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Sex trafficking survivors react to Covenant House ad campaign
Juspinna Law* got a notification that she had received an Instagram direct message. It was from a parent of her daughter’s friend, which was normal for her. But it was the first time she had ever received a website link – specifically for Covenant House’s newest ad campaign, #ShoppableGirls. The parent thought it was a great campaign to educate the public about sex trafficking. A survivor of sex trafficking herself, Law immediately clicked on the link, and her first reaction to the campaign’s name was that it was “degrading, dehumanizing and really offensive.”
“When I said ‘shoppablegirls.com’ to someone, they said, ‘What is that, a porn site?’” says Law.
On Feb. 18, the same day Law clicked on the link, Covenant House launched its newest ad campaign about sex trafficking in Ontario under the name #ShoppableGirls. Covenant House is a non-profit agency that serves homeless, at-risk and trafficked youth. The ads were posted in TTC subway trains, on social media and through live models posing in storefront windows on Queen Street.
The campaign appears to be clothing advertisements. The female models are wearing co-ordinated outfits and their poses look worthy of Vogue or other fashion magazines. But a closer look reveals that each girl has a name like “The Amara” and “The Maya,” as if the girls themselves are for sale — which is the point Covenant House is trying to make.
The front page of the #ShoppableGirls website says, “To sex traffickers, girls are just products.” The whole campaign aims to show how sex traffickers, also known as pimps, view girls as objects for sexual acts they can put a price tag on. The agency encourages Canadians to add their voices to the sex trafficking dialogue on social media using the hashtag #ShoppableGirls.
The campaign includes startling statistics, such as how sex trafficking survivors can be as young as 13 years old, and 90 per cent of them are female.
It also tries to dispel the myth that it’s girls and women brought from offshore who are the only victims.
“One of the major misconceptions is sex trafficking doesn’t happen in Canada when in fact 93 per cent of sex trafficking victims are Canadian citizens,” said Julie Neubauer, the Covenant House program manager of anti-trafficking services in a press release.
The ads have attracted a lot of attention — and mixed reactions from Torontonians.
Law was in university when she was first introduced into the world of sex trafficking. She was working as a waitress to get herself through medical school, and later chose to strip to make more money. This led her to a nightclub in downtown Toronto where she first met her pimp. Law says her pimp lured her into sex trafficking the “Romeo” way, which means he acted like a lover, showering her with gifts and treating her “like gold.” While she worked under her pimp, Law says he stole a total of $270,000 from her, took her Mercedes G-Wagon and got her pregnant.
With her three-year-long experience in mind, Law says she was offended to see that the campaign takes on the lens of the pimp rather than the trafficked survivors.
“If I was a little girl looking at this campaign, I would think, ‘Wow, those girls look good. Their clothes look nice – that’s glamorous. Ooh, $200? What do I have to do to get that?’” says Law.
“I feel like it’s luring for girls who haven’t done it, and it’s offensive for girls who have (been sexually trafficked).”
While some people think the campaign isn’t effective, others approve of Covenant House’s strategy. Lianna Pisani was scrolling through her Twitter feed when she spotted the pictures of the #ShoppableGirls storefront. Pisani, a Toronto-based digital communications strategist, says the #ShoppableGirls ad campaign is “brilliant.”
Pisani praised the campaign for its strengths, like how it is visible in Toronto storefronts and on the TTC, as well as how the website is accessible and the facts are easy to understand.
“A lot of non-profits should really look at this as an example of a successful awareness campaign and how, if you invest in the awareness, the return on that investment is huge because it gets new people engaged in your cause,” says Pisani.
Chanelle Gallant, the director of the Migrant Sex Workers Project, says she was disturbed by the campaign because she found it “sexist and trivializing of the causes of trafficking.”
“I don’t think it’s an appropriate fundraising strategy to use young women as dolls to raise funds for a non-profit,” says Gallant. “It really misrepresents the causes of trafficking – which are not about young women’s ignorance, but about young women’s lack of power and rights.”
Instead, Gallant, who has worked with sex workers in Canada and other countries for 15 years, says she would have loved to see Covenant House partner with sex worker organizations to tackle the root causes of trafficking, which Gallant says are “racism and poverty.”
“In what way does an awareness campaign lead to any policy change that deals with poverty or racism?”
Jessica Rogers says she was happy the issue of sex trafficking got so much attention through the campaign. As a survivor of sex trafficking for nine years, she says she found the ads shocking — but shocking in a “necessary kind of way.”
Rogers also says there needs to be a greater emphasis on education – and not just showing the story from the pimps’ side.
“It’s like the whole age-old thing of telling women not to dress a certain way, not to act a certain way and to be more aware of … other people’s behaviour,” says Rogers. “There is a level of awareness that has to be had on young people’s parts, but there also does have to be an onus that’s shifted onto perpetrators’ parts as well.”
Covenant House has responded to the criticism of the campaign by saying that the goal was “to get people talking.”
Tracie LeBlanc, the organization’s associate director of communications, told the Ryersonian that Covenant House consulted with survivors of sex trafficking as well as teenagers and other community members to build the campaign.
“If this campaign can help prevent even one young woman from being trafficked, it has been a success,” said LeBlanc.
But for Law, who has now been a frontline worker helping other sex trafficking survivors for 11 years, the campaign has been triggering.
“I had to go pay for a therapy session to deal with this. (#ShoppableGirls) was so upsetting to me. To see people’s reaction to it – they think it’s so great – and they have no idea how damaging it actually is.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010.
*Name has been changed to protect the source’s identity.