A local outreach group says women have become more vulnerable as the darker side of the sex trade moves behind closed doors.

Angela Crockwell is the executive director of youth outreach network Thrive, a group that is fighting to make sexual exploitation and human trafficking an issue in this province.

Thrive’s goal is to rescue young people from the harsh realities of sex work. Crockwell said online prostitution is making their work much more difficult.

"How do you connect with somebody who is just using online services?" she asked.


Angela Crockwell is the executive director of youth outreach network Thrive. (CBC)

"My concern ... when we see such significant activity online is how hidden sometimes the people who are really trapped in this can be. Because again, they can be so removed from community supports, and this can be happening online, and most people never, ever know."

Crockwell said there's a grim reality on the seedy end of the prostitution spectrum.

"The truth is, there's a lot of people who are being domestically trafficked, which means that people are being forced into sex trade activities, but they're being moved around St. John's, to Mount Pearl, and the west coast," she said.

"We've seen people moved to Halifax, Ontario, but then stabilize there for a little bit, but then also [with] the plan to move them to places like Miami."

'He literally had a gun to your head'

CBC Investigates spoke with two women who were victimized as teenagers, and have spent much of their adult lives in and out of the sex industry. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.

"Jessie" was sexually exploited as a teenager, and was forced to prostitute herself on the street.

It led her to a life of always having one foot into, and one foot out of, the sex trade.

"I needed to get out. I was like, 'I'm going to die,'" she said.

"Either he's going to beat me to death, or he's going to give me some drug combination that's going to kill me. He had a gun and he wasn't afraid to put it to your head."

Jessie said she was often threatened by the man who forced her to have sex with clients for cash.

"He would think that you had money hidden on you. You know... He literally had a gun to your head."


Jessie is now out of the sex trade, but her time in the business still affects her emotionally and psychologically. (CBC )

While Jessie is now out of the industry, it still affects her emotionally and psychologically.

"Whether it's the last thought I have before I go to bed, or if it's the first thought that I have when I wake up, or something happens during the day that triggers a memory," she said.

Even the simplest gesture from a stranger or a friend could act as a trigger.

"Someone could compliment me today, and say, 'You have beautiful eyes,' and automatically, I hear his voice," she said.

And Jessie still runs the risk of seeing reminders of her past everywhere around her.

"I run into Johns that I had when they're at the mall with their wives. Or they're in a club, or wherever I am. And I run into girls all the time," she said.

Forced into the sex industry as a teenager

"Brianna" was forced into the sex industry as a teenager.

"I was living in a house with 18 people and all of them either drank, did drugs, fought; I was raped a couple times," she said.

She was also often physically abused.

"I used to get [beaten] with table legs or put through walls 'cause I couldn't get up and go to work," Brianna said. "That was the average week."

'It just doesn't stop. It's one big cycle, and I think the scariest part for me was losing everyone I knew, everybody I knew, and having nothing and nobody.' —Brianna, former sex worker

Brianna said she was kept in a vicious drug cycle, and was promised "the best high ever" from her pimp if she just went out to see another client and offer sex for money.

"You're home sick in bed, throwing your guts up. And you don't want to move, but he makes you get up and go," she said.

"And if you don't get up and go then... there's no easy way of saying that, you either get bitch-slapped or you go. That's it."

Brianna tries to avoid the shadows of her former life, and stays away from the downtown area all together.

But when she has a bad day, the thought of easy money isn't far off.

Brianna said once you're in that lifestyle, it's hard to get out.

"Even though you try, and you don't have to be a prostitute anymore, and you don't have to do drugs anymore — but still, that risky lifestyle of hanging out with those people, and that's what still keeps you involved," she said.

"It just doesn't stop. It's one big cycle, and I think the scariest part for me was losing everyone I knew, everybody I knew, and having nothing and nobody."

Getting out of the business

Jessie and Brianna both said they were able to get out and stay out of the sex trade through support, but that's often hard to find.

"There's no real place for someone to go and say, 'I want out of this. Can you help me?'" Jessie said.

"There's organizations like [Thrive] and Choices [for Youth]

that can try to help them, but it's not their mandate. So I find that very scary."

'There's a real need for therapeutic supports for them, for safe housing.' —Angela Crockwell, executive director of Thrive

Crockwell said the transition back to mainstream living isn't an easy step to take.

She said there should be more services available for women like Jessie and Brianna, and for those who are just now getting into the business.

"I think often, again, the people that we've connected with — there's a significant history of trauma and violence by the time they get out," she said.

"There's a real need for therapeutic supports for them, for safe housing."

Jessie said even lending an open ear to a victim of sexual exploitation could be a tremendous help.

"Be with them and talk with them, and listen to them, and be able to say, 'I know what you mean,' or 'I know what you're talking about,' and mean it," she said.

"Connect with them on a level that someone who has a whole bunch of letters behind their name might not be able to do."