Home CommentaryStudent Life “My sister, be safe tonight”: Going beyond the labels of prostitution

“My sister, be safe tonight”: Going beyond the labels of prostitution

by Archives March 17, 2009

EDMONTON (CUP) – She stands on the corner, shivering as the late winter chill seeps through her worn jacket.
Most people ignore her as they whip past her in their cars. Eventually, one car stops in front of her. She forces a smile; her night’s work has begun. She doesn’t know where her journey will lead her – she just hopes she will survive until the morning.
While this story is fictitious, it could be the story of any one of the multitudes of exploited teenage girls and women involved in Edmonton’s sex trade – women who because of issues such as poverty, violence, and abuse are often forced into this lifestyle.
“They’re out there because of low skill development, mental health, addiction, and/ or poverty issues,” said Lynn Cysouw, peer trainer at the Prostitution Awareness and Action Foundation of Edmonton.
Cysouw said society needs to change its attitude towards women who are involved in this lifestyle.
“It’s really easy to see a woman standing on the corner and make a comment towards that person without knowing what got her there. People need to look at the underlying issues.”
Both Cysouw and her colleague Amanda Flamand would like to educate people about the harm derogatory labels like the word “prostitute” can cause.
“We want to get rid of the stigma that’s attached to women who are involved in that lifestyle, and address the issues that lead women into that lifestyle,” Cysouw said.
They prefer terminology such as “experiential” or “sexually exploited youth” or “sexually exploited women.”
“Exploited is a very strong word, you can’t ignore it,” said Cysouw. “Sexually exploited is a criminal word, it’s wrong across the board. It doesn’t matter if the kid is 12, or if she’s a 40-year-old woman, this person is being victimized.”
“I was a former sexually exploited youth, and I got hooked into escorting,” Cysouw said. “It’s something I did, but you know what? I wasn’t educated and aware of the issue. I really didn’t have a choice.”
Cysouw said the road that led her to this lifestyle was a very painful one.
“There was sexual abuse in the home, not from anybody in my family, but by other people not directly family,” said Cysouw. “It’s a cycle.”
At one point, she was taken into foster care, which she says played a highly negative role in her development.
“I was placed in a group home with a batch of kids who were 10 times worse than I was, and I picked up some horrible behaviours there, which in turn, led me to the lifestyle that I got involved with.”
“We got labelled ‘the troublemakers.’ Society does that as a whole, too; instead of taking responsibility in the part they play in the lives of women who are out there ruining their lives, society just give them a negative label,” Cysouw said.
Her experience in the sex trade was somewhat different than one might experience today.
“The laws were different then. I was criminalized as a youth, I was arrested, and I was put in jail. Now there are laws [and services] to protect youth who are exploited. They recognize these are not bad kids who should be demonized.”
Cysouw is one of the lucky ones; a courageous survivor, she now works as a peer trainer and follow-up worker for PAAFE’s Project Hope.
“I’m training women who all have former involvement in sexual exploitation to be peer supporters in the community. We are going to be starting a crisis phone line by fall for women who are currently active in either street level-sexual exportation or escort massage,” she said.
Flamand’s story is also one of triumph over pain.
“I am a survivor of childhood sexual exploitation,” she said.
“My grandmother was a teenage mother; my mother was a teenage mother, so I’m the product of intergenerational sexual abuse. I’m the third generation. My earliest childhood memories are of childhood exploitation and sexual abuse,” she said.
“It was just a way of life. If I wanted safety or protection or love, it was equated with sex.”
Working for years with youth at risk in Manitoba, Flamand came to Edmonton four years ago. Moving o Edmonton’s 118th Avenue was a shock to her.
“Because I’m an aboriginal woman and I’m living in this area, men will pull over – there is this preconceived notion I’m a sex trade worker and that really angered me.”
Wanting to make a difference in her community, Flamand connected with PAAFE.
“Because I want to live, I am living a life free of fear and violence. That’s a very strong statement for an aboriginal woman to make,” she said. “It’s a big step to go from victim to survivor, and it takes a lot of work. I can’t give up.”
“We don’t see everything that’s hidden, especially with the Internet now. We don’t see how much of a problem it really is, how much of an epidemic it is,” said Flamand.
“Once [a child] gets involved in that lifestyle, they stop growing. Their development stops. They’re not going to school; they’re in survival mode. They’re learning how to manipulate, how to survive, how to go from day-to-day,” Cysouw said.

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