My early childhood was the best. I grew up in the ’90s, in a house in Mississauga, at the top of a cul-de-sac. I was the eldest of four kids, with two brothers and a sister. I was the happy mama bear to my siblings. We played street hockey and coloured the bricks of our house with chalk. Most nights, we slept in each other’s rooms. My parents were both in industrial sales, and money was never an issue for us. Our dad drove a Mercedes and we took regular trips to Disney World.
When I was in Grade 5, we moved to a big house with a pool in Oakville. I asked for my bedroom to be “denim”—floor-to-ceiling blue—and my parents made it happen. At seven, my youngest brother started playing rep hockey, and overnight, my mom and dad transformed into rabid hockey parents, convinced my brother would be the next Sidney Crosby. Every moment outside of school was devoted to his practices and tournament travel. My parents were rarely home. If I wanted to eat, it was TV dinners or arena food. And when my siblings started making friends outside the family, I was alone a lot for the first time.
At school, I always felt outside of things, overweight and invisible. I learned to read late, which led to a diagnosis of dyslexia. To my ears, teachers were constantly telling me I was stupid, and my classmates seemed to agree. My Catholic high school in Oakville was filled with preppy, jockish kids, different from those in my neighbourhood in Mississauga. I had few friends, and I hid from my academic problems by playing the wallflower, hoping no one would notice me. It worked. One time, a teacher passed back a test and looked around the room: “Who is Michelle?” I’d been in the class for four months.
My coming of age coincided with the rise of technology. There were iPods and the Nintendo Wii, and I remember my first phone: a Motorola Razr that briefly made me cool. The digital world was fun until high school, when I got my first laptop. Suddenly, social media was everything, but why would I ever post a picture of myself? I was not a good-looking kid. I got acne early. Up against the perfect lives I was scanning on Facebook, my self-worth, always fragile, plummeted.
I did have one friend, another outsider who I’ll call Elizabeth to protect her privacy. My parents let her sleep over at our house a lot. She was kind but tougher than I was, and we bonded over being unathletic misfits. In 2006, near the end of Grade 10, Elizabeth told me she’d met a guy on Facebook and now they were talking on MSN Messenger. She’d told him about me, and he wanted to hang out with us in person. We were bored and curious, so we agreed to meet him in the parking lot of the Oakville Place mall.
On a warm June night, as the mall was closing, a forest-green Lexus pulled up. I peered in at three guys, around 19 or 20 years old, who I’ll call Devon, Clive and Shawn. I’m giving them pseudonyms not for their protection but for mine. They were nicely dressed in suits, ties and dress shirts. Even though it was night, they wore sunglasses. All these material signs impressed me. I remember taking in the Lexus, thinking, Oh, that’s not a base model. It has leather seats! They must be good guys. My whole life, I’ve equated money with power. I climbed in.
We drove to a park and hung out, which was thrilling. The only boys who’d previously paid attention to me were my brothers. Elizabeth drank vodka, and I smoked a little weed when they offered it. When the guys dropped me off, they asked for my MSN. I was flattered.
Our conversations over Messenger were pretty banal—When’s your birthday? What’s your favourite colour?—but I loved that these older guys seemed genuinely interested in me. A lot of their questions were also about my family: when they would be home; how close we were. I didn’t think much of it at the time.
That summer was the best of my life. Mostly we would drive around, stopping at Centennial Park in Brampton, sitting on the ski hill, drinking vodka. Sometimes Elizabeth and I would dress up in bandage dresses and Guess heels and the guys would take us to clubs and order bottle service. Everything was new, glamorous. When my mom asked where I was going, I’d give a vague response about being at the mall, and that was the end of it.
Devon was the slickest of the three guys, the leader. Clive was louder, more intense. But it was Shawn who I noticed. He was low-key and charismatic, with a shy smile. Amazingly, he took a particular interest in me, introducing me to dancehall and reggae music. On a day when I felt lonely—which was most days back then—he’d text me the name of a song to download on LimeWire, the perfect song to make me feel better. I figured everything would be different when I got back to school in the fall. I had found my people.
Elizabeth was more street-smart than I was. “I have a weird feeling about these guys,” she told me. I shrugged it off. I was already gone by that point. She stopped coming on the drives, but I wasn’t about to give them up: I finally had friends. That summer, I lost my virginity to Shawn. I didn’t think he was my boyfriend or anything. I just thought that in order to be cool, you had sex. And I liked him so much. More importantly, he liked me. That was enough.
One night near the end of the summer, Shawn came and got me from my house, and we stopped to pick up a friend of his—someone I’d never met. The three of us drove for about half an hour, then Shawn pulled up in front of an apartment building in Mississauga. He told me to go inside with the guy we’d picked up. Shawn promised to join us in a minute, which didn’t seem strange.
In the stairwell, the man stopped me suddenly. “You’re going to go knock on this door and you’re going to do whatever the guy says,” he told me. I looked at him blankly; I honestly didn’t understand what he meant. Then he pulled out his phone and showed me some videos. This was pre-smartphone, so the clips were fuzzy and short, but I recognized myself immediately from the outfits: my red Guess shoes; my favourite T-shirt. In the clips, I was doing various sexual acts, demeaning things I had no recollection of. Was I drugged? I still don’t know.
This stranger told me that if I didn’t go inside and do what was asked, he’d post the videos on Facebook and send them to my parents, my siblings, everyone I went to school with. The scenario ran through my head: it would be a social catastrophe. I was the good kid who never got in trouble. If he took that away from me, I would have nothing. I wasn’t smart. I wasn’t pretty. What would I be with these videos out in the world?
I made a split-second decision. I knocked on the door and a middle-aged man invited me in. He asked if I wanted a drink or a cigarette. I declined. Whatever was about to happen, I wanted it over fast. He brought me into a back room with a couch in it. I performed oral sex, then he walked me to the door. He handed me cash and told me I’d have more fun next time if I loosened up. He hugged me goodbye. I didn’t even count the bills. I went back to the stairwell, where Shawn’s associate grabbed the money out of my hand.
When we went downstairs, Shawn was waiting for us. He didn’t say a word, and neither did I. He drove me home as if nothing had happened. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, that entire summer I was being carefully groomed for that moment in the apartment building, and all that would come after. I was 15 years old.
The minute I got home, I deleted the guys’ numbers from my phone. Right away, they started calling my home phone number, over and over. My mom was asking questions, and I was nervous. They still had the videos. Two weeks after the first incident, I agreed to meet them one more time. If I’m honest with myself, I probably missed them. I kept going over the night in the apartment: maybe it wasn’t such a big deal. They were my friends, after all.
The second time, they took me to an apartment in Waterdown. It was shabby, with the kind of cheap parquet flooring we had in our basement, which made me think how much nicer my house was. The man was in his 50s, and quite polite. He offered me cigarettes, maybe sensing how uncomfortable I was. I had sex with him, and though it felt like I was there for hours, it was probably only about 20 minutes.
Afterwards, I went to a park with Shawn and his crew. It was different than the first time. They congratulated me, told me how well I’d done. It was out in the open now, something to be proud of. On the drive home, they let me sit shotgun, a big honour. I hated what I had done, yet I was being rewarded for it—not financially but emotionally—and that felt good. This contradiction messed with my mind.
They left me alone for a few days, and I hoped we were done. But one afternoon I came out of school to find a car idling on the sidewalk, blaring hip hop. I went back inside and tried to leave a different way, but there was a car outside that door, too. They rolled down the window and started shouting my name. Kids gathered, staring. Still in my school uniform, I got in the car, and the guys took me directly to a call. There was never a formal conversation, like: “Hey, now you’re an escort, and we’re your pimps!” It was simply my new reality.
One night, we hit a club with a girl, who I’ll call Lucy, from a different high school. It felt like summer again, with everyone drinking and hanging out the way friends might. Afterwards, they took us to a motel room where a woman named Astrid was waiting for us. She was in her early 20s, with heavy shoes like a boy would wear and a tight, grim expression on her face. She complimented our outfits, gave us cigarettes and told us we were going to see some guys. Be cute, she told us. Be friendly. She’d be waiting nearby. She was a gatekeeper. I never saw her have sex with clients; her job was to collect the cash and keep the girls in line. She scared the hell out of me.
I don’t know where our clients came from. I never posted ads online, or communicated with Shawn and his guys about the calls. Men would just show up asking for things, like a CBJ—a covered blow job, that is, with a condom. There were two beds, and I sat on one, trying not to look while Lucy had sex on the other. As soon as the men left, Astrid came in and took the money.
When Shawn and the other guys came back that night, someone said Lucy had made more money, so she got to ride up front. I was jealous. I went from wanting to go home to wanting to ride shotgun. These were the games our pimps played expertly: they pitted us against each other, making us feel special one minute and ostracized the next.
I started working the motels regularly, going to school as little as possible. The motels were mostly seedy split-levels in Mississauga, out near Dundas East or the 427—shady places where you can pay in cash without a credit card. Before this, my only exposure to prostitution was Pretty Woman and the streetwalkers I’d seen along Jarvis as a kid. If I’d ever heard the phrase “human trafficking,” I probably pictured immigrant women locked in basements with their passports taken away. I never considered myself trafficked, but I was, and so is anyone who’s coerced or tricked into prostitution, usually through threats and violence, or debt bondage. Ninety per cent of Canadian sex trafficking victims are domestic, and many are high school students still living at home.
Pretty soon, I was complicit. I wanted to be the best and earn the most for the guys. I started watching porn to pick up techniques. I was good at reading people and anticipating what they wanted. And I liked some of my clients; they’d tell me how beautiful I was, how great I was, and I fed off their praise.
We weren’t supposed to do drugs—too skanky—but I smoked a lot of weed to numb the feelings, and I did MDMA, or Molly. It became my nickname among my clients and, later, my Instagram handle. I liked the confidence it gave me.
Back then, in the late 2000s, the going rate for sex was about $150 for half an hour, and services had to be clean and safe. Now there are so many girls available that prices have gone down—the average is around $100 for half an hour, going as low as $60—and they’re treated as if they’re disposable.
Many escorts are reviewed on message boards. In Toronto, SP411.com is one of the most popular message boards, divided up by GTA region; it’s the TripAdvisor of sex work. Johns—who call themselves “hobbyists”—rate the escorts’ performances and describe the call: if the girl looked like her photos; if she had sex in multiple positions; if there were cops in the parking lot, or creeping pimps. Every girl wants that big review that will get her the good clients. Sex trafficking is a lucrative global industry, generating some $32 billion (U.S.) annually for its perpetrators. By some estimates, a trafficker can earn up to $280,000 per year from just one victim, who might pull in between $300 and $1,000 daily.
When I was being trafficked, I never earned any money. Instead, my traffickers occasionally bought me gifts, like a pair of Timberlands and Baby Phat clothes. But too many new clothes would invite questions from my parents. I needed cigarettes and rides, so my traffickers bought me cigarettes and gave me rides. I got to know the other girls in the motels, and they became my friends. Fitting in was more valuable to me than getting paid. I quickly became a different person. Even my look changed—no more pretty dresses. I started emulating the girls I saw in hip-hop videos, wearing bright colours, all matchy-matchy in big fur hoods and sunglasses, an orange bag bedazzled to the hilt. My mom would drive me across the border to Buffalo for Apple Bottoms jeans.
As I got more experienced, I upgraded from seedy motels to upscale hotels, where the clients were mostly middle-aged men. I was comfortable with that demographic and could get the most money out of them. They’d start showing up around six. I encountered every type of client: a dad next door, a real estate agent, a guy from corporate at a major fast-food chain. Some guys would get super aggressive. They’d act nice, then, during sex, they’d start choking you. Other guys would try to take off the condom.
There are two main types of pimp: gorilla pimps, who control girls through violence, and Romeo pimps, who control them by being their boyfriends. Shawn and his guys were the first kind, and Astrid was their main enforcer. I once saw her drag a girl backwards down a staircase for keeping a tip. The guys would beat me up for talking back or not earning enough. The first time it happened, Devon was driving a new girl around, so I was stuck in the back seat. I lit a cigarette and Devon told me to put it out. When I refused, he reached back and slapped me so hard he split my cheek. Blood splattered all over the window. But clients don’t like bruises and cuts, so more often the guys would burn me with cigarettes on the shoulders because my long hair would keep the marks covered. They were smart about how they hurt us. We were goods they needed to sell.
My traffickers started asking for a quota: $1,000 a night or I couldn’t go home. I had a part-time job at the Superstore and they took that paycheque, too. They saw me as the rich girl, and suggested that I could steal money instead of having sex for it. So I used to take money from the pile of cash on my dad’s desk, or steal his debit card and use it at an ATM (I knew the PIN). I stole from my siblings, taking cash from my little brother’s piggy bank. Hurting my family made me feel guilty, and I’d cover up my shame with more meanness, taking out my anger on everyone. Home was a living hell because of me.
By Grade 12, I was falling apart. I didn’t like Shawn anymore, and the feeling seemed to be mutual. I used to love being chosen by my traffickers over the other girls, singled out and praised. Even that did nothing for me after two years. I was miserable, completely numb. One night, I raided my parents’ medicine cabinet and swallowed a handful of pills, hoping to kill myself. It didn’t work. I just vomited and passed out. The next morning, I went to school and grabbed an apple juice, but my esophagus was burned from throwing up all the drugs. I still hate apple juice.
Eventually, I dropped out of school and stopped eating. My mom could see that something was wrong. I lied about the details, but she begged me not to go out at night and installed an alarm system to keep me in. I found a tiny alarm-free window and escaped. She took away my cellphone, but the guys would just give me a new one. I didn’t care anymore about being a good girl.
One weekend, my parents and my brothers were out of town for hockey and my sister was at a sleepover. I didn’t like the guys coming over to my house—I was protective of my family—but this time, I didn’t fight it. About 35 people came over for a party. We raided my parents’ liquor cabinet and the guys found my dad’s bank card. I gave them the PIN. Part of me thought that if they got enough money, they might leave me alone.
Over the next few weeks, they gradually drained $10,000 from my dad’s account. One day, my parents called me downstairs. My dad asked if I’d taken the money. I denied it, but he told me the bank had the person who’d made withdrawals on camera, and I should confess before they looked at the tape. I was silent, totally shut down. Something switched off in me. He turned to my mom and said: “Something is happening to her.”
That day, I agreed to go for a drive with my mom. She wanted to get me alone, get me talking. I finally confessed that these guys were making me have sex for money. I think my exhaustion had overtaken my shame. She almost seemed relieved at first, that there was some sort of an explanation. We could get help and stop living inside this nightmare. She said we had to go to the police immediately.
At the station, we saw two detectives. They kept asking me for information I didn’t have: exact floors and unit numbers; last names of clients. Words like “trafficking” and “prostitution” were never spoken. They treated me like a drama queen who got caught stealing and was trying to get out of it by deflecting blame. They seemed more interested in my dad’s money. The best solution, they said, was to just stop talking to the guys.
My mom kept asking how she was going to protect her family. The police told her to change our numbers. As soon as we changed our number, though, the guys knew I was a snitch, and the harassment amped up. They’d park outside my house and follow my siblings home from school. My parents paid them off in instalments, a total of around $5,000, and they went away, at least for a while. Then they’d reappear and resume threatening us.
We lived like prisoners. I couldn’t even go to the convenience store for cigarettes without one of my siblings. I felt like I’d exchanged one constricting reality for another. The second time I was allowed out by myself, about three months after that visit to the police station, I was walking to my new job at Tim Hortons, cutting through a park. As I exited, two parked cars suddenly turned on their lights. Two guys got out of each car: Devon and Clive, and some others I recognized. They called me a rat and a snitch. “You used to be a good girl. What happened?” Then they started punching me. One guy tripped me and I fell to the ground. Another guy stabbed me with his keys and punctured my abdomen. I was wearing my white Tim Hortons baker’s uniform, and my knees were cut open from the gravel. I got up and went to work in a blood-soaked uniform.
After that incident, my mom found a list of organizations that support people getting out of the sex trade. I dialled a group called Walk With Me and told them my story. A woman came over right away. She took me back to the same police station, but this time I met with two officers who had been trained in cases like mine. They took me seriously. What had happened to me began to make sense. I agreed to do a video statement and hand over my phone for forensics. The women at Walk With Me suggested that I go to a safe house in Brampton. It was a horrible place, dingy and in a drug-infested neighbourhood. But the guys couldn’t reach me there. Maybe it was over.
I wish I could say that was my happy ending, but it’s hard to stay out, even when you get out. By the time I was 20, I’d been out of the sex trade for a year or so. My parents had separated, and I moved into my dad’s new condo in Burlington. I was working as a receptionist at a financial services company. I was trying to work and keep straight. But then a guy I liked broke up with me and I spiralled. I was depressed and broke, barely covering the rent I owed my dad. A girl I’d met at the safe house had told me about Backpage, and how escorts didn’t need pimps anymore; we could be independent.
I went back to escorting. It was hard at first, without the protection of the traffickers. But I was making between $600 and $1,000 in an afternoon—at my receptionist job, I earned just above minimum wage. And as time went on, I got regulars, so the work was more stable, less risky.
Because I was on Backpage, pimps kept messaging me; that’s how they recruit girls. One guy sent a picture. He was attractive and he offered to drive me home, no strings attached. Soon we were involved. He introduced me to what’s called “the game”—branding yourself to become a well-known escort. He took great pictures of me and posted them on Backpage so I could get higher-end clients.
I was around his other girls now, too, which broke the loneliness of working independently. Girls and pimps all follow each other on Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter. At the time, we liked BlackBerry Messenger because we’d communicate with a PIN instead of a phone number. It became an addictive competition: a girl would post a picture holding the latest Gucci bag, captioned, “Thanks, Daddy!” referring to her trafficker. Then someone else would post a picture of a bigger, newer bag. We were all trying to one-up each other. By the early 2010s, Airbnb had become big. They were great for the game because they’re usually self-check-in and you could use Visa Debit instead of a credit card. Plus, those beautiful apartments photograph well.
Pretty soon, I was giving all my money to my pimp, just like I had with my first traffickers. I kept relapsing into this cycle, even though I knew better. I was insecure and I craved approval, so I got back in the game, which just created more self-loathing. My trafficker took me on tours across Canada. We made a lot of money with the guys from the oil rigs in Fort McMurray. Eventually, he left me. Last August, I saw a news report that he’d been shot and killed at a commercial plaza in Brampton.
Soon after, I began a relationship with a guy I’ll call Kyle. With him, things were different. For the first time, I got to experience normal things, like going to Wonderland with a guy and holding his hand. We moved in together, but we kept running out of money. Mississauga, Milton—we were always looking for a cheap place to live. We lived in hotels a lot. Eventually, we found a one-bedroom apartment in Burlington.
I’ve tried to mend fences with my siblings, and last January, my youngest brother got me a job at a chain restaurant, working mostly in the kitchen. That place saved my life. My co-workers know my past, but they don’t judge me. They call me Michelle instead of Molly. It’s helped me so much to know that there are people out there who care. I’d forgotten that.
Until recently, I was only making about $400 a week at my restaurant job, which barely covered my share of the rent. This Christmas, I told my mom and my siblings, “I’m a broke bitch—no presents.” It was horrible. I’ve relapsed into escorting occasionally, on days when I feel bad about myself or stressed about money. But I’ve mostly stayed out of the sex trade for the past year—the longest period since I was 15. And I was recently promoted to a management job at the restaurant. It’s another kind of boost, too: a reminder that I’m good at something, that I matter somewhere.
I’ve hooked up with an organization called Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking, which raises awareness around sex trafficking in the events industry, alerting businesses like hotels to how they might be indirectly involved. I’ve given speeches for them, telling my story. People ask me if I’m afraid of my traffickers returning now that I’ve gone public. It’s hard to explain, but I’m not scared at all anymore. I gave those guys so much power, and that’s how they were able to do those things to me. Telling my story means they don’t have any power over me.
My police file is still open. They didn’t have enough evidence to identify my traffickers, so no charges were laid, and the case couldn’t move forward. Even if we had pressed charges, the outcomes in stories like mine are usually pretty terrible: in 2018, there were 410 charges of domestic human trafficking laid in Toronto, and only 12 convictions.
There aren’t many practical resources for girls who get out, and I feel like I’m always on the edge of going back. If it weren’t for the emotional support I get from my mom and siblings, I’d probably relapse today. They remind me how bad it was, how I’d come home crying all the time. But when people are in bad situations, when they’re broke or hurt, they’ll do anything. I know I could turn on my phone right now and throw my profile up on Backpage, and many of my stresses would go away.
This story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.