Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

Kidnapped on Your Wedding Day – Forced Marriage, Sex Trafficking & Broken Dreams

by Michelle Brock on June 4th, 2015


weddingThe day was hot and muggy, but I was on cloud nine.  I was about to get married to my grade school sweetheart, and the thought of celebrating the big day with friends and family from all over the world had me bursting with excitement. Since then I’ve been loved, challenged, and cherished by my husband.  Our wedding day kicked off a fantastic new chapter in our lives and holds only good memories.

But, as I’ve discovered in recent weeks, this is far from the reality of many women.  I’ve been following the stories coming out of a small town in Mexico called Tenancingo.  This town, with a population of 10,000, is the single largest source of sex slaves sent to the US, and the business of sex trafficking employs more than half of its residents.  Girls from impoverished villages are the primary target while gaudy pimp mansions are sprouting up all over town.  Only 17 of the 3,000-5,000 pimps in Tenancingo were convicted between 2010-2013.


Pimp Mansion. Photo Source: Corey Sipkin,


I began to wonder how it got this way.  How does a rural Mexican town of 10,000 develop into a hotspot for human trafficking?  What circumstances and traditions have paved the way for such rampant exploitation?  While there are many variables that contribute to this, there are two that stand out above the rest:

Economy: When agricultural work became scarce and factories closed down, men began looking for other ways to make money.  Sex trafficking turned out to be extremely lucrative – a pimp with three women working for him could make up to half a million dollars per year by sending them to the US.

Robo de novia:  The practice of “stealing a bride” has been a long tradition in the state of Tlaxcala (where Tenancingo is located).  Men simply abduct the woman they wish to marry, and once she has spent a night with him, she is considered “damaged goods,” keeping her from returning to her family or pursuing a marriage on her own terms.  The commercialization of this tradition has taken the form of sex trafficking.

Shockingly, Mexico is not the only place where bride kidnapping is practiced.  It goes by different names in various regions of the world, but the basic premise is the same.


Name: Ala Cachuu (translated as “take and flee”)

An estimated 40% of women in Kyrgyzstan experience marriage by kidnapping.  Typically, a man will get together a group of friends and drive around town in search of the woman he wishes to marry. Sometimes she will know him, but that is not always the case.  She is dragged off the street, shoved into a car, and driven to his family’s home, where the marriage ceremony begins.  The women in the family spend time calming the bride, convincing her to wear the veil, and the couple is married.  The moment she enters his home, it is culturally frowned upon for her to reject the marriage.


Photo Source: Marie Claire


This practice began with the tribal tradition of stealing horses and women.  But the Soviets eventually made it unlawful to marry young girls, urging both girls and boys to go to school.  When girls started to attend university, it was common for them to meet and fall in love with a man their family disapproved of, as it violated their tradition of arranged marriage.  In light of this, a new trend developed where the girl’s boyfriend would “kidnap” her and they would spend the night together – thus making her “unfit” for an arranged marriage and allowing the couple to marry each other instead of the person their families had selected.

blog5 bride kidnapping final1But this tradition of bride kidnapping has developed into a lack of choice for many Kyrgyz women. Suicide rates, spousal abuse and divorce are significantly higher among kidnapped brides.  Those who go through the process of divorce are rejected by the community, leaving prostitution as one of the only viable options for income.

Despite being illegal, ala cachuu is widely practiced and often ignored by the authorities.  For more on bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, you can watch this VICE documentary.

South Africa

Name: Ukuthwala (means “pursue and carry off in marriage”)

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Photo Source: World Bank


Practiced mainly by Khosa speakers in areas in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, Ukuthwala is the kidnapping of a girl or young woman by a man and his friends to persuade her family to participate in marriage negotiations.  It has similar origins to Kyrgyzstan – girls whose parents did not approve of their boyfriends arranged to be “abducted” so that the families would be forced to allow their marriage. According to the Nomkhubulwane Culture and Youth Development Organization, it was never done without the girl’s consent.

Today Ukuthwala often involves the rape and forced marriage of girls as young as 9 years old by men old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers.  A few days after the abduction, the the kidnapper sends a delegation to the girl’s home to offer compensation to her family.  Some families accept the compensation and proceed with the marriage, while others press charges for rape and abduction.

Having volunteered in this region of South Africa a few years back, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many teenagers who walked long distances to attend school.  I didn’t know about ukuthwala back then, but now realize that those same girls I met lived in fear of being abducted and forced into marriage on the way to school.  Ukuthwala is illegal under South African law, but enforcement is a challenge.


Name: Qiangqin (translated as “seizing the bride”)

This form of marriage was prevalent in many areas of China until the 1940s.  Some scholars say it was a way for the groom to avoid paying a bride price, while others say it was orchestrated by the bride’s parents and the groom to override her consent.  One form of qiangqin involves the groom arriving at the woman’s house with more than a dozen men, at which point he would attempt to cut her pants.  She would then be taken to his house where the marriage would be consummated.

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Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons


Today, forced marriages flourish as a result of the one child policy.  There is a strong preference for male babies, meaning that couples will have sex selective abortions or abandon female babies in an attempt to have a boy.  About 117 boys are born for every 100 girls, leading to a significant gender gap in the nation and giving traffickers the opportunity to kidnap girls to sell as brides.

Over half a million infant girls are missing.  Farmers in rural areas who are trying to find a wife pay up to $18,500 for an imported wife, “complete with a money-back guarantee in case she flees.”  North Korean defectors in China often end up in forced marriages.

What’s interesting is that in all these places, those who participate in bride kidnapping often hide behind “tradition.”  When generation after generation of women are forced into a marriage, it almost becomes a right of passage. In communities where the practice is prevalent, the women women typically say they don’t like it, but see it as “the way things are.”  There are various levels of coercion, but one thing pans across all of these cultures – men are always the ones with choice.

When abduction of women is a cultural norm, it’s not a far stretch to commercialize their bodies for profit. The strongest force behind human trafficking is ideology – how women and men view each other and the world – and there needs to be a major paradigm shift if we are to ensure the dignity, safety, and opportunity of our sisters.

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When Paying for Sex is a Quest for Intimacy

by Michelle Brock on May 12th, 2015


What drives someone to pay for sex?  Is it lust? Loneliness? Sexual addiction? A need for control? A search for power?  Here is one man’s explanation:

Listening to this man fills me with sadness.  I am sad for the single moms and students who, according to him, constitute the majority of those he buys sex from.  It’s likely that most of them see prostitution as the only viable option to make ends meet.  Some, unbeknownst to him, may be trafficking victims, as they can be difficult to identify even by the most well-meaning customer.

But I am also sad for this man.  While I fully support criminalizing the buying of sexual services due to the system of exploitation it fosters, and while I firmly believe that sex customers should be held accountable for the vulnerability they knowingly (or unknowingly) exploit, I also see a need to have a much bigger conversation about love, intimacy, and human worth.  Here is a quote from the video that highlights the importance of this:

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If intimacy is what some of these men are seeking, we need to examine what real intimacy actually looks like.

Intimacy is about being known, being vulnerable, being wanted. It’s finding a place of belonging and peeling off the masks we wear for the rest of the world. It’s about companionship, acceptance, unconditional love.  For these reasons, it is possible to have intimacy without sex. The physical component is like the candle on a birthday cake – it’s the spark that is part of a much bigger celebration.  These are things money can’t buy.

The sex purchaser in this video explains that for him it’s not actually about the sexual release as much as it is about lying in bed with someone.  But fake intimacy runs the risk of decreased self-esteem and self-worth.  Cognitively the person is aware of the exchange (money paid) and that the intimacy is not mutual.  It increases dissatisfaction, requiring an increased level of involvement.

Not only is fake intimacy harmful to the person buying sex, but I’ve also heard women who have left the sex industry say how much it drained them to have customers dump their emotional baggage on them. Can you imagine being a single mom, prostituting yourself to feed your kids and wondering how you are going to make ends meet, having to then spend your emotional energy comforting some guy who paid money have sex with you?  Or being a trafficking victim who doesn’t even see that money, having to pretend you adore being this guy’s “girlfriend”?

A few years ago I met with a researcher who had studied the habits and and motivations of sex buyers. She had asked the men to describe how they felt when they sought out a person for sex, and most of them used words like thrilling, excited, on the hunt.  When she then asked them how they felt after they’d bought sex, they used words like sad, disappointed, lonely, 4 intimacy 2

While making our documentary on prostitution and sex trafficking, Jay and I interviewed Nate, an ex-john who had spent over $300,000 on porn and prostitution.  Since dealing with his sexual addiction, he has developed a community of real relationships that has brought joy, intimacy, and love into his life.  But, as he told us, it required sacrificing his pride and being vulnerable with people.

Prostitution is anchored in anonymity and strips people of their humanity. Those who sell sex are seen as objects and those who buy it are seen as animals who can’t control their sexual urges.  If we are to foster real intimacy, we must help each other to see our humanity, dignity, and worth.  For this reason, we must stop calling sex purchasers “sick perverts” and dismissing them as “disgusting pigs” (terms I’ve heard quote often). It’s not helpful or beneficial to anyone.  So what should our approach be instead?

We should invite those who are lonely and starving for intimacy into vibrant, healthy relationships that they don’t need to pay for.  We must strive to become “safe” people who are open and vulnerable with each other so that others feel they have the “permission” to be open and vulnerable with us.

While from a legal perspective it is important we criminalize the purchase of sex, relying on the law alone to decrease demand is too simplistic.  Preventing people from seeking out false intimacy is more likely to happen from fostering healthy community and authentic relationships than from demonizing and isolating them.  Let’s invite people into our lives and take care of each other.  Intimacy is so much more than instant sexual gratification.






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Smuggling vs. Trafficking in the Mediterranean Migrant Crisis

by Michelle Brock on April 27th, 2015


What is the difference between human trafficking and smuggling?  In light of the current migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, this has become a relevant and important question.  In case you haven’t been reading up on what is happening off the shores of Italy, Greece, and Libya, here are some things you need to know.

LIBYA BOUND.  Thousands of migrants – mainly from Eritrea, Syria, and Somalia – are making the long trek to Libya, where they hope to board a boat that will take them to Europe.  They are fleeing their countries due to political oppression, violence, or poverty, meaning that by definition they are not simply migrants but refugees.  By the time they reach Libya, many have already made a perilous journey through the desert, but Libya’s political situation does not allow for any opportunities.  Europe has become their only hope, their dream for a future.


PAYING FOR A PROMISE.  Smugglers promise to take these refugees across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy.  They charge large sums between $500 – $1000 per person to transport them on boats, most of which are not seaworthy.  For many refugees, this payment constitutes their entire life savings, and they desperately hope the smuggler can be trusted to follow through on their promise.

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CLEAR SKIES.  When the weather looks clear, the boats set out from Libya.  They are filled to overcapacity – some are rubber dinghies, others are old fishing boats.  The passengers are often treated poorly, and some are locked below the decks.


THE NUMBERS.  35,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean in 2015 alone, many from Libya. More than 1,700 people are believed to have died this year so far.  On April 19, about 800 drowned when their boat capsized in Libyan waters near Lampedusa.  Many of these were children, who had reportedly been locked in the lower levels of the boat.  The IOM believes the number of migrants dying in Mediterranean Sea crossings could hit 30,000 this year if the current rate continues.


I’d like to pause for a moment and ask you to let this all in.  Imagine being so desperate that you would be willing to leave everything you know behind and risk a dangerous voyage across the sea.  First, you are worried that the smuggler you paid might take your money and run.  If he does follow through on his promise, you fear that you might hit a storm on the water.  And what if you manage to reach Europe, only to get deported?

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Media reports on this crisis have been using the terms “traffickers” and “smugglers” interchangeably. The captain of the boat that capsized last week was charged with being a human trafficker,  but there is a significant distinction between trafficking and smuggling.

Human smuggling is when someone facilitates the transportation or illegal entry of a person across and international border, in violation of one or more countries’ laws. The person being smuggled consents to this, and usually has to pay the smuggler a large sum of money for their services. Once the person reaches their destination, the smuggler’s work is done and they typically part ways.


Human trafficking, unlike smuggling, does not involve consent of the person being trafficked.  It involves force, fraud, or coercion, and is done with the purpose of exploitation.  Usually when a trafficked person reaches their destination, they are sold and exploited for profit.  Human trafficking does not require movement across an international border.

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Most of the refugees crossing the Mediterranean are being smuggled, not trafficked.  However, because the underlying factors that push people into seeking asylum are often similar to the factors that make people vulnerable to traffickers, sometimes what starts out as smuggling can turn into a trafficking situation.  Here are some potential scenarios:

Manuel, a Mexican teenager who wants to escape gang violence, plans to pay a coyote (smuggler) to get him across the U.S. border.  It takes him two years to save enough for the fee, and he finds a coyote with a good reputation. He makes it across the river, walks through the desert, and finds work as a farm hand in California.  But his new employer often withholds the money he’s earned, forces him to work with dangerous chemicals without adequate protection, and limits his movement with the threat of deportation.  While Manuel’s initial journey across the border was a classic case of smuggling, his vulnerability resulted in him being trafficked for labour.

Lucy has fled Nigeria and has paid smugglers to take her across the desert to the coast, where she will make an attempt to reach Europe.  At one point during the trek across the desert, the smugglers bribe two border guards by letting them rape Lucy.  Lucy finally makes it to the coast, but the journey took longer than expected and she still owes the smugglers some money.  They withhold her documents until she pays, and encourage her to sell her body to make money fast.  While Lucy’s situation began as smuggling, it turned exploitative quickly and can now be categorized as human trafficking.

Refugees are some of the world’s most vulnerable people, because they often have no choice but to entrust their lives into the hands of complete strangers.  For this reason, it is imperative that we demonstrate compassion and take action on their behalf.  Because if I was fleeing my home with only the clothes on my back, I would desperately hope to encounter kindness – not exploitation – on my road to safety.

Here are some ways you can get involved:


1. Get plugged in with UNHCRSince 1950, the UN Refugee Agency has helped tens of millions of people restart their lives. Today, a staff of more than 9,300 people in 123 countries continues to help and protect millions of refugees, returnees, internally displaced and stateless people.  Donate or sign up to volunteer today.

2. My friend Sarah has made it her goal to raise $30,000 before her 31st birthday for the Preemptive Love Coalition.  The money will provide clothing, housing, education, and legal help for families suffering from persecution and displacement.  Every $250 will find a family for an entire year, leading to the sponsorship of 120 families if Sarah reaches her goal of $30,000.  Support her today!

3. Sponsor a refugee.  As a sponsor, you provide financial and emotional support for the refugees for the duration of the sponsorship. This includes help for housing, clothing and food. Most sponsorships last for one year, but some refugees may be eligible for assistance from their sponsors for up to three years.  

4. Run a refugee workshop in your church or community.  The Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue just launched a fantastic workshop you can use to educate yourself and others about refugees, and what role you can play as a community.

The very least we can do is be aware of what is happening to our brothers and sisters around the world, so do some research this week and consider taking action.






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If There Was a Thunderstorm & You Didn’t Have a Home, Where Would You Sleep?

by Michelle Brock on April 13th, 2015



Imagine yourself as a teenager or young adult, alone in a big city with no place to stay.  You’re running away from abuse at home, or recently ‘aged out’ of foster care (meaning you are no longer anyone’s responsibility), or lost your job and missed rent.  For whatever reason, family support is not an option. You walk around the city during the day with the clothes on your back and maybe a few more in a bag. As evening approaches, you start looking for a place to spend the night.  Then it begins to rain.

The options you’d previously considered are no longer possible.  Getting wet in the cold is dangerous. Stairwells become a viable alternative.  But you’re scared – they seem so isolated.  You have a little bit of money in your pocket and decide to buy a transit pass so you can ride the trains and buses all night instead, at least that will keep you dry.  But you worry about tomorrow.  What if it rains again?  As the subway rocks you to sleep, you clutch tightly to your belongings.

In the morning you dig through your pockets and find enough money for two meals.  Maybe three.  As you calculate the options, a stranger approaches you with a request that makes you uncomfortable.  You resist, but can’t get it out of your mind.  You consider the benefits.  Trading sex for food or shelter might not be so bad, if you really get desperate.  But not today.  Today you still have enough to get by.

You meet someone who tells you about a place you can go for help. “Like a shelter?” you ask.  That doesn’t interest you, you’d rather try to make it on your own.  After a couple more nights on the street, you get desperate enough to check it out.

You walk through the doors and the people seem kind.  You have your guard up but instead of demanding to know your life story, they ask you what you need.  The previous day someone on the street said you smelled bad and you were embarrassed,  so you ask if you can have a shower.

And slowly, as you build relationships in this place, your life begins to change.  You actually want to tell them your story, but only because they care to hear it.  There are rules, which you find annoying at first, but soon settle into a rhythm that feels surprisingly good.  For the first time in your life, someone wants to help you make a plan and gives you tools to start taking steps toward it.  In light of the love you feel in this place, the thought that you even considered trading sex for a shelter begins to feel foreign, absurd.

CH 1024x886This place is called Covenant House, and it is so much more than a youth shelter.  It provides wrap-around services for homeless youth aged 16 to 24 – meaning that they take a holistic approach to the wellbeing, safety, and livelihoods of those who walk through their doors.  Convenant House operates in multiple countries, but the Toronto location alone serves about 3,000 youth per year.

Last week I took part in Sleep Out, a fundraiser for Covenant House.  Along with a bunch of business leaders and young professionals, I slept on the streets of Toronto so that – as the tagline for the event highlights – “homeless youth don’t have to.”  We were each equipped with a piece of cardboard and a sleeping bag, and experienced just a small piece of what homeless youth have to deal with on a regular basis.

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I drove to Toronto in the rain and turned on the radio.  Rainfall warning and risk of thunderstorms for the GTA overnight, the weather report stated.  I had dressed in layers but hadn’t even considered the possibility of rain.  I’d need a cover of some kind.  I was reassured by the fact that I’d be with many others, that I didn’t have to figure it out on my own.  Loneliness is often the reality of homelessness, I realized.

Upon arrival, I was seated at a table with other participants, a couple Covenant House staff, and an alumni who had gone through the program.  The meal was prepared by the youth in the Covenant House culinary arts training program, which is led by a professional chef instructor who trains young people for entry-level jobs in the hospitality industry through hands-on experience.  I was seriously impressed and definitely over-ate.

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Through the course of the night, the staff and alumni spoke and gave us a tour of the building.

Here are a few things I learned about homelessness:

  • 30% of homeless youth trade sex for food or shelter
  • 70% of homeless youth leave home because of an abusive situation
  • 50% of homeless youth come from upper and middle class homes
  • 40% of homeless youth have come from foster care
  • 2/3 of the youth at Covenant House are male, 1/3 are female – this, they think is because girls tend to be more resourceful in asking friends for a place to stay  (sadly, girls are also more often lured into the sex industry, before they find their way to a safe place like Covenant House)

Here are some things I learned about Covenant House Toronto:

  • Covenant House serves 3,000 youth a year, with a budget of $22 million (80% of which comes from private donors)
  • They have an in-house employment centre, where they help youth work on resumes and bring in people to do mock interviews – 420 youth found employment in 2014
  • They have an in-house high school where youth can finish up a credit or two, so they can graduate
  • The culinary arts training program has a 70% success rate for finding employment afterwards
  • They have an in-house clinic and lab, which got 5,400 visits in 2014 (reducing the number of emergency room visits)
  • Every youth in the crisis centre is partnered up with a mentor/case worker, who helps them create an action plan

Sleepout2015 768x1024By the time we finished the tour and headed outside, I was convinced.  This was an organization doing their work with such excellence that I was confident the $2000 I had raised would be well spent.

I was grateful the temperature had warmed up a bit outside, but as I set down my sleeping bag and cardboard, I heard the first rumble of thunder.  The rain started to come down in sheets, with parts of the tarp that covered us sagging and groaning.  Streams began to form under us, and people shimmied toward the dry patches as best they could in the dim light.

I ended up sleeping beside Cherrine, a lawyer who is providing pro bono legal representation and advice to victims of human trafficking through a collaboration between Baker & McKenzie and Covenant House.

As I tried to get to sleep, so many questions whirled through my head.  Where could a homeless person go to the bathroom in the middle of the night?  How do they keep their belonging safe?  Ours were secure in a room inside, but people on the street did not have that option.  Do they have a knack for dealing with the back ache I was feeling, an inevitable side effect of lying on concrete?  How does a homeless girl get feminine hygiene products?  How does she fall asleep knowing she could be attacked? I was in a big group, with little worry about security, but being alone on the street would be a whole other experience.

Early in the morning at around 5AM, we all started to get up.  Some wrung out their sleeping bags, but Cherrine and I were surprisingly dry.  The girl on my right was not.  Most of us were headed to work, knowing we could sleep in the comfort of our own homes that night.  For a homeless person it would simply mark the beginning of another cold day on the street.  And for a homeless youth it could mark the beginning of their life in the sex industry.

For this reason, I am thrilled that in 2016, Covenant House will be launching a transitional housing program specifically designed for victims of sex trafficking.  After seeing how comprehensive and effective the youth shelter was, the thought of a program specifically for sex trafficking victims was an exciting prospect.

Katharine Blake, who coordinates Covenant House initiatives on human trafficking, filled me in on what the program will look like.  It involves 5 levels – prevention, crisis intervention, stabilization, transition, and independence.  Beds for trafficking victims are critical, she said, because often police have no where to bring a victim once they’ve been found.

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I will be writing up an in-depth post about the Covenant House transitional housing program for trafficking victims closer to its launch in 2016, but wanted to use Sleep Out as an opportunity to highlight the plight of homeless youth, mention the connection between homelessness and sexual exploitation, and introduce you to an organization that is doing incredible things to prevent vulnerable people from falling through the cracks.

A huge piece of fighting sex trafficking is doing the hard work of reducing vulnerability, and that means we should care about issues like homelessness.  As Kevin Ryan, president and CEO of Covenant House International, said during his speech on Thursday night, “someone loved us into being here.”  Let’s use our privilege, position, and compassion to lift someone else up.

For those of you who helped me reach my goal of $2,000, thank you for your support!  As promised, I will be matching the last few donations that came in, so that will bring my total amount raised to $2,300!

Please consider spending a night on the street in the next sleep out.  I promise you it’s worth it, even if it rains.





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When Your Exploitation Has No Start Date

by Michelle Brock on March 16th, 2015

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A couple years ago in Budapest, I met with Balint Dora from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Hungary office.  By this point, Jay and I had already been to several Western European countries and had learned that Hungarian men, women, and girls represented a significant portion of trafficking victims across the continent.  Poverty was a huge push factor, especially in the Northeastern part of Hungary, and traffickers had developed a system to exploit this vulnerability with great efficiency.

As we discussed these patterns with Dora, he mentioned something I’d never considered before:

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While some of the trafficking survivors we’ve met have been able to identify a specific point in time when they were trafficked (as would be the case in kidnapping situations, for example), for many others the timeline was not so defined.  For example, one of the women we met in the U.S. was sexually abused as a child, raped as a teenager, fell in love with a man who became her pimp, and then started stripping and giving him her money.  Exploitation, for her, was a way of life from the time she was a child, so being pimped out was not so different from what she had already come to see as normal.

For others, sex trafficking is just one experience within the cage of systemic poverty.  Perhaps they came from a family in debt bondage, and as a result had to work in a brick factory or a mine to help pay off the family debt.  While doing so, they may have been sexually abused, or sold to a trafficker who brought them to their next destination of exploitation – a brothel.  Eventually they may have been able to leave the brothel and work for themselves in the sex industry, feeling relatively empowered despite having post traumatic stress disorder and the inability to do anything else.

In these situations, it’s hard to pinpoint when the exploitation started or ended.  And that makes seeking help even more complex.  If a person thinks exploitation is a normal way of life, how do they know to reach out?  If someone asks them how long they were trafficked, would they understand the question?  If an individual has never tasted freedom, do they know it exists?

The complexity of people’s realities is precisely the reason why the fight against human trafficking cannot be successful if our sole focus is human trafficking itself.  We must address belief systems, cultural values, economic structures and political capacity.  These are often the building blocks of systemic injustice, but we have the opportunity to turn them into cornerstones of hope.








Why Would a Parent Sell Their Own Child?

by Michelle Brock on February 18th, 2015

A few weeks ago, I came across a photo I assumed was staged.  It couldn’t be real.  In it, a mother had set her four children to sit on the front stairs of the house with a FOR SALE sign.


Image by Bettmann/CORBIS


I decided to look into it further and discovered that the children were indeed sold by their own mother. As this article highlights, the photo was taken in 1948.  Poverty and other issues plagued the family, and an eviction notice was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Two of the children ended up in an abusive foster home where they were tied up in the barn and used as field hands, one passed away in 1998 before more of her story was discovered, and the fourth was adopted by a family near Chicago.

Their attitude toward their birth mother is varied, ranging from forgiveness and understanding for a woman who was trying to survive, to anger and bitterness for her lack of remorse or care.

Sadly, parents selling their children is not a phenomenon limited to the 1940s.  It is still happening today, and children around the world find themselves in the precarious position of having their parents negotiate a suitable price tag with traffickers, paedophiles, landlords, brothel owners, and corrupt adoption agencies.

So why do parents do it?  For so many of us, even the possibility of selling a child, let alone our own child, is incomprehensible and entirely outside our frame of reference.  We respond with horror, judgment and disdain, and on some level our response seems completely warranted.  A child should never be sold by the very people that have the responsibility of caring for them.  But let’s dig a little deeper and look at the underlying push and pull factors, motivations, and cultural aspects of this trend. It’s a bit of a mixed bag.

DEBT BONDAGE.  A person becomes a bonded labourer when their labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a high-interest loan.  Often the loan is given for something as simple as an urgent medical expense for a child, but repaying the loan can prove impossible.  Though entire families end up working for little or no wages in an effort to pay off the debt, and though the value of their work ends up being greater than the original sum of money borrowed, the debt can last for generations.  Marginalized, low caste, and impoverished groups are specifically targeted for bonded labour.

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LIMITED ASSETS.  Virginity is sometimes seen by a family as the only asset they have.  In Cambodia, entire communities of undocumented families live on the Tonle Sap River, trying to survive by fishing in its polluted waters.  With sex tourism booming in places like Svay Pak, a family can earn $500 for selling their daughter’s virginity.

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DECEPTION.  Sometimes traffickers go into villages with the false promise of a job or an education in the city.  Parents who are unaware of the risks will send their children, with the hopes that they can either send back money to help the family or get an education so they’ll have more opportunities.  Tragically, some of the kids end up in brothels, others are used for domestic or manual labour, and some end up being adopted for big money through corrupt adoption agencies.  By the time parents realize their child has gone missing, it’s too late.

CONSUMERISM:  One of the most difficult trends to understand is when parents sell their children to buy things that are not necessary at all, like TVs, video games, iphones, and lottery tickets.  There are clearly some deeper issues that transcend beyond poverty in these situations.

Excluding the last scenario, all of the reasons above have one thing in common: poverty.  Parents who can afford their family’s medical expenses are less likely to fall prey to high-interest loans and debt bondage.  Parents that have citizenship and a job are less likely to see their daughter’s virginity as a marketable asset.  Parents who are educated and able to feed their families are less likely to send their children to the city with a stranger.

So instead of asking what kind of a parent would sell their child, we should be asking what kind of support would empower a parent.


Here are some folks doing work in this area:

    • LUMOS:  Founded by J.K. Rowling, the author of harry Potter, Lumos is an organization that supports struggling parents on a case-by-case basis, with the goal of equipping them to keep their children.  They operate in Eastern Europe, where many children end up in institutions simply because parents are too poor to look after them.  Learn more about Lumos’ innovative work here.
    • KIVA:  Through KIVA you can make an interest-free loan to an individual or group of individuals that do not have access to traditional banking systems.  You can select who you want to support by looking at their profile, and once you make the loan, you’ll see these dollars gradually return to your Kiva account.  When the loan has been repaid, you can either withdraw your money or re-lend to someone else.  Make your first loan!
    • WORLD VISION:  By sponsoring a child, you are actually sponsoring their community too. Sponsorship helps provide education, food, clean water, child protection, community leadership, economic development, and health, which can break the cycle of poverty – and as a result – the cycle of vulnerability.  Sponsor a child today!
    • IJM:  International Justice Mission rescues victims of sex trafficking, bonded labour, and slavery around the world by working with local law enforcement and building legal cases against perpetrators.  Learn more about their work here, and sign up to get updates - which often include stories of people who celebrate their newfound freedom!


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Photo source: IJM


Let’s break the shackles of desperation and empower parents to take care of their children.  And let’s see our own kids as a precious, precious gift and stewardship.





Ensuring the Success of Canada’s Prostitution Law Part 3: Investing in Gender Equality

by Michelle Brock on January 22nd, 2015

When I was growing up in Finland, my dad would often travel for work and return with gifts from abroad. It’s no surprise that one of my favourite words early on became “tuliainen,” or, as I later learned in English - souvenir.  Often these souvenirs included new Disney movies, and I quickly fell in love with Beauty and the Beast.

I recently watched it again with a friend, and memories came flying back as I found myself reciting many of the words and songs that had been stored for years somewhere in the back of my brain.  There’s a part in the film where Belle, the new girl in the little village, is reading a book when she is rudely interrupted by Gaston:

Belle And Gaston beauty and the beast 18557767 600 429 300x214Gaston:  “How can you read this?  There’s no pictures!”

Belle: “Well some people use their imaginations.”

Gaston:  “Belle, it’s about time you got your head out of those books and paid attention to more important things, like me.  The whole town’s talking about it, it’s not right for a woman to read.  Soon she starts getting ideas…and thinking…”

Finland being consistently rated in the top 5 for gender equality in the world, the thought of women having less value or less opportunities was a foreign concept to me as a child.  Watching Belle and Gaston was my first exposure to the idea that women had not always had the same rights as men.  As a kid I remember thinking, “why would Gaston say that?  What does he mean women shouldn’t think?”

Little did I know how closely the issue of gender inequality was tied to my future work – the fight against sexual exploitation.  Prostitution is a manifestation of gender inequality, as the large majority of those selling sex are female (who are often in an economically or socially vulnerable position) and most sex buyers are men (who have relative power due to their ability to pay).  While sex buyers always have the option to not engage in prostitution, many of those selling sex do not have that luxury.

Canada’s new prostitution law draws significantly on Sweden’s approach, which recognizes this power imbalance and criminalizes only the purchasers of sex, not those who sell it.  The preamble to Canada’s legislation acknowledges the importance of protecting the human dignity and equality of all Canadians, discouraging prostitution “because it has a disproportionate impact on women and children.”  Clearly gender equality is somewhat of a value in our country, but are we willing to put our money where our mouth is?

As the 2014 Report of the National Task Force on Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls in Canada points out, Sweden places so much value on gender equality that it has a Ministry of Integration and Gender Equality.  This is the governmental body that oversees the sex purchase law.  When they first implemented the new legislation, they committed $34.8 million (CAD) over 3 years to fund social programs and awareness campaigns that would help ensure the success of the law.  Comparatively, Canada has allotted $30 million (CAD) in a similar attempt.

However, it is worthy to note that the $34.8 million invested by Sweden was only one small piece of a much bigger gender equality policy.  Here’s a list of investments the Swedish government has made to bolster gender equality, as highlighted in the Task Force NO MORE Report:

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Photo: Lena Granefelt/

  • Over $144M CAD invested between 2007-2010 to educate against violence against women
  • $17.6M CAD to promote gender equality in schools, $20M for local and regional gender equality initiatives and $4.48M for grants to promote women’s organizations
  • A strategy for gender equality in the labour market, including a three year program to boost women’s entrepreneurship
  • Tax policies, including a gender equality bonus to encourage parents to share parental leaves as evenly as possible and tax deductions for household-related services 

It’s quite clear that Sweden’s prostitution law was not framed as lone star criminal legislation, but as a piece of a much larger set of robust gender equality policies and practices that reflected national values.  These surrounding policies created a healthy environment in which the law could be enforced, lending heavily to its success.

According to the The World Economic Forum 2014 Gender Gap Report, Canada ranks #19 in the world for gender equality.  It’s behind Sweden at #5, Switzerland at #11, and South Africa at #18, but ahead of the U.S. at #20 and the U.K. at #26.  These rankings are based on the relative gaps between women and men across four key areas: health, education, economy and politics.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives points out in their 2014 Striking a Better Balance Report that at the current rate of progress, Canada will not close the gender gap until the year 2240.  While the gap between women’s and men’s participation in higher education has closed, the gaps between their earnings and their representation in senior management ranks hasn’t shifted, nor have levels of violence against women decreased.

Some industry experts speculate that women don’t work in these sectors because they don’t want to. Yet a recent survey finds no lack of interest. Rather, women seeking work in the extractive industry identify the same barriers as women in every other industry: a lack of child care, a lack of flexible work practices, and the low levels of women in management positions.  (CCAP)

So where does this leave us?  Canada’s ranking at #19 demonstrates that on some level, we do value gender equality.  This means that pushing our government to make gender equality initiatives more of a priority is not out of the question.  But it requires a groundswell of support from everyday, Canadian citizens.

The new prostitution legislation provides a perfect opportunity to have these discussions in a bipartisan context.  While the Conservatives were the ones to introduce prostitution bill C-36 in the spirit of equality for all Canadians, they would benefit greatly from working with Liberal, NDP and Green Party representatives toward a broader set of gender equality initiatives, like affordable childcare, pay equity, and affordable housing to name a few.  Investing in gender equality, like Sweden has done, will strengthen the prostitution law and help prevent sexual exploitation on a systemic level through providing women with better opportunities.

The government wants to prevent prostitution because it has a disproportionate impact on women. Following this line of thought it can also be said that the government should work to prevent homelessness, poverty, sexual violence and lack of living wage job opportunities, because these also have a disproportionate impact on women.  Acknowledging that these issues are connected to prostitution is vital if we are to bring and end to commercial sexual exploitation.

Gender Equality benefits us all

But this is not just the government’s responsibility.  It is ours too.  Here’s just a few ways we can all contribute to gender equality:

  • Ask your MP what their vision is for gender equality, and what they are currently doing to get there
  • If you are an employer, provide employees who have children with extra sick days (since they usually use their own when their kids are ill), and pursue pay equity between male and female employees
  • Support your local women’s shelter, either financially or by volunteering
  • When your kids see movies or commercials that are disrespectful to women, talk it through with them
  • Sponsor a single mom: if you know of someone who is struggling to find full time work because they can’t afford child care, offer to help babysit or get friends to pitch in and cover child care for a year

Can you come up with more?  My hope is that if we all do our part, we can boost our gender equality ranking up a few notches and traffic-proof our communities!

To learn more about Canada’s prostitution law through my current series:

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Ensuring the Success of Canada’s New Prostitution Law Part 2: National Inquiry into Missing Women and Girls

by Michelle Brock on January 2nd, 2015

A tragic phenomenon is unfolding across Canada – women and girls, the majority of whom have light coloured hair and blue or green eyes – are going missing at an alarming rate in provinces across the country.  It appears that females of Dutch, English and Scottish descent are specifically being targeted, and the numbers in recent years have been staggering.  Up to 33 per year are reported missing – some of them suspected of being sold by traffickers, others turning up dead by rivers or in forests, and some never found at all.  Sadly, despite pleas from distraught parents and community leaders, the federal government is hesitant to take a deeper look at what is happening.

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I may have just lied. But just a little.  Women and girls across Canada are going missing at an alarming rate.  They are being profiled and targeted.  They are being found dead or trafficked.  And the government is unwilling to address it.  But these women and girls are not of Dutch, English, or Scottish decent.  They are Aboriginal.  But since racism still prevails in our country, writing an article about missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls does not grab our attention as it should.

If you’re anything like me, you’re more likely to read about something that hits close to home, something that could potentially affect you personally.  It’s a default mindset for most people, but we don’t have to stay there – humans have a great capacity for compassion and relationships, and it’s time we begin to listen to what Native communities are saying.  If white Canadians were disappearing at the same rate as Aboriginal women and girls, the government would no doubt be taking more action.

A recent RCMP report put the total of missing and murdered Native women at 1,181.  Over the course of the last three and a half decades, that averages out to about 33 per year.  Aboriginal women make up 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population, but they account for 16 per cent of female homicides.  Just earlier this month, Rinelle Harper, a Winnipeg teen who was sexually assaulted, violently beaten, and left for dead, spoke out about her experience and added her voice to a growing push for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.

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What exactly is a public inquiry?  It is an official review, ordered by government, of important public events or issues. Its purpose is to establish the facts and causes of an event or issue, and then to make recommendations to the government.  In the case of missing and murdered Aboriginal girls and women, a public inquiry:

  • Would seek to identify the factors causing these deaths and disappearances
  • Could identify instances in which indigenous women were treated differently by the authorities
  • Provide legal clout to gain access to files, to “essentially force people to come forward if they are subpoenaed and testify, and discuss what happened in a number of these cases where it was obvious that [Aboriginal] women were being treated differently.” (CBC News)

So what is the response of the federal government?  Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that the issue “should not be viewed as a sociological phenomenon,” but rather as crime.  In essence, the official stance of the national government is to treat these cases individually, without examining the common elements that make this issue a systemic one.  It is no surprise, then, that the federal government is not willing to call a national inquiry.

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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said that Harper is “refusing to hold a national inquiry because the results could bring to light the societal issues plaguing Canada’s Aboriginal people and the federal government’s responsibility to fix them.”  

On a more positive note, there is potential for a roundtable discussion with federal, provincial and Aboriginal leaders.  But if the federal government is not willing to consider this trend as a sociological, systemic issue, proper action will be a challenge.  Ignoring systemic root causes will only lead to band-aid solutions instead of preventative surgery.

This article is part two in my series on ensuring the success of Canada’s new prostitution law.  As I’ve said before, in order for us to tackle the issue of sexual exploitation, we have to look at it holistically.  The preamble to the new prostitution law says:

Whereas it is important to protect human dignity and the equality of all Canadians by discouraging prostitution, which has a disproportionate impact on women and children…

The human dignity and equality of Aboriginal people, and even more specifically Aboriginal women and girls, are being violated.  If we are unwilling to look at the systemic injustice they face, many of them will continue falling into prostitution – whether it be through force or desperation.  According to this article, of the prostituted women interviewed in a survey, 52 percent were First Nation and 90 percent of sex-trafficked teens were Aboriginal.  If we are to align ourselves with the new law’s preamble, we must acknowledge that gender inequality, race, incest and histories of oppression are the pillars of the sex trade, including prostitution.  If we fail to address these, we fail to deal with sexual exploitation.

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Some critics of the new prostitution law say that instead of trying to decrease demand for paid sex, the government should decriminalize the entire industry so that marginalized, Aboriginal women can continue to sell sex without fear that their customers will get arrested.  In essence, this is saying that we should keep prostitution as a viable option for the most vulnerable people in our society – despite the fact that even in fully legal regimes, they do not have the relative bargaining power to negotiate safety in an industry that is inherently violent.

As Bridget Perrier from the Ojibwe First Nation puts it,

“We have endured genocide and now if they legalize prostitution, they will rubber-stamp commercial rape and continued desecration.  As Aboriginal women and as women of colour, the time is now to take our lives back from those who exploit us and colonize our bodies.” (Huffington Post)

It seems that the federal government wants to tackle sexual exploitation by focusing primarily on demand, but is not willing to look at sociological causes on the supply end.  On the flip side, other groups don’t want to reduce demand at all, but focus solely on harm reduction.  Neither of these in isolation form a comprehensive response to the issue of sexual exploitation.

Reducing demand for paid sex is absolutely vital if we are to tackle sex trafficking, which is why I have been an advocate of demand reduction strategies for a long time.  We must reduce demand if we are serious about preventing sexual exploitation because there simply are not enough ‘empowered’ people to provide supply, leaving vulnerable groups to fill the void.  The government’s new prostitution law takes this into account by criminalizing the purchase of sex.    But in order for the new law to have more clout and to follow the spirit of its preamble, we must take into consideration the plight of marginalized groups in our society that are most likely to fall into the sex trade.

Our plea to Prime Minister Stephen Harper is to call a National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Aboriginal Women and Girls.  

Not only will it honour the request of thousands in Canada’s First Nation communities, but will also serve as a tool to bolster the effectiveness of the new prostitution law by identifying the underlying, systemic factors that push so many women and girls into the sex industry.  

This, in partnership with demand reduction, has great potential to decrease sexual exploitation in our country.

As we head into an election year, these issues should be on the forefront of our minds.  At the very least, I hope to see the federal government represented at a roundtable with provincial and Aboriginal leaders in the next few months, and that they are willing to see the requests of the Aboriginal community through a lens of systemic social justice.

And as we encourage our government to take action, let’s also look at our own hearts.  Are we harbouring prejudices?  Do we need to take some time and listen to the stories of those who have been pushed to the margins?  Do we understand what First Nations communities are asking for?

For more reading:


To learn more about Canada’s prostitution law through my current series:







Ensuring the Success Canada’s New Prostitution Law Part 1: Addressing Poverty

by Michelle Brock on December 16th, 2014


As we’ve toured with our film Red Light Green Light this past year, we’ve met many people who are passionate about justice.  Prostitution has been framed primarily as an issue of injustice, and rightly so. It preys on vulnerability and disproportionately targets those on the margins.  The new prostitution law, which prohibits the purchase of sex while decriminalizing those who sell it (as they are usually victims of force or circumstance), seeks to address the demand side of the equation, recognizing that most often, prostitution is an unequal transaction in which the person paying has more power than the person providing a sexual service.

If we are serious about addressing systemic injustice, reducing demand for paid sex is key.  For this reason, I support the new prostitution law.  However, to bring about the intended goal of the law – which is protecting the vulnerable and promoting equality – our passion for justice must extend beyond the new law and filter down to the issues within our society that many would prefer to ignore, issues that are uncomfortable because they are difficult and would require some sacrifice to address.

Somewhere on our journey across the U.S. this past month, I heard someone use the word “takers.”  I marvelled at how one little word could carry with it such a host of assumptions, opinions, and political loyalties.  Like the belief that people on welfare are draining the system, that the poor are manipulating legal loopholes for their own benefit, that minimum wage workers should worship at the feet of “job creators” (another linguistic marvel that carries notable weight).

Calling the poor and the working poor “takers” is not entirely untrue.  Of course there are people who take advantage of the system.  The irony is that those who point the finger assume that they themselves are not.

Herein lies the paradox.  The rich (not all of them, but many) often complain that the poor are lazy, while they themselves try to find ways to ‘put their money and other people to work for them’ so they can avoid being wage slaves.  The rich often complain that the poor are taking advantage of loopholes for their own benefit, while they themselves do the same except with massive repercussions (U.S. banking crisis, anyone?). The rich often pat themselves on the back for creating jobs, but grind out their workers with minimum wage pay and manipulate schedules so that workers who should receive the perks of full time miss the mark by a day or two – allowing their labour to be used with as little cost to the employer as possible.  The rich accuse the poor for not contributing to society, while they themselves lobby to pay little or no taxes in a community, threatening to take their business elsewhere.

So while calling the poor and the working poor “takers” is not entirely untrue, calling the rich “takers” is not entirely untrue either.  At the end of the day, we are all takers, we are all greedy, and broken, and selfish.  The difference is that the poor cannot afford to pay top-notch lawyers to advocate on their behalf.  The difference is that between taking public transit and working three jobs, the poor don’t have time to lobby the government.  The difference is that while the rich get richer, the poor are stuck in a cycle of poverty.

According to StatsCan, wealth inequality is growing in Canada.  The top 10 per cent of Canadians have seen their median net worth grow by 42 per cent since 2005 to $2.1 million in 2012, while the bottom 10 per cent of Canadians saw their median net worth shrink by 150 per cent.  The Broadbent Institute points out that when we look at this broad picture of wealth using new Statistics Canada data, the report shows “deep and persistent inequality.”  Rick Smith, the executive director of the institute says in this article:

“Contrary to rosy reports of rising net worth and a post-recession recovery, these new numbers sound the alarm on Canada’s wealth inequality problem.”


Blog post quote 12When I was in my early teens, I played an interesting game in class one day. There was a huge bin of jelly beans in the middle of the room.  We were separated into groups of 4 or 5, and each group received a set of tools.   Group members had to go up one by one and use these tools to scoop as many jelly beans as possible, then bring them back to the the group’s empty bucket.  The group with the most jelly beans in their bucket when the whistle blew won the game and received a prize.

But before the game even started, people started to revolt.  Some groups had been given many useful tools, consisting of shovels and bowls and scoops.  Other groups had only been given a couple teaspoons or a small glass.  One group was given only a straw, and they had to suck on one end of the straw to grab each jelly bean one at a time, gingerly walking it back to the group’s bucket before they ran out of breath.

Though all the groups worked equally hard, the first group – who had the best tools – won the game. When the rest of us started complaining, the teacher pointed out that this game was not actually about jelly beans at all, but a demonstration of the distribution of wealth.  While some would like to think that we are all given the same tools in life, all you have to do is listen to people’s life stories to realize that is not the case.

Poverty in Canada infographic LRG

So what does this have to so with the issue of prostitution?  Poverty is a key push factor for many of those who end up in the sex industry, and the majority (not all, but the majority) of those in prostitution are in it purely for reasons of economic necessity.  Our goal should not be to make prostitution as easy as possible so that impoverished people have an “option” for work.  This is an insult to the poor.  Our goal should be to level the economic playing field so that people can break out of the cycle of poverty and not depend on the goodwill of “non-violent clients” to put food on the table.

If you are a business owner, consider giving your employees benefits and better wages, even if it means slightly less profit.  Be open to hiring someone with no previous experience who needs help building up their resume.  If you are a landlord, charge less rent (no one says you have to charge the market average).  If you have a well-paying job, consider donating one, ten or fifty per cent to social programs and charities (Jay and I are personally working toward giving away 90% of our income).  These things are all possible, but it requires sacrifice.  It requires having less stuff.  It requires being less greedy.

Our government of course is not off the hook on this one, as the laws they make and enforce shape the system in which we all work, live, and do business.  I find it somewhat ironic that many of those who want to end prostitution simultaneously support the current government’s pro-big business initiatives which end up increasing wealth inequality…and creates an environment where the most vulnerable have to turn to prostitution because of lack of other opportunities.

Reducing demand for paid sex is key when dealing with the issue of sexual exploitation, and Canada’s new prostitution law is a strong step forward if we are serious about prevention.  Those who refuse to acknowledge this as a critical piece are woefully misguided.  But let’s remember to look at the issue of prostitution in its wholeness, and take steps to reduce the economic vulnerability that pushes people to do desperate things.  Demand reduction, coupled with real opportunities for those who would otherwise consider prostitution, gets at the root and makes sustainable prevention possible.

But it will take sacrifice, so let’s conspire together and figure out ways to all do our part.

**This is part one of my series, Ensuring the Success of Canada’s Prostitution Law. Read part two here More posts coming soon.






Ensuring the Success of Canada’s Prostitution Law

by Michelle Brock on December 8th, 2014

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On December 6, Canada’s new prostitution law took effect.  I’ve written several posts highlighting the different components of the new law, as well as addressed some of the criticisms arising from the pro-sex work camp.  I’ve included links to these posts at the bottom of this one, but today I’d like to shift my focus to a question I’ve been pondering all week:

What steps are required in order for this law to be successful?


Passing a law is no easy task.  It involves research, committee hearings and consensus-building.  It includes a certain degree of public support.  It requires votes from both the House and the Senate.  Over the course of the last year, many Canadians have also done their part – signing petitions, writing letters, meeting with their MPs.

When a law finally gets passed, there can be a tendency to assume that nothing more is needed, that we can let down our guard and allow the issue to take care of itself.  But this is precisely the time to act, to use the momentum of the new law to make real progress.

tall ships 71 768x1024To assume that the passage of the law alone can end sexual exploitation is like hoisting up the sails and forgetting to steer the ship.  The crew on a boat understand that sails are critical, but also know that getting anywhere requires wind, a compass, knowledge of the seas, good leadership, teamwork, and diligent boat maintenance. Otherwise the ship will simply drift from one current to the other, never reaching its destination.  If the objective of the new prostitution bill – to prevent sexual exploitation and protect the vulnerable – is to be realized, we must look at the issue holistically and take action that is intentional, wise, and long-term.

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of posts on how we can help the new law reach its objectives.  

They might make some people uncomfortable and I might step on some toes.  But the reality is that ending sexual exploitation is difficult and requires sacrifice.  The good news is that the passage of this law has put this issue in the limelight, so let’s not waste our opportunity to make change happen.

For more of my writing on the new law: