It's becoming more common and widespread for women to sell sex to cover basic necessities like food, shelter and transportation in Yukon, and instances of human trafficking are more prevalent than previously thought, according to a three-year research project by the Yukon Status of Women Council.
Charlotte Hrenchuk is the coordinator for the "Not Your Fantasy" project, which was funded by Status of Women Canada and Yukon's Crime Prevention Victim Services Trust Fund.
She interviewed 22 women currently or formerly working in the territory's sex trade, as well as representatives from around 30 different organizations that may encounter those women, from the RCMP and the Department of Health and Social Services, to Blood Ties Four Directions and the Victoria Faulkner Women's Centre.
The study was designed to provide a look into the dynamics of sex work and the trafficking of women and girls in the territory.
"The sex trade is alive and well and living in the Yukon," Hrenchuk said. "There's almost anything here that you would find in a big city."
Through her interviews, Hrenchuk outlined two categories of sex work: formal and informal.
Formal sex work might involve a paid escort running her own business. Hrenchuk points out that it's legal to offer sexual services in Canada, and she believes there's no issue if a woman is in the business by choice.
The informal sex trade is a bigger concern for her, as it involves women exchanging sex "for food, for transportation, for shelter, to supplement their minimum wage jobs, to buy a birthday present for their child, to supplement their social assistance, and some women, for reasons of addiction."
"They may have been trafficked to begin with, or they have less control over their lives. Or they're in such poverty or have so few choices."
As she discovered more about Yukon's sex trade, Hrenchuk was surprised by how often women exchange sex for basic necessities.
"That says to me something really negative about our society. We pride ourselves on being a caring community here, yet there are women who are trading sex for a place to stay or for food."
She says she is "intensely saddened and intensely enraged that some of these things are going on here, underneath our noses. And that some good citizens of Whitehorse are the clients of these services."
Hrenchuk says most transactions happen over the internet. Women develop their own personal client lists, or clients advertise what they're looking for.
"It's not something that's out in the open," she said.
She's heard of girls as young as ten, and women as old as 59, engaging in the sex trade in Yukon.
'They don't have any control of their lives'
For her study, Hrenchuk adopted the Canadian Women's Foundation's definition that any girl recruited for sexual exploitation who is under the age of consent has been trafficked.
Hrenchuk says women and girls are lured or trafficked to Yukon with promises of money, drugs and other benefits.
"Most of the time, they don't see any of the profits, they don't have any control over their lives," she said.
"They're just used and then tossed aside when they're used up, when they're no longer young and pretty, or when they're too strung out," she said. "They're just tossed out like some thing, rather than a person."
Her research shows women and girls are trafficked between Whitehorse and Yukon's smaller rural communities, as well as between Yukon, the N.W.T., and large cities in Alberta and B.C.
"Women are so marginalized that they can't even tell another person, their family or friends, that this is what they're doing to try and make ends meet" - Charlotte Hrenchuk, coordinator for the 'Not Your Fantasy' project
Hrenchuk says the industry is hidden, and "very dangerous."
"It took a long time for the word to get out that I wasn't going to be judgmental, that I was truly interested in their story," she said. "The reason I'm doing this is to improve their lives. It's not just for pure research sake, or to have a sensational headline. It's to try to improve women's lives and improve the choices that are available for women in the territory."
Hrenchuk says it's a huge responsibility.
"Women are so marginalized that they can't even tell another person, their family or friends, that this is what they're doing to try and make ends meet, or that they've been trafficked into it."
Lack of services for women in sex trade
There aren't any services in Yukon geared toward women in the sex trade. For Hrenchuk, that means it's important to make existing organizations and agencies safe places where women can feel comfortable being open about their experiences.
"I think getting rid of stigma and judgment is the huge thing," she said. "Service providers were not even talking about it amongst themselves."
As part of the project, Hrenchuk has created a "Community of Practice", which brings together stakeholders and organizations that may encounter women in the sex trade, from the government to the RCMP, charities and social services. The group has met regularly for the last year to examine Hrenchuk's research findings and look at ways they can take action in their respective fields.
She wants social agencies to focus on crucial transition points in women's lives — group homes, or a release from jail — and work to make them safer. She says "predators" such as pimps and dealers wait for vulnerable women they can lure into the sex trade.
Hrenchuk also believes it's critical to provide better employment opportunities and housing resources for women in the territory.
"If we can change that social environment and get some positive movement behind it, perhaps there will be more choices. Women won't be forced into making these kinds of decisions."
For those in the sex trade, Hrenchuk recommends having a safety plan, working in groups and keeping a cellphone on hand.
"The women who are most unsafe are the women who are working alone."
There are a number of free safety apps available online, Hrenchuk said.