‘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

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.