Are suburban teenage girls at risk?
You might think so, given recent headlines coming out of Montreal these days.
In the past month, a spate of disappearances involving five teenage runaways, all from a single group home in the Montreal suburb of Laval, has been causing deep worry lines to appear on the foreheads of Quebec parents, journalists, and politicians. To make matters even more salacious, just about every story on the issue has stated or insinuated that the girls had been lured into prostitution by street gangs.
The disappearances had all the necessary elements for a media frenzy: Troubled white suburban teenage girls! Prostitution! Street gangs!
The good news is, the five girls eventually were found or returned on their own. But the response to the disappearances reached such a fever pitch that, last Tuesday, Philippe Couillard's provincial Liberal government announced that it was setting up a $3 million [$2.2 million USD], five-year program specifically to fight teen prostitution, mostly by improving coordination and communication between the cops, social workers, and other officials. Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux said he hoped the new program would lead to more arrests.
It's a move that Sandra Wesley, the executive director of Montreal sex workers' rights group Stella, describes as hypocritical.
She says the disappearances of the girls and the government's response are a distraction, hiding the fact that provincial funding of programs aimed explicitly at combating sexual exploitation of youth are drying up, and will run out at the end of March.
Wesley says Stella, which provides workshops, strategies, and training to help sex workers either avoid violent situations or develop the skills necessary to get out of them, is going to lose almost 20 percent of its annual $600,000 [$435,000 USD] budget because the Couillard government—already under serious fire for the dramatic belt-tightening it's imposed on the province since coming to power in 2014—is canceling the $110,000 [$80,000 USD] Stella used to run its safety and security program.
"It sends the message that the government, when they decided to make these cuts, did not think violence against sex workers or violence in the lives of sex workers was something that was worthy of continuing to finance," she says.
It's as if the government gives up on women once they join the sex industry. All the money and effort is being spent on preventing them from entering it, with little left over to help women once they are actually in—whether they are there voluntarily or not.
Stella already lost one outreach worker due to budget cuts last year. The one taking effect as of April 1 will cost them another, reducing their team from seven to five. They'll also be losing the services of a sexologist, who helped sex workers referred by Stella deal with issues they encounter over the course of their careers.
Wesley says she draws a line of short-sighted government action on matters related to sex going back to 2001, when the then-PQ government cut high school sex education. That played a crucial part in perpetuating widespread sexual illiteracy in a generation of Quebec teens who have now reached adulthood.
According to Manon Massé, a member of Quebec's National Assembly with the left-wing Québec solidaire party, the cuts being implemented now affect a bunch of community groups serving her east-end Montreal riding. That includes Stella, but also L'Anonyme and the Bunker, two organizations working with street kids on a host of issues ranging from sexual consent to exploitation.
What seems to bug Massé a lot is just how minor the savings are. She says those groups and the several others that rely on provincial funding to fight sexual exploitation can get by on a total government investment of about $1.5 million [$1 million USD] a year.
"That's peanuts," she says. The $3 million in new funding promised by the government on Tuesday, she says, "is better spent on community groups."
Both Massé and Wesley say the government's new plan misses the point of sexual exploitation entirely.
"They're handling it as a crisis," Wesley says. "But I believe that, for us and the other organizations that we work in partnership with, prevention and intervention are the services that are needed. Police repression will not in any way help."
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