Cases of children being sexually exploited on the internet have peaked with containment. Our reporters continue their investigation into this other epidemic.
Published August 7, 2021 at 5:00 am
“Everyone values me”
“It changed my life. I became someone overnight.”
At 14, Simone started offering her sexual services on social networks.
Without even hiding her identity.
At first, the teenager didn’t even ask for money. She just wanted to be popular.
This is what she explained to the coordinator of the Spheres project, Nathalie Gélinas.
At her high school, when footage of her performing oral sex in the school’s washroom began to circulate, she was called a “slut.
But the teenager sent the critics packing. Her virtual audience, on the other hand, was asking for more.
“Everyone writes me on Snapchat. Everyone values me,” she summarized to the sexual exploitation advocate.
Several experts interviewed in this report make the same observation: to sell their bodies on social networks and classified ads, minors who are victims of sexual exploitation do not hesitate to show their faces. Others reveal parts of their bodies that make them just as identifiable.
PHOTO OLIVIER JEAN, LA PRESSE
Nathalie Gélinas, coordinator of the Spheres project
The girls are in the immediate, they are not in the long term. Our young people are telling us, “This is what to do, this is what sells. I’m going to present what sells.”
Nathalie Gélinas, Spheres Project Coordinator
The Spheres project – in which Simone participates – offers highly personalized accompaniment to young people between the ages of 12 and 24 who consider themselves to be in a situation of sexual exploitation in the Greater Montreal area.
Sometimes, it is the pimp who tells them what to do. Other times, as in the case of Simone, they do it on their own. But let’s not fall into the trap of “blaming the victim”, warn workers specialized in sexual exploitation of minors.
It’s the client who wants to see the real face, the real picture,” says Martin Pelletier, head of the Runaway, Sex and Drug Addiction Support Structure at CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal. For our young people, whether it’s their face, their arms or their breasts, they are like disconnected from it all.”
These young people do not see themselves as victims. Like all teens, they are “in the moment. They are comfortable with their bodies – and therefore with exposing their faces – and they don’t think about the consequences,” says Jennifer Pelletier, a sexologist and psychotherapist at the Marie-Vincent Foundation.
These teenagers will test their seductive powers.
It’s super exhilarating to feel like you have the power to turn others on, and then others ask for more pictures and are interested in what you’re displaying of your body.
Jennifer Pelletier, sexologist and psychotherapist at the Marie-Vincent Foundation
Not to mention the lure of “easy money,” says the sexologist, “with the magical thinking that can be unique to teens of saying, ‘If it doesn’t work, I just close my account and that’s the end of it.'”
Added to this is a “false sense of security” created by the screen that separates the victim from the client, reports the expert from the Marie-Vincent Foundation and partner in the Spheres project. Except that, of course, “it doesn’t end there,” and the intimate images can come back to haunt young people at any time in their lives, she insists.
Cyber-violence and sexual exploitation
Nearly a quarter of the children currently on the waiting list for therapeutic services at the Centre d’expertise Marie-Vincent are adolescents who have experienced cyber-violence or some form of sexual exploitation.
The experts interviewed in this report also point to a “trivialization” of sexuality – and even prostitution – in some media.
For example, an unusual news site owned by Quebecor has been publishing articles on Hélène Boudreau, a student at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and a porn actress who was sued by the institution for showing her breasts in her graduation photo and posting it on social networks (an out-of-court settlement was eventually reached).
As a result of the controversy, this site – called Sac de chips – covered her anus bleaching and shot a video with her in which she made her “Top 5 Quebec OnlyFans”.
The young woman also appeared on Radio-Canada’s Tout le monde en parle (TLMP), where she boasted that she earns “about $100,000 a month” from her photos and videos produced on OnlyFans. The subscription site allows content creators to monetize what they do with monthly subscriptions or tips. OnlyFans retains 20% of the revenue generated from subscriptions on the site.
To teenagers, “it sends the message that it’s just another way to make a living,” says sexologist Jennifer Pelletier.
What stands out when you see Hélène Boudreau on TLMP is that a woman’s body is an object worth money.
Martin Pelletier, specialist in sexual exploitation of minors at the CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal
OnlyFans was plunged into controversy earlier this year after a BBC journalistic investigation revealed that minors had produced and sold illegal sexual content by circumventing the platform’s age verification system. In response to the report, OnlyFans assured that it takes its “obligations [of age verification] extremely seriously.”
Dreaming of fame
“It can be easy to push your limits as a teenager because you have role models around you who are comfortable in their own skin, who are assertive and who are making money off it. They’re famous (as the kids say),” explains sexologist Jennifer Pelletier. But not all teens are capable of critical thinking: where are my limits? And that’s where the danger lies.
Pascale Philibert, of the Mobilis team – a team dedicated to sexual exploitation at the CISSS de la Montérégie-Est – recently had to intervene with a teenager who was putting sexy photos of herself on the Snapchat platform to encourage people to subscribe to her premium account.
PHOTO OLIVIER JEAN, LA PRESSE
Pascale Philibert, Mobilis team advisor
Our kids know about OnlyFans, but they don’t have an account. At least that’s what they tell us. It happens more on Snapchat Premium, where it’s much more private. The girls will encourage people to subscribe to Premium in their profile because there, it’s paid.
Pascale Philibert, Mobilis team advisor
The counsellor on sexual exploitation and street gang issues in Montérégie observes a “movement” of young girls who no longer want pimps: “They want to sell themselves. They are our most at-risk; those who have already been involved in prostitution.”
There used to be erotic lines, now the supply has moved to social networks, Philibert says. “Access [to networks] is so easy. It’s known that it works,” summarizes this expert.
“It’s my choice
“It’s my choice,” many sexually exploited teens justify when they are reported to the DYP. However, “it’s not an informed choice because of impulsivity, magical thinking and the fact that teenagers don’t measure the long-term consequences,” continues Ms. Philibert, of the Mobilis team. This is exactly why child prostitution is illegal.
Often, young people don’t know what is allowed and what is not, notes Shirley-Ann Savard, clinical activity specialist – sexual exploitation respondent at the CISSS de Laval. “There has been a hypersexualization, and now there is a trivialization. Are they aware of the stares they can attract?” she asks.
“Everything starts with the abuser,” insists this specialist from the CISSS de Laval. In her opinion, society has a share of responsibility.
Many indirect actors allow this commodification of the body. We’re talking about social networking platforms, classified ads and motels. For this phenomenon to continue, it takes facilitators.
Shirley-Ann Savard, Clinical Activities Specialist – Sexual Exploitation Respondent at the CISSS de Laval
Simone is now 17 years old. “For any pimp, she’s a gold mine,” says Martin Pelletier of CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal.
In the youth center where she was placed, her cell phone was confiscated. When she gets it back, the girl will be bombarded with requests for sexual services, predicts Nathalie Gélinas of the Sphères project.
“What’s sad is that she doesn’t know anything about life, so she’s enhancing herself with her clients. She doesn’t know how else to meet her needs,” explains Ms. Gélinas.
When she comes of age, the DPJ will no longer be there. But Simone will be able to stay in the Spheres project, where she will be given positive experiences in the hope that she will give up prostitution.
“The more it goes on, the more Simone is scarred. You can’t come out of that environment unscathed,” says Gélinas. We’re trying to show her that you can have fun in life without having long-term physical and psychological injuries.
None of the young people I have met in my practice have lived through their prostitution experience,” insists Ms. Savard, from the CISSS de Laval. None.”
What is Spheres?
The Spheres project is aimed at young people aged 12 to 24 who are in a situation of sexual exploitation in the greater Montreal area. “Our youth don’t know life. They have rarely left their neighborhood. They haven’t experienced great things,” explains its coordinator, Nathalie Gélinas. We are very much focused on ‘doing’. We give them positive experiences [sports and cultural activities] so they discover that they have more to offer than their bodies.” Two metropolitan CIUSSS (Centre-Sud and West Island) are participating in the project along with the Montreal Police Department’s Survivors Program, En Marge 12-17, L’Anonyme and the Marie-Vincent Foundation. The project – funded by Public Safety Canada – is in limbo as to what will happen next, as its funding ends next March and has not yet been renewed.
Not “if” it happens to you, but “when
Here are the latest observations, and especially advice for parents, about the phenomenon of sexual exploitation of minors on the Internet.
Change the way you approach the phenomenon
Parents need to change the way they talk to their teens about sexuality and social networks, says Pascale Philibert of the Mobilis team – a team dedicated to sexual exploitation at the DPJ of the Montérégie. “Don’t say: ‘If you are ever solicited or send an intimate photo,’ but ‘when’ it happens, I want you to tell me about it,” she says. The worst thing you can do is to close the subject and have the young person feel alone when it happens,” she says.
Applications that hide others
There are apps that hide other apps. The classic app is the one that looks like a calculator, but when you press it, there are photos and videos hidden inside,” says Philibert of Mobilis. Never assume that the apps on your teen’s phone or tablet are okay.” Philibert advises parents to open their teen’s apps in front of them, not behind their backs. It’s important to give him regular reminders not to “expose himself” and even to ask him directly about it: “Do you do it?” Sometimes it can create discomfort, she warns, but even if the parent doesn’t get an answer or receives an evasive response, they should ask questions.
Refusal to remove intimate images
If the parent discovers that their child has posted intimate images on social media, the young person may refuse to remove them. “Often parents are so caught up in their emotions. They’re scared. They are angry. They are shaken in their values, so they may tend to reprimand, cut the link, or even make the young person feel guilty,” explains Jennifer Pelletier, sexologist and psychotherapist at the Marie-Vincent Foundation. That’s the worst thing you can do. “You lose all contact with your young person. When they feel trapped, in distress, they will no longer have the reflex to come back to you,” she adds. The parent must remain present for their child despite their experiences and distress.”
The problem of everyone and no one
In schools today, sex education classes are “everyone’s problem and no one’s problem,” says Martin Pelletier, head of the Runaway, Sex and Drug Abuse Support Structure at CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal. The math teacher is not necessarily comfortable calculating the menstrual calendar of young girls,” he says. It would be relevant to have sexologists in the schools. And some parents could use some education, too. “We have 6-7 year olds making sexy TikTok videos. Their parents tell us: ‘Mautadine my daughter is cute,'” laments Mr. Pelletier. We need to talk about boundaries and the image you project.”
More prevention in schools and the media, ask young people
In a recent study conducted among more than 1000 young people in the Lower St. Lawrence region on their perceptions of how to better prevent prostitution and sexual exploitation, they pointed out that the places to promote prevention should be the schools, but also the media. Young people perceive that “it may not be so bad after all [to sell one’s body]”, because sex is described in the media as “something banal”, “a simple transaction”, analyses expert Shirley-Ann Savard, citing the work of psychologist and professor at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi Karine Côté.
Helping resources: Here are two videos produced by the Fondation Marie-Vincent to prevent sexual cyber-violence, as well as some ideas to discuss with your teenager
Watch “How far would you be willing to go for likes?”
Read Parent-Teen Reflection Tracks –
“How far would you be willing to go for likes?”
Watch “Are You Online Yourself?”
Read Parent-Teen Thoughts – The Photo VideoParenting Support: The ParentsLine (a free 24/7 professional help resource): 1-800-361-5085
Visit the En Marge 12-17 ParentsLine (for parents whose child is being sexually exploited): 514-849-5632
Visit the En Marge 12-17 website