Monday, February 21, 2000

Patricia Brooks
Halifax Chronicle Herald

Trapped in the silent sex trade

Aboriginal youth advocate Cherry Kingsley is in Halifax to take part in workshops focusing on young people in the sex trade.
— Ingrid Bulmer/Herald Photo

Aboriginal teens sell their bodies for food, clothes and shelter

Horrid social conditions — poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction, abuse and homelessness — are forcing some aboriginal teens to sell their bodies.

They're trading sex for basic necessities like food, clothing, a safe place to sleep — or even a taxi ride.

"It took me a while to realize there is a silent, unspoken sex trade in many aboriginal communities, where youth are being exploited," said Cherry Kingsley, a former prostitute and aboriginal youth advocate.

"In some remote areas, the youth don't have the money to pay for a taxi ride, so they'll have sex to pay for it. They don't see it as exploitation. They see it as payment."

Ms. Kingsley is in Halifax as part of a series of national focus groups with aboriginal youth in the sex trade. She met with a group of about 10 young women between the ages of 14 and 24 on Thursday to discuss sexual exploitation of youth, for a public report to be presented to Parliament.

Ms. Kingsley is one of the founding members of the national youth care network, and networks in Alberta and British Columbia. She co-chaired the first International Summit of Sexually Exploited Youth in British Columbia in 1998. She has also spoken about sexually exploited youth to the United Nations and a world congress in Sweden.

Despite these credentials, Ms. Kingsley is not an academic researcher, preferring instead to share her life story to shed light on lives in the shadows.

Ms. Kingsley, now 30 and a mother of a young son, worked as a prostitute for eight years. She barely survived her years of heroin abuse to become a passionate advocate of aboriginal youth.

At 14, Ms. Kingsley was introduced to prostitution by a couple who wanted to take her out of foster care and "give her a safe haven."

"They told me they would take care of me, that I could go to school and have a fresh start. That's what I wanted more than anything else in the world - a fresh start," Ms. Kingsley said.

"Then they told me I had to go to work."

She didn't understand that working meant trading sex for money.

"I didn't go to the police because they (the couple) kept telling me that the police would take me back to foster care, or throw me in jail for running away," Ms. Kingsley said. "I'd rather stay on the streets than go back into care."

The teenager sometimes worked 18 hours a day as a prostitute in Vancouver, servicing about 10 men a day.

She soon began working for some bikers, who introduced her to the soothing effects of heroin.

The girl, who would have only been in junior high school, was now a junkie.

"I hated myself. I hated my life. I hated everything around me," she said. "Everybody wrote me off. Even the people that loved me thought I was going to die."

At 22, her sister saved her from the streets and brought her back in touch with her aboriginal culture.

"My culture has helped me along my voyage, along this path I've taken," she said. "It made me realize that every life, even my life, is sacred."

With the support of people like Senator Landon Pearson and Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, Ms. Kingsley brings together youth involved in the sex trade to talk about what would get them off the streets.

Some of the teens say they choose to trade sex for necessities. Some say they choose to work the streets.

But Ms. Kingsley says they have no choice.

"I ask them, 'If you could go to university and become a doctor or a lawyer, or have a big house and a good job, would you still become a prostitute? Would you recommend this to another 13-year-old as a good life choice?'

"The answer is always no. You can't tell me these youths choose to be on the streets."

Ms. Kingsley realizes there are no easy answers. But one first step is surprisingly simple, she said.

The youth say they need a safe place to go, even just to talk, to get away from the violence or the alcoholism.

"The drug dealers and people who are out to exploit the youth, we're letting them provide the 'safe places,'" she said.

"We have all these provincial parks that are kind of sanctuaries for the animals. … When are we going to provide a safe sanctuary for our youth?"

Ms. Kingsley will continue to work with the rest of the 21 focus groups and expects to present her preliminary report in June.

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Created: November 20, 2000
Last modified: January 15, 2001
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