Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking of Indigenous Women, Girls, 2-Spirit, and Transgender people
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Indigenous survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking, community activists, and scholars document that coercion and deception are means of forcing Indigenous women, girls, 2-Spirit, and transgender people into survival sex work. In Saskatchewan, Saskatoon is considered a significant part of the transit corridor used within the Prairies to expedite trafficking of gender marginalized Indigenous peoples. Notably, sex trafficking of gender marginalized Indigenous people in Canada is so pervasive that it has not only received international news coverage (CNN - Canada's Stolen Daughters, attached Resources), the Canadian government has received international criticism from the U.S. government, national organizations (Native Women's Association of Canada), and international non-governmental organizations (the United Nations and the Canadian Women's Foundation).
Survivors of sex trafficking, community activists and scholars have discussed factors which increase the vulnerability of Indigenous women, girls, 2-spirit, and transgender people into trafficking. Experiences of abuse/violence; limited supervision; substance use/misuse; proximity to foster care; educational absence on information related to sexuality, contraception and pregnancy, models of healthy platonic and romantic relationships; overall lack of access to education; familial and communal residential/day school attendance, intergenerational trauma; housing insecurity and/or a lack of rental history; unemployment and job insecurity; a lack of culturally-appropriate support services (mental and spiritual health, medical, etc.); an absence of support networks (family/friends); having resided in a rural, northern or other isolated area where there may be a lack of infrastructure such as sewer, electrical or water services; lacking access to basic necessities for survival; and gang involvement. Many, if not all of these factors of vulnerability are linked to the settler colonial policies and beliefs which continue to oppress gender marginalized peoples.
In the aforementioned CNN Article "Canada's Stolen Daughters," Diane Redsky, who runs the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre in Winnipeg (a Centre which engages in anti-trafficking advocacy work and runs a healing lodge) was interviewed. She commented: "We're still in a society that targets Indigenous women and girls. In fact the national task force concluded that there's a market for Indigenous girls" (par. 28).
The psychological and physical impacts of sexual exploitation and trafficking are described in the literature review and analysis released by the Native Women's Association of Canada, titled, "Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking of Aboriginal Women and Girls":
"What can be gathered from looking at the span of the above statistics, both the 2005 and 2011, is that there is a solid continuation of traumatic and damaging experiences that Aboriginal women and girls experience both prior to being trafficked and in the life of being trafficked for sexual acts. Unfortunately, experiences of violence, various forms of abuse, and trauma seem to be very consistent and prevalent within human trafficking. One of the defining characteristics of Farley et al’s research is the examination of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in prostituted and sexually trafficked women. PTSD consists of three types of symptoms: persistent, intrusive re-introducing of trauma; numbing of responsiveness and persistent avoidance of stimuli of trauma; and persistent autonomic heightened arousal. Those who participated in the study completed an evaluation of criteria for PTSD. In a 2005 paper examining prostituted and trafficked women, out of the one hundred participants, including both First Nations and non-First Nations, 72% qualified for PTSD, which is 'among the highest reported in populations where PTSD has been studied, including battered women, combat veterans, childhood trauma survivors, rape survivors, and torture survivors' (Farley, Lynne, & Cotton, 2005, p. 255) . Those who are prostituted and sexually trafficked often experience extreme and intentional violence, abuse and torture. It is no surprise that these women and girls fulfill the criteria for PTSD. Such evidence suggests the difficulty of trying to move on from sexual exploitation, trafficking, and prostitution. It is a deeply traumatic experience that impacts on one’s physical self, the mental, and the emotional" (pages 10-11).
This excerpt from the Globe and Mail contains the testimony of a sex trafficking survivor as to the long-lasting impacts of PTSD in terms of her ability to function:
"But even if there is no physical evidence, illness and violence are so pervasive that, eventually, “trafficking will produce a health consequence,” says Tara Wilkie of the Surrey Memorial forensic team. Patients are provided with support after leaving the hospital, but Ms. Wilkie says the after-effects of trafficking can leave someone with lifelong physical and mental-health issues. Bridget Perrier seems to be living proof of this. As she sits on the couch of her Toronto home, phone buzzing, two dogs scampering around, pictures of her children on the wall, her old life seems like the distant past. Yet, she says, a decade of sexual exploitation “damaged me to a point where ... I have panic attacks. I have PTSD. I can’t have a baby naturally because my cervix is just shot. I sleep with the lights on. I’m hypervigilant. And there are flashbacks. “Sometimes a smell will set me off, gagging.” Pine-Sol, used to disinfect the rooms, “triggers it.” As do “certain male colognes, certain deodorants.” Also damaged: her relationship with others. She says her clientele was so predominantly white that, even today 'I can’t be on an elevator with a Caucasian man'" (pars. 85-90).
Regarding solutions for recovery from post-traumatic symptoms, including PTSD, the Native Women's Association of Canada literature review and analysis notes:
"Many who are sexually exploited and trafficked come from backgrounds where formal education and job skill development have been compromised from traumatic childhoods and growing up in abuse. To help these women and youth escape the cycle of sexual exploitation, they need training in viable alternatives for income. It is not enough to protect women and girls from pimps and traffickers; the conditions of growing up in poverty and without a full education must also be addressed for lasting difference" (page 25).
Bluntly put, one participant phrased it aptly: ’People don’t heal overnight. It took seventeen years to get all the shit inside of you and it’s probably going to take twenty years to get it out of you’ (p. 36). Quick-healing regimens are unrealistic. Healing takes time, and sexual exploitation is a violent, oppressive, and damaging process. In a 2003 study on sexual exploitation with some 854 participants, their findings were that prostitution was multi- traumatic, with 68% meeting the criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (Farley, et al., 2003, p. 34), which, also happens to match the same range of PTSD as combat veterans (Weathers, Litz, Herman, Huska, & Keane, 1993, as cited in Farley, et al., 2003, p. 37). If prostitution is categorized as choice and trafficked as forced, it may be that trafficked women are dealing with even more PTSD." (page 29).
Gender discrimination and sexualization of Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit, Transgender and Non-Binary people, is deeply embedded in the foundation of Canadian policy, society, and consciousness. That is, stereotypical gendered narratives were constructed by colonizers that depicted Indigenous peoples as morally inferior and culturally uncivilized - including a predisposition to extreme sexuality (this was the underlying rationale for gender segregation in the Indian Residential School system).
Settler Colonists viewed Indigenous 'sexuality' as a threat that needed to be subdued, and another area in which they could assert dominance and control over Indigenous lives. Early on in the period of Contact with Europeans, Indigenous women, much like the "virgin" soil of North America, were perceived as available for possession by white, European men. These tropes of availability, in combination with stereotypes which constructed Indigenous women as exotic and erotic, asserted that Indigenous women were incapable of consenting (always available to the Colonial sexual appetite) and therefore inherently inviolable.
In addition to social marginalization enforced through colonialism, narratives construct Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit, and Transgender people as sexually disposable which creates a significant degree of proximity to violence. Aforementioned experiences of social marginalization include, but are not limited to: the mass apprehension of Indigenous children by child and family services, low-income caused by isolation from resources, cultural activities and lifeways, and economic discrimination, housing insecurity, employment insecurity, and limited access to education.
Annette Sikka, in the conference paper "Trafficking of Aboriginal Women and Girls in Canada," writes:
"..[T]he terms 'control' and 'exploitation' have been interpreted by the justice system in the context of trafficking offences also do not adequately reflect the types of coercion and exploitation that Aboriginal women or girls in street-based sex work face. It has been difficult to have the criminal justice system recognize non-physical forms of coercion in trafficking analyses because the criminal law focuses only on the immediate actions of individuals." (220).
Actors within the legal system frequently lack a sufficient understanding of the ways in which gender-marginalized Indigenous peoples experience coercion and deception. This serves to reinforce individualistic narratives which depict participation in the survival sex work as a matter of personal choice to participate in a "high-risk lifestyle." Yet it obscures elements of social and political marginalization which pressure gender-marginalized people into survival sex work. E.g., coercion or deception by others (the promise of money, protection, security, or substances).
This is not to say that sex workers or sex work is inherently violent or deviant, nor should sex workers be criminalized. Rather, that the social, gendered, sexual, and financial inequities established by Canadian settler colonialism have enabled traffickers to take advantage of the precarious social and economic situations many Indigenous women, girls, and other gender marginalized people find themselves in. Trafficking and exploitation is driven by the desire to fulfill settler sexual fantasies and maintain oppressive power structures.