May/June 1997

Bill Fledderus

pp. 12-15.

Helping prostitutes in Jesus' name

Prostitutes say they've chosen their career. Unconvinced Christians are lobbying for laws that will restrict this "choice."

People who work with prostitutes have to face a difficult truth: most prostitutes aren't interested in getting out until they've done irreparable damage to themselves. Veteran observers agree that young prostitutes (under age 18) who talk positively about their "choice" are uninformed and ignore or deny the life trajectory of all the others before them who have suffered and regretted such choices. In virtually every case, observers say, prostitution leads to harm, various forms of enslavement or early death.

Young prostitutes often believe they have made the best choice.

"People are making a mistake when they think of prostitutes as having chosen a career," says Ken Fast who has worked with prostitutes for 13 years and is director of Alternatives in Christian Ministry. A program in Northside Community Church in Brampton Ont., Alternatives involves volunteers from many denominations.

"It's not a choice like becoming a doctor or a farmer. People who choose prostitution usually see few other choices available to them -- maybe working in a nightclub or becoming a stripper; that's it."

Most street prostitutes say they ran away from an abusive home and turned to prostitution voluntarily at around age 14. Young prostitutes often believe they can avoid becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol. If they become involved in organized crime, they somehow think they won't get caught.

Prostitution is made to appear glamorous by pimps and clients alike, a way for teens to thumb their noses at authority and to achieve easy financial independence. Pimps can lure runaway girls because they are desperate for money, but the promise of affection is also a lure and is especially successful with girls who are overweight and unpopular, says Ross MacInnes of Calgary, a former vice cop who now heads a non-profit organization to reach out to juvenile prostitutes.

Christian teens are not immune to the lure of prostitution, adds Cliff Heggs, director of about 20 volunteers at Crossfire Ministries in Vancouver. Heggs says Crossfire is "working with parents of eight girls from somewhat Christian homes. Some of these girls have been found and directed back to their parents and some are still out there somewhere."

Once hooked with gifts and then manipulated into prostitution, it often takes years before a girl will admit to herself that the pimp is lying about loving her.

"The girls don't usually differentiate between a pimp and a boyfriend. The pimp is seen more as a guy who loves her and maybe even says he'll marry her. She's the breadwinner for the two of them by renting her body parts," says Fast.

Teens going into prostitution seek help, love, community and answers to personal problems. Young prostitutes often believe they have made the best possible choice and persist in thinking they can continue in prostitution yet somehow escape the violence, disease and other ruinous problems it brings, even after they have been repeatedly assaulted or forced to do things against their will.

Such thinking makes Christian outreach and legal restrictions difficult. Last year, for example, police evicted a number of teens from an abandoned building on Toronto's Carlton Street. The teens refused offers of placement in youth shelters because they said the shelters "have too many rules." Instead, the teens demanded they be allowed to live in another building.

"I'm going for my third meeting with a 14-year-old nicknamed 'Pillow' to talk about leaving the street," says Fast. "I shocked her when I predicted that she wouldn't want to leave for maybe five years. 'You're right,' she told me. 'I can't see myself living anywhere where there are rules.'"

In response to such attitudes, some legislators -- supported by Christians -- are attempting to change Canada's prostitution laws to make such "career choices" more difficult, especially for young teens.

Two prostitutes look for clients on St. Catherine St. in Montreal. Christian teens are not immune from prostitution, say observers.
Photo © P. Andrews/Publiphoto

Prostitution laws

Paying for sex has never been illegal in Canada; however both a customer and a prostitute may be charged for "communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution," a summary conviction offence which usually results in a 10-day jail sentence and $125 fine in Ontario (twice that in Alberta). The maximum fine is $2,000 or six months in jail.

A customer hiring a prostitute who is younger than 18 faces a maximum five year sentence under a rarely used federal law. Other laws ban brothels and "procuring," which involves enabling a financial transaction in exchange for sex. Living from the avails of a prostitute can bring a maximum 10-year sentence under the Criminal Code. If the prostitute is younger than 18, the maximum is 14 years. There is no specified minimum sentence.

The laws were recently tightened slightly with the passing of Bill C-27, which amended the Criminal Code in a variety of areas, including creating a minimum five-year sentence for "aggravated procuring," that is, using threats or violence to pimp a prostitute 17 or younger. The bill also amended the crime of hiring an under-age prostitute, to allow prosecution whenever there is evidence that the client believed the prostitute was under 18, regardless of the prostitute's real age. C-27 also allows minors to testify from behind a screen, through closed circuit television or via videotape against accused pimps or "johns."

Heather Forsyth

Provincially, Alberta has announced plans to change its Child Welfare Act (perhaps as soon as this fall) to identify prostitutes under the age of 18 as victims of child sexual abuse and their clients as abusers. Convictions would involve a mandatory jail sentence. The province also plans to draft an act entitled Children Involved in Prostitution outlining an array of services the government is responsible to provide to under-age prostitutes. Those would include increased social, educational and health programs, including safe houses and locked assessment/treatment facilities "to assist youth [under 18] who are not willing to leave prostitution but who are a danger to themselves or others."

The Alberta changes stem from the Forsyth report, released in February 1997. The report calls on Ottawa to label prostitutes under 18 as children; to extend the maximum sentence for any prostitution offence to 14 years rather than 10; to require some jail time for all prostitution-related offences (except communicating); and to release to the media the names of all convicted customers of under-age prostitutes.

The report also calls for the establishment of a national computer system tracking juvenile prostitutes as they are moved across the country.

"The report is having a huge effect, much more than I expected," says Heather Forsyth, Progressive Conservative MLA for Calgary-Fish Creek, who led the development of the report. "We're receiving calls from around the country."

Two months after the release of the report "girls from Calgary and Edmonton were already moving to Vancouver," she said.

The proposed changes at both provincial and federal levels have received mixed reviews.

"Prostitution is clearly a form of child abuse," says Brenda McIntire, 42, who was involved in prostitution for 13 years and supports proposals to toughen legislation.

"I don't think a young teen is capable of giving 'informed consent' to prostitution. It's made to look for them that they're in control, that they have complete freedom. But there are a lot of things that push them and keep them there. They are promised acceptance, trust, family -- all the things that are missing in their lives," says McIntire.

Two years ago McIntire became a Christian. Today she is a counselor to street prostitutes with Alternatives in Christian Ministry in Brampton, Ont. She also helped establish a re-education program in Toronto that provides alternatives to jail time for clients and prostitutes facing court charges.

Elsewhere, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has voiced its support of Bill C-27. In a May 1996 brief on prostitution, the EFC supported the view that hiring a prostitute under the age of 18 is child abuse, and called for more severe penalties against clients and pimps, particularly of juvenile prostitutes. The brief called for preventative education about the effects of prostitution, curbs on the availability of pornography and more outreach services to prostitutes. The brief also warned against the creation of red-light districts, city-regulated zones dedicated to the sex trade.

Others think the problem of juvenile prostitution is overrated and the proposed solutions merely superficial band-aids that allow politicians to make mileage from an issue.

"If kids under 16 are turning tricks for money it could be because they can't legally work at any job," argues Andrew Sorfleet of the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver. "If the laws actually succeed in keeping street kids from turning tricks, then what will the kids buy their Big Meals with? Squeegees? Panhandling? Busking?"

Sorfleet asserts that protecting juveniles in prostitution should take the same approach as protecting them in any other industry.

"Judge the danger and hazards and needs for training as you would for any other occupation," he says.

"[Kids] have died on pipelines, and in mines, and in logging and probably even in fishing. This is a workplace health and safety issue. Jobs, more money, less poverty and less desperation would help deal with street kids needing to do survival sex."

"I would never suggest that we advocate 14-year-olds working in the trade," he adds. "But I know a lot of [older prostitutes] who in their hearts if they found a young 15-year-old working the street might try to get them into circumstances where they could work inside or be much safer rather than put them on a bus home to their parents."

Ongoing support needed

Statistics show that very few people enter prostitution after age 20. The Canadian government's Badgley Committee in 1984 found that 96 percent of the prostitutes interviewed had entered the "trade" before age 18, and that more than 93 percent had run away. Today, observers suggest, most prostitutes start at age 14 or earlier and end up burnt out by their mid-20s, so pimps are always looking for newcomers. Pimps often shuffle young prostitutes around to different cities, including back and forth across the United States border, to keep them vulnerable, to keep up with demand and to avoid enforcement crackdowns.

Though juvenile prostitution is a tragedy that is attracting attention from legislators as a result of public outcries, Fast finds the selective attention somewhat frustrating.

Tragic stories about 13-year-old girls elicit easy pity and outrage. But, he asks, what about those same girls after they have turned tricks for eight years and developed a drug habit? Public compassion for adult prostitutes is replaced by disgust and the view that "they made their choice, now they get what they deserve," says Fast.

He urges Christians to be consistent in their compassion. Furthermore, he adds, the prostitutes people feel the most sympathy for -- the younger ones -- will usually spurn offers of help.

"Unless I reach a girl during her first week on the street," Fast says, "it's likely she won't be interested again in leaving the street for another four to eight years." It's the ones over 25, who have suffered enough to begin reflecting on their situation and their future, who are receptive to assistance, he says.

Fast knows of several prostitutes who went back to school as a way out of prostitution. "But they still had to turn tricks on the weekend to make it." As a result, Alternatives encourages Christians to donate bursary money for prostitutes.

Methods used by Christian ministries to help prostitutes are diverse. Servants Anonymous in Calgary and Morningstar in Regina run transition houses and group homes. Many offer job training and life skills programs.

"Usually they quit the residential or skills programs once or several times," explains Ivy M., a volunteer house mother with Servants. "If they quit, they know they aren't allowed back for three months. But after that the door is always open, and most do come back."

Servants has four houses, including an emergency house that allows first-timers to stay up to 30 days, a house for women who are pregnant or have children, and second stage housing where graduates of the program can live independently for three to five years while they build new lives. Servants cares for 20 young women at a time through the volunteer efforts of 30 people. The organization also operates a secretarial company and a cafeteria where women receive government subsidized job training while bringing in necessary revenue for the non-profit organization.

Most prostitute ministries, including Crossfire in Vancouver and Le Roc in Montreal, hold parties on birthdays, Christmas and other days, at which they give flowers and gifts including Christian literature.

"The parties are great. They really show love to an individual who probably receives little anywhere else," says Christine Myatt Paré, who came from Australia seven years ago to reach out to female prostitutes in Montreal with Le Roc (formerly the Quebec chapter of Operation Mobilization). She recently took a year-long sabbatical from her work, and now visits the streets once a week.

"We often give them some of the materials produced by Crossfire, testimonies of girls who have quit the street, among other presents."

That giving gifts and attention is the same method used by pimps to trap girls in the first place is not lost on many Christian workers.

"Christian ministry is the opposite of making them dependent on you," argues John Berton, a 30-year veteran who divides his work between the streets of Los Angeles and a group of transition homes in New York state. "It's helping them build self-esteem and self-respect, helping them see themselves through the lens of the Christian gospel."

Berton, whose work is described in the book One Lady at a Time, says simple actions like putting a prostitute's name on a welcome sign or trusting her enough to be the receptionist can do wonders.

"I tell them I have a special translation of the Bible that says, 'God thinks you're hot stuff, baby,'" says Berton.

"We never force anything," adds Brenda McIntire. Talking, gifts, parties -- all can be rejected and often are. "[Prostitutes] know the Christians are there. Some open up, but many refuse to be seen talking with you."

"Many times they'll smile and even say 'God bless you' just to get rid of a Christian who might linger and scare away tricks," says Berton.

Relationship building

Most people who work with prostitutes agree that any program, from housing to a drop-in centre to throwing parties, is mainly a way to spend time together and build relationships. "Effectiveness is not so much a matter of programs as building long-term relationships of trust," says Fast.

With meetings that last usually less than an hour, it takes many months to build a relationship. It may take years before a prostitute will reveal her real name and address.

That length of time requires a commitment that makes new ministry workers hard to find. Alternatives takes a full year to train its volunteers and does not accept seminary interns. In addition, some ministries do not accept street volunteers who are single males, who are married less than 10 years, or who do not have the full support and cooperation of a spouse.

Ministries to prostitutes continue to be frustrated by other well-meaning Christian groups who occasionally visit an inner-city area to pass out tracts.

"Sometimes you see a bunch of them go up to a prostitute and talk with her. They don't realize that her pimp is down the street sitting in a car and fuming mad, and that he could beat her up later if she wastes potential money-earning time talking with them," says Fast.

Building a Christian relationship may require persistent overtures, but it also requires mutual interest. Most ministries spend a lot of time in the inner-city at night, on the streets or in the coffee shops, making those overtures and making themselves available to any who want to talk.

Generally, outreach takes a long time to bear fruit, if ever says Myatt Paré.

"I'm learning you have to put aside your hopes and expectations for them and just be out there faithfully," she says.

Myatt Paré has found that prostitutes with pimps are less needy and less likely to be addicted to drugs, whereas the junkies who are out trying to turn tricks day or night have so many basic physical needs that verbally sharing the Christian gospel becomes secondary.

Claude Borgognon works with male prostitutes on the streets of Montreal for Le Roc and Jeunesse en Mission (Youth with a Mission). Male teens on the street turn to homosexual prostitution for money, he says. In male prostitution, the clients are less likely to be violent (female prostitutes see an average of one violent trick per month) and are more interested in affection, he explains. However, the prostitutes face the likelihood of becoming HIV positive on average about four years after starting.

Borgognon has witnessed a number of male teens move from simply engaging in homosexual prostitution for money, while still considering themselves heterosexual, to eventually considering themselves bisexuals or homosexuals.

As his relationships develop, Borgognon becomes more confrontational with the prostitutes to try to get them to examine and think about their lives. The ones of age 18 to 20 appreciate honest questioning, he says. They're unhappy and ready to talk. But as with female prostitutes, it's usually not until age 27 or 28 that there is any success in helping them leave prostitution.

Hurdles to ministry

Though most large Canadian cities have one or more Christian ministries that focus on helping prostitutes, workers stress that resources for prostitutes are still very limited.

Christians are "not doing well" overall at reaching juvenile prostitutes, says Glen Povey in Regina. He is pastor of a church that runs Morningstar ministries, a variety of programs to the inner-city poor. Those include a bus with a coffee shop inside called Love Lives Here, an outreach to children from problem homes, a house for HIV-positive people called Amon House, a parochial day school, and a chapter of Prison Fellowship.

His church's multi-pronged approach is based on the recognition that "prostitution is one of a cluster of problems associated with poverty," he says. The exploitative aspect of prostitution is very clear in Regina, he says, as many of the prostitutes he deals with are clearly "mentally slow or weak" and come from a "clearly oppressed" group of poor, inner-city native peoples.

Povey, a teacher who has worked on native reserves, says life in the inner-city changes natives. The native people he has known on reserves are generally strong and independent compared to those who move to the inner-city, he says.

Many of the limited resources available to them depend on charity, and funding for Christian ministries to prostitutes is scarce, says Povey. His group had to shut down one of its transition homes last year due to lack of finances. His ministry, like most, cannot afford to pay its workers and operates almost entirely with volunteers.

Another hurdle ministries face is the "not in my backyard" syndrome when they try to set up transition houses. Fast and his family, which includes teen girls, get around that problem by taking prostitutes into their own home for periods of time.

"Too often we Christians think of our homes as our castles and we have defences for keeping strangers out." Fast is not suggesting Christians take in a drug addict who could be destructive, but perhaps people who could change their lives if they had the opportunity to live with a Christian family for a while. For example, he recently invited a young man from Halifax to live with his family. The man had moved to Toronto looking for a job and then ran out of money and ended up on the street.

Christians can offer respect and the gift of self-esteem, says Fast. They should not condone lifestyles condemned in the Bible, but they should accept people and value them as precious human beings made in God's image. For Alternatives and some other conservative Christian agencies, not condoning destructive lifestyles means not giving out condoms or sterilized needles, as some other established Christian agencies now do.

Christians need to make clear public pronouncements about what the Bible says, adds Povey. Canadian law considers prostitution itself a "legal private act between consenting adults." The Bible clearly states that prostitution is "wrong, sinful and wicked," says Povey.

"Any outreach we do is in the context of spreading the truth about salvation in Jesus," concludes Povey. "But our words must be accompanied by deeds if we are to show we truly care."

Bill Fledderus is new/features writer for Faith Today. His concern for runaways was heightened when he worked the night shift at the Seafarers Centre in Montreal in 1995-6.

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Created: June 28, 1997
Last modified: July 3, 1997

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