A study led by an instructor at the University of Manitoba’s Northern Social Work programs is trying to shed some light on the sexual exploitation of young women in Northern Manitoba.
Lori Oberdorfer, a social work instructor and student counsellor, is the principal investigator and says the exploratory study is intended to give sexual exploitation victims a platform and to inform the public about the issue.
“I think the key thing is it gives us a starting point to allow people’s voices to be heard,” Oberdorfer says. “It validates the fact that this is occurring.”
The study will be based on interviews with women aged 18 to 29 who experienced sexual exploitation while living in Northern Manitoba and who have not been involved with such activity for at least the past year.
“It’s obviously a tough subject, very difficult for people to talk about even though it is confidential,” says Oberdorfer. “You’ve kind of got to be at a certain place in your life and your healing that you’re OK talking about it because there’s a lot of shame and embarrassment. Having people call in and want to be interviewed, it takes a certain kind of person that feels compelled that they want to share and help make things better for other people.”
While the interview subjects are young adults, it is likely that their experiences with sexual exploitation – exchanging sexual acts for food, shelter, money, alcohol, drugs or anything else –either happened or began while they were minors.
The average age at which victims are first sexually exploited is twelve-and-a-half to 13, says Sharon Kent, a district counsellor with the School District of Mystery Lake and the chair of Thompson’s Sexual Exploitation Awareness Team (SEAT).
The two-year study, which is being conducted with co-investigators Lynda Paziuk, also a Northern Social Work program instructor, and Cheryl Fraehlich of RESOLVE (Research & Education for Solutions to Violence & Abuse), a research network based at the University of Manitoba and other post-secondary institutions in the prairies, began about a year ago and the team anticipates that they will continue conducting interviews until June. Oberdorfer says it isn’t always easy for interview subjects to step forward.
“We’ve had to have a lot of patience but we’re starting to interview, which is promising,” she says, noting that they rely on people who see their posters to step forward and volunteer to share their experiences. “We’ve tried to put up posters in various locations. A couple of times we’ve gone around and put up some more, you know, hoping that people maybe will phone in and want to speak up. I think lots of people see the sign but they don’t’ phone in. There’s still a lot of fear. A lot of fear, a lot of shame.”
Kent says the people who contact the investigators are probably just a small fraction of those who fit the profile.
“I wish we could see everybody that was reading those signs because if we could do some follow-up, we could offer them some support,” Kent says. “I think your circle would be wider.”
For the public, the study should provide some insight into the extent of sexual exploitation in the North.
“A lot of people may have the conception or misconception that things like this don’t happen up here,” says Oberdorfer. “It’s a very hidden kind of thing going on as well.”
The investigators also hope it will challenge the perception of women who are involved in the formal or informal sex trade.
“The conception of the whole thing has always been that, ‘Well, people choose to do that,’ and if they’re going to exchange sex for money they should know right from wrong,” Oberdorfer says. “Sometimes as the public we sweep it under the rug or almost kind of rationalize our thoughts on it when in reality we need to flip and start looking at it that these are young vulnerable victims who fall prey to people, predators, that are very savvy, very cunning.”
Interview subjects’ stories could also give a clue as to how a journey that may end with a woman in the sex trade begins.
“That’s why this research is important is to see the progression of women being exploited, young girls being exploited,” says Paziuk. “What happens when they reach the age of adulthood? It’s normal, natural for them to go into the prostitution because this is what is happening in their lives.”
At the very least, this study will arm organizations like SEAT with concrete facts on which to base their strategies.
“A lot of people will say give us numbers or give us facts of how do you provide some kind of rationale and there’s really no information or research in terms of what’s happening in the North so we thought, you’ve got to start somewhere,” says Oberdorfer. “This will probably lead us to some other bigger study.”
The investigators hope it will also have some positive impact.
“We want to see change,” says Oberfodorfer. “We want to make a difference. And how can the information we get from this help us? Maybe to fight for stronger laws.”
Improved supports for sexual exploitation victims could also result.
“What do we need?” says Oberdorfer. “Where do we go? What works to help people?”
“What is not being addressed?” says Paziuk.
The investigators also encourage anyone who has been being sexually exploited to get in touch with them, even if they aren’t sure that they’re ready to share their stories.
“They can call and whatever, wherever it goes, it goes,” says Oberdorfer. “If they want to participate that’s fine and if they don’t, they don’t. I’ve had chats with people and it never actually turned into an interview but that’s OK.”
To contact Oberdorfer, call 204-677-1460.