotel room while Caesar looked on, so I didn’t realize it was prostitution. Still, that experience always haunted me. I didn’t consent and I had never seen that man before.

I didn’t know then that when a pimp harbors a minor, a ward of the court no less, and extracts sex from her in exchange for a place to stay, that that is, by definition, sexual exploitation. Rape. Caesar had had sex with me daily but it seemed natural. Not like my idea of rape—when a stranger climbs in your window or jumps you in an alley. He had sex with his girlfriend too. It was just something that happened each day—like brushing my teeth, or sharing a glass of wine with them.

Over the weeks that I stayed with them, I had been part of conversations with Caesar and the girl about how I “couldn’t work yet ” (sell sex) because, not only was I underage, I had “too much heat” on me because of a warrant out for my arrest.

When a foster kid goes AWOL from a group home, they automatically set a court date for the next day. If you miss court, a warrant is placed for your arrest. I remember being relieved that I had that warrant and that Caesar and his girlfriend were a little afraid of me. When Caesar told me I shouldn’t call my parents, or let anyone “at all” know where I was, it made sense to me. I didn’t want to get arrested or go back to the group home.

Eventually, though, I got bored of being locked up in their apartment day and night—I wanted to have some fun. I told Donna, a friend from the streets, where I’d been staying. Donna must have told the police because they were waiting for me when I met her at a nightclub. I was taken to a nearby station where, before they transported me back to juvie jail, the police beat me over the head with a telephone book and called me disgusting names in a vain attempt to get me to tell all about the “mafia pimp” I’d been living with. I knew nothing. That was the first time I’d heard about the “mafia,” and “pimp.” I thought the police were wrong about Caesar. I didn’t really know what a pimp was.

I went back to juvie for a while. When I got out, I fled the city after some kids downtown told me there was a “contract out on me for ratting.” I knew I hadn’t “ratted” but thought better of trying to explain. Now 17, I was released by the courts and headed alone to the nearest city, Toronto, to begin my life anew.

Decades later, when I hear the sound of metal, whether it’s a fork on a plate, a chair leg on a deck, or even an aluminum wrapper, I feel the pain in my body and flashback to that day in the doctor’s office when I was 16. Those sounds send frigid shivers shooting throughout my nervous system. My teeth ache, and I feel a cold pain in my nether region.

I knew that doctor had been wrong when it happened. The anger and disgust on her face and the way she treated me was so disproportionate to my reality; I was just a kid who was trying to stay safe and who had contracted an STD.  I hadn’t had much experience, sexually or with medical professionals, but I knew that doctors weren’t supposed to be mean to you. What I didn’t know at the time was that taking cash from a pimp and prostitute to examine an underage ward of the court without the court’s permission was unlawful and that when a doctor convinces a woman to undertake an intimate examination when it is inappropriate, is rape.

If that doctor had done her job, she would have called the police to say, “I have an unaccompanied minor here. What should I do?” Caesar would have been arrested for harboring a minor, at the very least. The doctor had been careful to make sure she got the names of the men I’d slept with, in order to protect them, but ignored my pleas to end the excruciating, and unwanted procedure.

Recently, while doing research about sexual exploitation, rape, and trauma for my memoir, I put together all of these pieces. I learned that I am just one of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable girls from abusive or neglectful homes, sent to foster care, and then recruited by a trafficker. I learned that paid sex with a minor, whether it’s for money (whether the minor sees the money or not), or in exchange for a place to stay, is also rape.

I’ve requested my age-old police records and my sealed Child and Family Services files. I want to know more so that I can piece together more of my history. As I prepare my psyche for more traumatic tales to resurface, untold stories line up in my mind like airplanes on a tarmac waiting to depart. I am grateful to have the strength and healing to handle these stories now, and to have the courage to share them so that other young girls can better understand their stories and their rights. Knowing that in Los Angeles County, where I presently live, 82 percent of foster children are sexually exploited, that girls’ common reactions to trauma are criminalized and exacerbated by involvement in the juvenile justice system, leading to a cycle of abuse and imprisonment and hearing the about the hundreds of missing and murdered women in Canada, many of whom are foster kids, are walking the exact same streets downtown and fleeing the same group homes I fled, I am compelled to speak.

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