I was a teenage runaway struggling to survive when I met a man who promised me love and security. Over the next decade, he held me captive, selling my body to strangers in sleazy motels and strip clubs. Inside Toronto’s secret world of sex trafficking

One night when I was 12, my mom and stepdad took me out for dinner in Calgary, where we lived. Afterward, we walked around downtown and spotted a few teenage girls standing on a street corner. My stepdad, a detective with the Calgary police, told me they were in the sex trade and launched into a string of horror stories about prostitution. Young women like them would come into the station covered with cuts and bruises, he said. Their pimps got them addicted to heroin and crack. As I looked back at them, I spotted a woman in a fur coat and designer stilettos, smiling at me. She seemed happy enough. I figured my stepdad was exaggerating.

Back then, we were a middle-class Canadian family. My mom managed several bridal shops, and we lived on a suburban cul-de-sac. At school, I was popular, got good grades and loved playing soccer. My stepdad always taught me to be strong, to believe in myself, that girls could do anything boys could do. He also taught me to fight. On summer days, he would take me to the gun shop and the shooting range, and sometimes we made bullets with his bullet-casting machine on our back deck. He made me and my mom do emergency drills in the house to prepare for intruders, rape threats, even nuclear war. “Follow your instincts,” he told us, “and fight like hell.” He showed me what to do if I were ever held down, training me to attack the groin, the eyes, the throat and other pressure points. I thought I could tackle anything or anyone.

The author, shown here with her mom, Rose, and later in elementary school, had a happy childhood

About a year after that night in downtown Calgary, my parents divorced. My mom and I moved into a small apartment, and my stepdad and I grew apart. The divorce devastated my mother, and soon she was drinking and partying all the time. I never liked the guys she dated, men who used her for sex and a good time, and we often fought because of it. My perfect world was crumbling, and in typical teenage fashion, I rebelled. Soon, I was ditching school, hanging out with a crowd of older kids and copying my mom’s behaviour. One night, when I was 13, a friend broke into a vacant house for sale and threw a rager. I drank until everything was a blur, and smoked cigarettes and pot for the first time. That night, I lost my virginity in one of the empty bedrooms upstairs.

All of my friends had dysfunctional families—some were abused, others had alcoholic parents—and we all wanted to escape. In 1987, when I was 13, five of us hatched a plan. We would steal a parked RV from a rental lot and run away to ­Vancouver. We had no money, but we were cocky enough to believe we could survive on our own. One of my friends, who was 16, said that she would turn tricks to support our group once we reached Vancouver.

In September, we found our target: a full-size, decked-out RV in a downtown lot. I was the smallest of the group, so I squeezed through the sunroof and unlocked the doors. We hopped inside and hot-wired the vehicle. After an hour and a half on the highway, we stopped in Banff and stole a credit card from an unlocked pizza delivery car. When we tried to use it to buy gas, the ­attendant became ­suspicious. After all, we were a group of unkempt teens driving an expensive motorhome. He called the police. As we hit the highway, driving through the Rockies, a fleet of cruisers began chasing us. With the cops on our tail, we got desperate, whipping stuff out of the back door, even a mattress and a passenger seat, to slow them down. Eventually, we swerved into a ditch. When we emerged, a phalanx of RCMP officers stood with loaded guns. We were promptly handcuffed, arrested and told to lie on a hill. Reporters showed up and snapped photos of us. The press compared our chase to something out of Smokey and the Bandit.

I spent two weeks in the Revelstoke jail before they let me off with a warning. When I got home, I was expelled from junior high, and my mom sent me to stay in a group home for troubled kids. At that point, I didn’t care. I felt displaced and unloved, and I thought I was invincible. One of my housemates was a 17-year-old girl who had been court-mandated to stay at the home. She lived with her pimp, she told me, and made enough money to support herself. “You’re already giving it away for free,” she said. “Why not get paid for it?” I thought she had a point.

Two weeks after I arrived at the group home, we ran away to her house, a duplex in the north end of Calgary. She asked me to sit outside for a moment while she went upstairs. Within minutes, I heard her screaming, then a man yelling, then my friend sobbing. I realized I was hearing her pimp beat her. I trusted my instincts and ran, hoping to hide out at a friend’s house. I never wanted to be hurt like that, and yet I still believed becoming a prostitute was my key to independence. I wanted to learn how.

Within a year, my relationship with my mother had all but evaporated. Occasionally, we got along, and I’d go out partying with her and her friends, picking up men in their 20s and 30s. More often, we fought. Our arguments always ended in tears, and soon I stopped returning home altogether. I couch-surfed at friends’ houses, sneaking in through windows and hiding in closets, where they’d bring me leftovers from their dinner. When friends couldn’t accommodate me, I hooked up with older men—usually bouncers from clubs, who were easy to seduce—in exchange for food and a place to stay. Mostly, I wanted love.

One night, I ran into two girls I knew at an LRT station. They were just a few years older than me and already veterans of the sex trade. When I told them I needed a place to crash, they offered to take me in. As we headed to their apartment, they stopped at a corner store and bought a cucumber and a pack of condoms. When we got to their place, they taught me the basics of prostitution: where to turn tricks, how to put a condom on without touching the shaft of a john’s penis and how much to charge—$80 for intercourse, $60 for oral sex and $100 for both. I was ready.

The next night, I headed to a club and met a man in his 20s. He looked like something out of Risky Business, with slicked-back hair and a black trench coat. He offered me a deal: for one night only—and 50 per cent of my profits—he could line me up with interested johns. I turned my first trick the next night in a musty attic above a restaurant in Chinatown. The john, a cook, had missing teeth and greasy black hair, his chef’s jacket covered with old food. He agreed to wear a condom. I lay down on a stained mattress, closed my eyes and tried to forget where I was, holding my breath to avoid his stench. It was over within minutes, and he handed me $100. I serviced four other men that night, and each time I tried to think of how good the money would make me feel. At the end of the night, I had made $500. I handed the Risky Business guy half of it and never spoke to him again.

I figured I could work as a prostitute without a pimp, or what’s known in the sex trade as renegading. I trolled the local pickup spots in Chinatown, making a name for myself. Soon I was getting between 10 and 20 calls a day. Within a few weeks I had an older friend rent out an apartment for me and a few other girls. It was a trick pad, where our johns could buy sex from us. We went shopping for furniture at IKEA, fumbling toward adulthood. I called my mom from time to time. She had no idea what I’d gotten myself into.

We made every john wear condoms; we always told each other where we’d be in case one of us didn’t come home from a job; and we tried to screen men over the phone, declining service to anyone who sounded sketchy. But we never really knew what we were in for. A friend of one of my regular johns once beat me because I refused to have sex with him while I was on my period. For weeks, we had a peeping tom who set up a stack of phone books outside the bedroom window where we serviced men. Once, a pimp stabbed and killed a man a few streets from our home and showed up at our place to hide out from the cops. We were fresh meat for ­predators—pimps, johns, drug dealers and pedophiles. I told myself that none of it mattered. We were making thousands of dollars a week. We could afford designer clothes and limo services. We made our way onto VIP lists at Calgary’s poshest clubs. We thought we ran the city.

It didn’t take long for the renegade act to end. We were all lured by traffickers, who offered us more money and more protection. For me, it happened at a Calgary club, where I met a man I’ll call Benjamin. I knew he was a pimp, but he seemed different from the sleazy older men who usually worked the trade. He was 25, with high cheekbones, a slim nose and a charming smile. I had just turned 17 and was instantly attracted to him. The night we met, he asked me questions about myself and showed me photos of his five-year-old daughter. I wasn’t used to kindness from pimps. He gave me his number, and for the next few weeks, we spoke on the phone every night. Benjamin was what we call a Romeo pimp—he wooed me, promising me comfort and safety and normalcy. He said that if I worked with him, we could make enough money to get out of the sex trade, find a house in the suburbs and live a quiet life together. The idea appealed to me. I missed my old life, and I wanted to feel loved again. I thought the only way to accomplish that was through Benjamin.

A few months after we met, he went to prison, serving a four-year sentence for living off the avails of prostitution and a few other charges. I saw our time apart as an opportunity to prove my dedication to him. I visited him in jail and told him I would wait for him. I saved my money and bought him a Mustang. One of my sugar daddies gave me $5,000 every month, which I used to cover Benjamin’s lawyer’s fees, and I filled his canteen account with hundreds of dollars at a time. My devotion paid off. When he got out in 1995, he promised that I would be the only girl he worked with. I’d be under his protection—and his control.

My new life with Benjamin cemented my place in the trade. We lived a glamorous lifestyle. We ordered $120 bottles of Dom Pérignon at restaurants and travelled all over the country. One time, in Kelowna, I got into a fight with another girl. Benjamin stepped in to defend me, and her pimp ended up shooting him in the leg and butt cheek. He used this incident to prove that I needed his protection. Soon after, Benjamin proposed to me. A few days before our wedding date, I got cold feet and asked to postpone it. In response, he smashed my head against our car window—not quite hard enough to break the glass or cut me up, but enough to leave me shaken. It was the first time he’d physically harmed me, and I felt trapped. I knew he’d come after me if I left. On New Year’s Eve in 1995, right as the countdown ended, we took our vows in front of a justice of the peace, with a friend of his from prison as our witness. I was 21 years old.

A few days later, I panicked and ran away to Kelowna, where I rented a hotel suite on Okanagan Lake. I returned after two weeks, hoping Benjamin would forgive me. He seemed to, at first. We had sex. Then, he snapped. I was still naked when he whipped me with a cable cord, its sharp edge piercing my thighs, back, chest and arms. By the end, my body was bruised and bleeding. I made a friend take photos in case I ever went missing. Benjamin, meanwhile, already had plans for us. He told me we were going to do the trafficking circuit across Canada—from Calgary to Vancouver to Kelowna to Edmonton. Our last stop would be Toronto, where Benjamin said we’d build our new home.

“New girls always attract more johns,” ­Benjamin told me when we began travelling the circuit. We stopped in several cities, sometimes for a couple of days, sometimes for weeks. I was unknown, young, desirable. Benjamin had done all this before, so he knew where to go—the strip clubs, escort agencies and hotels where johns would be trolling. At agencies and clubs, I had to pay two pimps: ­Benjamin and the owner. I preferred the streets, or the “high track,” because I could hustle more and get some distance from Benjamin. The work was different from what I’d done at my trick pad in Calgary, and so was the money: on the high track, I could charge $400 an hour. I was sold for sex several times a day, sometimes in back-to-back sessions, and my body constantly ached. By this point, Benjamin was regularly abusing me, both physically and emotionally. He’d punch and slap me, calling me “dirty whore” and “stinking bitch.”

The first night we arrived in Toronto, he took me down to Jarvis and Carlton, the city’s high track, and stood on the sidewalk while men solicited me. Within an hour, a john picked me up and drove me to the lakeshore for a car date. We arrived at a secluded spot near Cherry Beach. I reached to roll down the window, but it was locked. So was the door. I felt sick. Then, the john pulled out a butcher knife. “I’ve killed before,” he told me. “So do as I say.” I had encountered many violent johns before, but this guy was different. I believed him.

I was convinced I would die that night. I thought of my stepdad’s safety talks, and I knew what I had to do. I told the john that maybe I’d killed before too, in a desperate attempt to convince him we could be a team. I broke my own rules and kissed him on the mouth while his knife grazed my throat. His demeanour softened, but I kept up the façade. There were moments when he could see through my act and I’d have to up my game. To my surprise, he eventually drove me back to our pickup spot without an exchange of sex or money. I gave him a fake number to reach me.

Another time, a bouncer roughed me up at a club. Benjamin stabbed him seven times. He was arrested for attempted murder, but the charges were dropped. The bouncer didn’t show up for court. Benjamin held this over my head for years. “I almost died for you and I almost killed for you,” he’d say. “What other man will love you as much as me?” I thought I owed my life to him.

During the week, we lived normal lives. We rented a house in Brampton, and I bought Benjamin a Mercedes with my earnings. He would cook and clean the house. On Friday nights, I was jolted back to reality, when ­Benjamin would take me to the high track. He’d wait at a nearby strip club while I worked. If I wasn’t done by 4:30 a.m., he’d decide I was up to no good and hurt me. I was arrested twice for soliciting; I avoided jail by agreeing to attend court-mandated intervention programs. I never completed them.

I had been hardened by my experiences in the trade. Benjamin sometimes accused me of concealing money, though I was regularly bringing back as much as $1,000 a night. He still took all of my profits. And he was beating me daily. Over the course of a year, he broke my arm, a rib, my nose and a finger, and he chipped one of my teeth. I only went to the hospital to have my bones set, and I never told the doctors who hurt me. Benjamin always apologized. I always stayed.

Falle, shown here with her friend Samantha, was in the sex trade for 12 years. She often brought home as much as $1,000 a night

One night, when I was 25, Benjamin and I got into an argument. When I threatened to leave him for a trafficker from North Preston’s Finest, a gang in B.C., he sat on my chest and repeatedly slugged me in the face. The beating continued, on and off, over the course of 12 hours. I weaved in and out of consciousness; he kept me alive just to hurt me again. As soon as I could stand, I ran outside, got in a taxi and fled to a women’s shelter. I thought I could use the night to rest and recuperate. When I arrived, my face was purple, my eardrum was damaged and my nose was broken (to this day, I can’t breathe out of one nostril). The shelter workers took me to the hospital and begged me not to go back home, but I already knew I would. I genuinely believed I was worthless without Benjamin, and I had nowhere else to go.

When I went home a few days later, he apologized again. We resumed our routine. And the violence continued. One summer, Benjamin recruited another girl. Jealous and tired of the abuse, I fled with my best friend, Samantha, who was also being trafficked. My mother had recently moved to Midland, and I left my dog, a Rottweiler, with her when I ran. To regain control of me, Benjamin drove to my mom’s house and stole the dog. He knew I’d go back to him if he took her, and I did. Samantha’s trafficker found her in Calgary, and made her return to Toronto. Our pimps told us we could no longer be friends.

During the 12 years I worked in the sex trade, I’d never been a regular drug user. But as Benjamin’s beatings got worse, I became desperate. One day, I called up a local coke dealer and bought a $30 bag. I needed to feel numb, to reduce my physical pain and mental anguish. I went to a bathroom at Mr. Tasty Burger near Church and Wellesley, carved out a line, rolled up a $100 bill and snorted the powder. The sensation was incredible, like I was floating. That $30 hit quickly turned into a $500-a-day habit. Within weeks, I had turned to crack for a stronger high.

A few months later, a friend told me she’d seen Benjamin buying drugs. I was shocked. He’d always told me how disgusting he thought addicts were. When I confronted him, he admitted that he’d been addicted to crack throughout our entire relationship. He’d used the money I’d earned to finance his habit. After that, we fuelled each other’s addictions and smoked together every day. Once, when I was high, I attacked one of my regular johns. I was traumatized from years of repeated violence, and delusional from drugs and lack of sleep. I tried stabbing him in the heart first, and then I jerked the knife into his arm. I thought he was trying to rape me. When I realized he was joking, I moistened a cloth and used my boot laces to create a makeshift tourniquet. I never saw him again. Another time, I bought dope from an older man who drove girls in the sex trade to their calls. I asked him to rent a motel room for me. When I woke up, he shoved a cloth dosed with chloroform over my face and raped me.

On my 27th birthday, I partied for three days straight without sleep. I ploughed through an eight-ball of crack, eating and drinking just enough to keep me alive. I realized I had hit rock bottom, and that if I didn’t stop, I would kill myself or be killed.

My mom had been calling for months, but I kept pushing her away. On that third night, I hopped into a cab and headed to Midland. I arrived on her doorstep at 4 a.m. When she opened her door, I was so tweaked out that I barely recognized her—I thought she was an imposter. I blurted out the truth in a single breath: I was a prostitute, I was on crack, and Benjamin was my trafficker. My mother stood still, shocked. She was in her first year of sobriety, and she was my old mom again, the mom I’d needed when I entered the sex trade. Without saying a word, she led me to her spare bedroom, laid me down and rocked me to sleep in her arms. She saved my life that night.

The author is now an international advocate and speaker. She trains police all over Canada and offers assistance with sex trafficking cases Photograph by Markian Lozowchuk

For the next few weeks, I hid out at my mom’s house. Withdrawal was bad, but it was manageable. I could see the end. Trying to extract myself from ­Benjamin’s stranglehold was much harder. I threw away all of my clothes and the phone numbers of other women in the trade—anything that reminded me of him. He found my mother’s number and begged me to come back. “I love you,” he’d coo in his sweetest voice. When he didn’t get the response he was after, he’d threaten me. My mom was quick to change her number. I soon heard he’d moved on and recruited a new breadwinner.

A month after leaving Benjamin, I entered rehab in Elliot Lake, a two-hour drive from Sudbury. In two cars, my family—my mother, cousins, aunts and uncles, and our Rottweiler—dropped me off. The rehab centre was the first structured space I had been in since my Grade 7 classroom. I tried to be diligent, attending group sessions and being candid about my addiction. I knew I had to turn my life around. Still, my past ruled me. If a man smiled at me, I assumed he wanted sex. Eventually I began to see men and boys as more than pimps and johns. Once, a few weeks into the program, I met a distraught teen boy in the smoking room. I gave him a hug—a genuine gesture of empathy. When counsellors heard about it, I was escorted to an office where four staffers sat in front of me in a row, detailing my offences: my backtalk, my attitude, my alleged fraternizing. I was asked to leave the centre.

After my abrupt exit from rehab, I almost gave up. I had to fight the urge to return to Benjamin. Instead, I moved back in with my mom. I realized the best way to keep myself sane was to stay occupied. I’d lost enough of my life. It was time to do something with the time I had left. I began studying, and in seven months I had earned enough credits to receive my high school diploma.

From there, I enrolled in a counselling program at George Brown College, where I learned how to define my abuse. Women in the sex trade are often pitted against each other, and I was hardened from those experiences, but I learned to open up to my classmates and formed the kinds of lasting friendships that I never thought I’d have. I became a counsellor and program manager at Streetlight Support Services, an exit program for women and children in the trade, where I was able to use my experience to help my clients. The idea was to treat women and girls without judging or punishing them. At Streetlight, I counselled more than 750 clients.

In 2007, I started a non-profit advocacy coalition, Sex Trade 101, with my friend and fellow survivor Bridget Perrier. Our objective is to educate the general public about the reality of the sex trade—that many of the women involved have been forced into it. My mom even volunteers with the coalition; our clients call her Grandma Rose. With the coalition, I helped lobby for new legislation for those in the trade. In 2010, I worked with MP Joy Smith to advocate for Bill C-268, which sought to amend the Criminal Code to impose mandatory minimum sentences for traffickers of underage girls. Later that year, I helped the Crown form its argument against the Bedford challenge to decriminalize pimps, and I testified in the lower court. The case went to the Supreme Court, which determined that prostitution laws in Canada were outdated. The feds were given a year to implement the new law. During that year, I was an expert witness before Senate and parliamentary committees. I pushed for the Nordic model, which criminalizes pimps and johns and decriminalizes independent sellers of sex. The law, Bill C-36, passed in 2014.

I’m now 43 years old, and living in downtown Toronto with my rescue cat, Halo. I’m in a loving long-distance relationship, but I’m taking it slow; I still have trouble trusting men. I’ve spent the past few years teaching social justice courses in the police foundations program at Humber College, where I educate future cops. In one of my courses, Contemporary Social Problems, I lecture on the sex trade, focusing on the physiological and sociological impact it has on its victims, how young women are coerced into prostitution, and the telltale signs of trafficking. I also work with police departments across Canada, consulting on sex trafficking cases. I’m often able to draw on my own experiences.

I only saw Benjamin once after my escape. Years after I left, I was invited to a church event. I knew Benjamin and his daughter would be there, but I mustered up the courage to attend. When I saw him, I felt nothing—no love, no obligation, no pity, no fear. At that moment, I knew I was free.