They are part of society’s invisible labour pool, working in perilous conditions, with few rights.
An estimated 170 sex workers operate in Red Deer, based on information from police and local human service agencies, said Tammy Rogers, executive director of the local non-profit group Magdalene House.
She added most of these women conduct their business out of sight, soliciting clients through the internet and selling their bodies in private homes, motel rooms, or through shady outlets.
Rogers differentiates between the sex workers who have a level of control over their bodies and get to keep some proceeds of their transactions, and women who are completely under the thumbs of their pimps/boyfriends.
Sex workers in the latter group are coerced into handing over all their earnings, often made to feel they should do their so-called boyfriends this “favour,” said Rogers, who has 25 years experience working with various vulnerable populations.
She refers to this group as trafficked women. Rogers maintains sex trafficking is not what’s shown in the movies, as 98 per cent of these sex workers are Canadian citizens and were not abducted from poor countries.
But most still began selling their bodies at age 13 or 14, moving between different communities to stay under the radar.
Rogers added the majority of these women struggle with addictions and are treated like “slaves” by men who assert control by preying on their low self-esteem and their need to feel loved.
“They know what to say to form what these women think is a relationship. Through that connection, the trafficker takes advantage.”
Magdalene House operated for 18 months in 2015/16 as a recovery centre for sex workers who wanted to change their lives.
Rogers said 11 women were accepted into the residential program, but only three of them stayed for the duration because the pull of their addictions was too great.
The non-profit had to shut its doors due to a lack of funding in 2016.
But Rogers and board president David Bouchard have been launching fundraisers to reopen the facility — this time as a hub for day programs to help sex workers get housing, counselling, education and the life-skills training needed for a brighter future.
Rogers knows this will be a tough sell — both to a community that doesn’t see evidence of a problem, and to the sex workers themselves.
Research has shown these women make, on average, eight attempts to leave their pimps before they sever ties for good, added Rogers.
She believes Magdalene House, like similar facilities in Edmonton and Calgary, will be able to connect with this marginalized group and help impacted women access services.
Bouchard hopes to get funds from the Community Initiatives Program under the new United Conservatives government. He noted this is the first provincial government to come up with an official plan for dealing with sex trafficking, so he’s optimistic.
A fundraising Freedom Walk to raise money for Magdalene House will be held Sept. 7 in the Bower Ponds in the picnic area at Great Chief Park.