'Aggressive' online strategy key to ending sex trade, Edmonton police say

Edmonton police say they will broaden their use of social media as part of an "aggressive'" online campaign to investigate the city's sex trade industry.

Edmonton Police Service says 156 of the 295 johns arrested in 2017 were caught online

Edmonton police say social media in particular has become a "playground" for illegal activity. (CBC)

Edmonton police say they will broaden their use of social media as part of an "aggressive'" online campaign to investigate the city's sex trade industry.

Of the 295 johns arrested and charged in 2017 by the Edmonton Police Service's Human Trafficking and Exploitation Unit, 156 were found as a result of online advertising, the police force said in a news release Friday. In 2016, police arrested 104 johns in total.

Staff Sgt. Dale Johnson said EPS detectives will continue to fight human trafficking and sexual exploitation with a "broader investigation approach," including social media.

"It has become the playground for a lot of illegal activity," he said in the news release.

EPS spokesperson Scott Pattison said the types of social media and online resources being monitored by police is operational information, and cannot be discussed.

Selling sex is legal, buying it is not

The sex trade is adapting to new technology, Pattison said. That's why Edmonton police have put more emphasis into online investigations in recent years.

Under Canadian laws, selling sex is legal, but buying is not.

In one case EPS dealt with last summer, two teenage girls met an older man in a strip mall who lured them for months with expensive dinners and new makeup, Pattison said. One day, he turned violent — keeping the girls at his home for days, sexually exploiting them and posting their photos online, inviting strangers to have sex with them.

One of the girls escaped and was able to report her assailant, who was subsequently charged with two counts of sexual assault.

It's something not even specific to the sex industry, it just happens across the board.- Amy Wilson, executive director of the Action Coalition on Human Trafficking

Being lured into the sex trade online can happen to anyone, said Amy Wilson, the executive director of the Action Coalition on Human Trafficking.

In some cases, Wilson has worked with women who responded to a property or work ad on Kijiji and subsequently became victims of trafficking.

Pattison says when it comes to these women, police officers are faced with new challenges in the digital era.

"For officers, it's more about building relationships and trust with workers in an effort to keep them safe."

Majority of escorts from Quebec

An aggressive online presence will be used to address another trend in Edmonton's sex trade industry — the number of escorts coming to town from out-of-province.

The majority of the escorts police interacted with in 2017 were originally from Quebec.

"Its a fly-in, fly-out market," Johnson said.

There are many reasons why women would be travelling from one place to another to sell sex.

Kate Quinn, executive director of the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation, says it's all about the money.

Even though we had an economic downturn with the shifts in the oil industry, there's still more money to be made here.- Kate Quinn, executive director of the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation

Vulnerable people in provinces with less economic impact, like Quebec, might consider travelling to Alberta for a short two-week stint to make money before going back home.

These fly-in, fly-out situations come with risks for women. Wilson said a high number of out-of-province sex workers could be an indication of a possible human trafficking network in the province, where pimps try to disorient women by sending them from one place to the next.

Pattison said the majority of the escorts EPS has interacted with have been women coming to the city on their own accord, but police continue to follow any human trafficking-related leads.

Even if women are travelling on their own accord, Quinn said it doesn't take much to force these women into a larger scheme.

"There are also predators trolling the internet and putting pressure on women to come under their control," Quinn said.

Wilson and Quinn agree the key to avoiding endangerment is more public education on safe internet use.

Both women say the high number of arrests made by EPS in 2017 is a step in the right direction because it will curb the demand for buying sex.

Edmonton also has a Sex Trade Offender Program in place, where so-called john schools teach first-time offenders about the consequences of their involvement in the sex trade industry. 

anna.desmarais@cbc.ca

@anna_desmarais