Special Report Part Two: Dirty Little Secret
MONTREAL - Brothels may be illegal in Canada but when it comes to massage parlors, police are decidedly hands off.
What goes on behind closed doors is not a big priority when it involves consenting adults, but when the sex is coerced, or the 'massage therapist' is a minor, it's another story.
"As soon as we have information that it's youth or juveniles or there's links to violent crime or street crime, we accelerate our investigation," said Montreal Police Commander Antonio Iannantuoni.
The sad reality is that many young girls are forced to work in the sex trade.
Pascale Philibert is a social worker in Longueuil who tries to stop girls from selling their bodies.
She says up to three girls a week are recruited in her South Shore community, and the new prostitutes never admit that they are under the control of a pimp.
"They're never going to tell you it's a pimp. It's always their 'boyfriend,'" said Philibert.
Operating out of mobile 'massage parlours'
In an effort to evade police, some 'massage parlours' have now gone completely mobile, with pimps operating escort services, using under-age girls, out of a car or a van.
"They go in the van and they receive calls. so sometimes they do massage, they do prostitution in the car in the van," said Philibert.
The pimps and prostitutes are difficult to trace, because they do not operate out of any fixed location, and recruit clients online.
"They have no address. There's only internet, like a website. That's the only thing they have," Philibert said.
Pina Arcamone with the Missing Children's Network says pimps specifically target girls as young as 12 not only because they are preferred by clients, but also because they are easy to exploit and manipulate.
"What concerns us is that not only because they're underage but I don't think they even realize that they're being recruited by questionable individuals," said Arcamone.
That's exactly what happened to Noemi (not her real name).
She was 13 years old when she ran away from a group home and started working in a strip club.
"They asked me if I wanted to do massages," said Noemi, who felt she could not say no. "In my head, I was just running away."
"That's the way they start them. You know they're so young and they're so influenced by anything and they're unable to say no," said Philibert.
Annie Robert of the RMCP says the same exploitation happens with adults, who often don't realize what they're into before it's too late.
Once they realize the sick truth, they are too ashamed to come forward and end up blaming themselves.
Women never see a cent
On top of that, the pimps control the cash flow, so the women never see a cent, leaving them with no resources to seek help.
"Sometimes victims don't feel that they are victims.. We need to focus on 'it's not your fault,'" said Robert. "What is really important for us is to get her out of that situation and give her some help."
Thats why the RCMP has come up with a campaign aimed at reaching women forced into prostitution and giving 'massages'.
Robert speaks regularly to community groups, and says that across Canada, the RCMP is tracking 45 cases of human trafficking, but suspect the problem is much bigger.
"It's hard to [come up with] statistics when it's so underground for now," said Robert.
When minors are involved, police do move in and will recommend charges if they have sufficient proof.
But if they can eventually convince a woman to testify against her pimp, the feeling of empowerment is enormous.
"We want to give back the power to the girls and to say the truth," said Philibert.
In the end the women involved need to remember just one thing: The only ones who should feel any shame are the men who prey on girls.
Part One of Dirty Little Secret aired on Monday.
Looking for help? There are several resources available for girls and women caught up in prostitution.
RCMP: Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre
Fondation du Centre Jeunesse
To make a donation for Projet Mobilis, contact the Youth and Family Centre for the Montérégie at 450-928-5125 ext #15098.
Quebec Missing Children's Network