‘The Sex Trade’ reveals Montreal as a hub for prostitution

the sex trade

Is Montreal Canada’s Las Vegas? A film by Ève Lamont called The Sex Trade (Le commerce du sexe) reveals that the situation in Quebec is much worse than many had imagined (myself included) — more women are sold in prostitution in Montreal than anywhere else in North America.

Lamont interviews pimps, johns, strip club owners, law enforcement, porn producers, and, of course, the women who work in the clubs, the massage parlours, on the street, and out of apartments and hotels in la belle province. A police officer explains that Montreal has 30 strip clubs and 200 massage parlours, never mind the escorts and street prostitution. In most all of these places, trafficking and underage prostitution exists. All this has made Montreal a sex tourism destination for American men.

One woman explains that, at 16, she worked at four clubs, two of which were full service, meaning they offered “contact dances,” blow jobs, and hand jobs. Prostitution in strip clubs is rampant and is often (if not always) connected to organized crime.

“Men go to strip clubs to have, not to see,” the woman says. A john, with his back to the camera, confirms, explaining that, sure, there’s porn, but what men really want is women “in the flesh.” That’s why men go to strip clubs. “And the girl wants it,” he adds.

Indeed this lie is key. Men who buy sex not only believe the women they pay are enjoying themselves, but also feel they are doing the women a favour by paying. Victor Malarek, journalist and author of The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It, explains that johns convince themselves the women they pay want to be there and that because she’s “consented,” everything is A-OK. “Once he hands over money, he has no conscience to worry about,” Malarek says.

Indeed, one man explains, “I always felt I was helping them by paying them. I told myself I was a good guy — I wasn’t violent — until you realize the whole system.”

“The whole system” being that the women who sell sex and work in strip clubs rarely profit from prostitution. The clubs make thousands off of the women who work there, making them pay an $70 or $80 “bar fee” at the start of their shifts, never mind all the income the club receives from the men who pay cover and buy overpriced drinks. As one woman who has been working in strip clubs since she was a teenager says, at least 80 per cent of the women in the clubs are working for pimps.

The men who go to strip clubs go with an incredible sense of entitlement no different than any other sex-buyer. Even those who don’t pay for sex are there for their egos — to be hit on by women who would otherwise ignore them.

Lamont finds that massage parlours in Montreal hire girls as young as 15. “They never asked me for ID,” one woman says. She had answered a “non-sexual massage parlour” ad, but was immediately expected to give men hand jobs. Another woman said her boss told her hand jobs were no different than touching an arm or shoulder.

And, of course, there is more than just hand jobs that goes on in these “massage parlours.” Because the women are rated by johns on websites, it’s understood that if a woman or girl doesn’t do what the man wants, she and the business will lose clients. A police officer tells of one woman who refused to do anal sex, but the man wouldn’t take no for answer. She informed the madame of the rape and was told, “I expect you to satisfy the client.”

There’s this idea that, while “forced prostitution” is completely unacceptable, there is this fantasy “upscale escort” (reinforced by television shows like The Girlfriend Experience) who travels the world, making thousands of dollars, living in luxury. The reality is, of course, nothing like that. Many of those women have been coerced in less overt ways than society is willing to understand.

“They promised me a lot of money to go out of country,” one woman explained. “But after you pay for everything: the plane ticket, the high-end clothes, the $700-a-night hotel, dinners, you have nothing left.”

The attempt to divide “forced” from “voluntary” becomes all the more ridiculous when you understand how pimps work.

One pimp interviewed in the film explains that he and his crew would seek out “damaged women” — the ones who say their fathers abused them. You don’t look for women “who are in a good place,” he says. The “force” isn’t visible to the naked eye because the coercion happens through “psychology,” another ex-pimp explains. “They aren’t forced, but manipulated,” a police officer confirms.

The context of abuse mentioned here is ever-relevant and ever-erased by those invested in normalizing the sex trade. “Did I end up in prostitution by accident? No,” says one woman. “My grandfather started abusing me when I was four. He was part of a network of pedophiles, so he let his friends start raping me when I was five.”

She worked both as a hotel escort and on the street, saying her time as an escort was much worse. “You’re in a room, the guys are often wasted when you get there, and they think because they’re paying they can do whatever they want,” she says. “They get mad because you won’t do a golden shower or whatever.” She compares this to the men who picked her up on the street and “just want to come and go home,” whereas “the guy in the hotel wants to realize his fantasies.”

Many prostituted women echo these sentiments, saying that johns pay for sex so they can play out the degrading fantasies they wouldn’t (or can’t) subject their girlfriends and wives to.

Porn is inarguably a factor here. In a talk by Gail Dines featured in the film, she says that “porn drives prostitution.” Men watch more and more extreme stuff and lose the ability to get erections with “real women.” They want to play out the stuff they are masturbating to online, and even the most basic porn today is violent and degrading. Most women, of course, don’t want to have painful anal sex, be gagged with their boyfriends’ penises, or called degrading names by their husbands. So where do men go for “porn sex,” Dines asks? “You’re only going to go to those women who can’t say no. And who are those women who can’t say no? Trafficked and prostituted women.”

There is a more literal connection too, as pimps film the women they prostitute and sell the tapes for profit.

Porn producers recruit women just like pimps do: on the street, in clubs, and through social media. “We do anything and recruit everywhere,” one porn producer says. “You can see it in a girl’s eyes — she’s kinky, she likes it, it doesn’t bother her.” He explains that his business is helped by the fact that cable companies like Quebecor and Shaw allow porn to be distributed on television.

The man, jarringly, sees porn through the same lens many liberals and leftists do — void of empathy or context, as though labour standards resolve the abuse and degradation that exists in porn, as though “consent” renders the treatment of women in porn fair. “Some scenes take longer to shoot than others,” he says. “If there are eight guys around her, that’s eight dicks to deal with. At a certain point, she’s had enough. Her eyes start watering. So we take a break until she’s ready to go again… The girl isn’t there to be abused.”

Ève Lamont’s Le commerce du sexe (The Sex Trade) is now available in DTO and VOD formats at NFB.ca and the iTunes Store and on DVD through NFB.ca

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • TheArtistFormerlyKnownAsYoya

    This doesn’t surprise me much. When I visited Montreal I was shocked by the number of strip clubs in the downtown tourist areas with their neon lights advertising “contact dances”. It seemed quite a different culture than Vancouver.

    • Meghan Murphy

      I haven’t been to Montreal since I was 18 and was only there for a few days, so hadn’t realized things were as bad as they are…

      • LynetteB

        Just to add some historical context, I lived in Montréal from 1987-1991, and things were actually a lot different back then… I was a bartender/server at Churchill Pub & the Comedy Nest on Crescent St., which was (then) a couple doors down from Chez Parée, “the” ‘upper class’ strip club, where a couple good friends of mine, including my roommate, stripped at (interestingly, we all met at Foufounes when it was still just a tiny 2nd floor shithole, which was about as ‘non-uptown’ as you could get). I always hated that they stripped, and constantly harangued them to quit, but they were the only 2 strippers I’ve ever known who I believe genuinely liked what they did, at least for a while (one very simply said, “I think I have a beautiful body, so why shouldn’t I be paid to show it off?” and my roomie was an extremely privileged Judge’s daughter from T.O. who simply wanted her independence and “liked being the centre of attention” [and ‘easy’ money, of course]). They made ridiculous amounts of money until they started being expected to tour (the strip clubs always needed ‘new attractions’ of course, so even the most ‘popular girls’ would eventually start losing their club shifts and have to start touring); shortly after that (around ’92-’95) they started being expected to provide lapdances, which prior to that was both very uncommon, except for in the seediest/drug-fuelled bars, and totally illegal (iirc, lapdancing was legalized there in 1999). Both quit the industry, and I must say, I was pretty proud of them (one eventually lost her very pricey house; both went back to school and learned other skills/careers that they’re still working in now). Point being, back then there were lines that a lot of strippers wouldn’t cross. Apparently now, not so much. More evidence that legalization makes things substantially worse. 🙁

  • melissa

    “If there are eight guys around her, that’s eight dicks to deal with. At
    a certain point, she’s had enough. Her eyes start watering. So we take a
    break until she’s ready to go again… The girl isn’t there to be
    abused.”

    zero self awareness.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Insane what men will admit to, thinking they are saying nothing wrong!

      • melissa

        *sigh* tell me about it.

  • lagattamontral

    Here is more about juvenile prostitution and the Grand Prix. The Québec solidaire party is calling on the Québec National Assembly to take action on this, as it is the same nasty story every year: http://www.pressegauche.org/spip.php?article26512 (In French: Google translate is your friend).

  • zainfazal3000

    Maybe that’s why men go to prostitutes.

  • Drew Carson

    So, we all get thrown into the same pile. Absolutes are dangerous, but I understand you are upset and this is deeply affecting you. Let’s think about this logically; pimps prey on both women and johns. Both prostitutes and johns are in a bad place psychologically, so please don’t make this about a common enemy, aka, men in general. Hate is never the answer, because hate doesn’t attempt to fix the problem. All hate does is create more injustice and evil. Focus on the problem, attack the issue, make a difference, but don’t discriminate.

  • Drew Carson

    Ever seen what happens to a man who has low testosterone? Acts and feels just like a woman. Men’s aggressiveness and violence, in my opinion, is directly linked to testosterone production; however, there are also men who have very high levels of testosterone and yet they can control their urges and treat women as equals. You realize that eventually, if your belief system works, women will become the oppressors. Thus, your thinking is flawed. It is not MAN VS. WOMAN that’s the problem. I think the problem is systemic, deeply rooted in our society and we need to change that, and only that.

    • radwonka

      >> says that evil testosterone controls the brain of men and creates violence against women out of nowhere and doesnt explain why
      >> says that some men can magically control those evil hormones and doesnt explain why
      >> says that women can become the oppressor even though we dont have much evil testosterones and doesnt explain why

      Sorry, but you dont make sense.
      But nice straw man.
      De plus, it has nothing to do with what I said. I talked about banalized violence (ie culture), see more about the concept of culture here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_neuroscience