Manon Marie Josée Michaud

I was born in a working-class district of Montreal. My parents divorced and I was the only child. I was in my mother’s care from when I was eight, but she didn’t give me an ounce of affection, because what she really wanted was a son. There was a lot of psychological and physical violence. She used to say, “Manon is a whore’s name.” And yet she went out to bars almost every night and often brought random men home with her. []

I started rebelling when I was 14: truancy, early sexuality and daily conflicts with my mother until I was placed in DPJ (Directorate of Youth Protection) when I was 16.

I entered prostitution for lack of choice around the end of 1992. I found myself homeless, without furniture, looking for a job. I wanted to be employed in a restaurant, as a waitress – I had experience – but I couldn’t find a job. Then, I came across an ad in the newspaper and I called it. I suspected what it was, but I desperately needed work. When I called, I was told it was very profitable, and that I needed to go in and meet them so they could see if I was suitable.

It started from there. I was quickly caught in the machine. It was an escort agency, a big operation. They had ads in all the newspapers. Nowadays of course the recruitment of women for prostitution happens on the Internet. But then it was all newspaper ads.

The escort agency made a lot of money on the backs of exploited women and accepted money from pimps. I was not just a witness to this; I was a victim myself. They sent me to work in strip clubs – which charged us the exorbitant fee of $100 a day to operate on their premises. They didn’t even give you lunch or a drink, generosity not being part of the program.

The customers could touch the dancers; everything was allowed. And the women had to compete against each other. Some would imagine that they were more important than others, but it was an illusionary status. Because, in any case, the ‘work’ consisted of giving blowjobs and ‘full service’ in the boxes. It was exhausting: the alcohol, the atmosphere, the world. It required a lot of energy.

The agency also sent a driver to take me to customers’ places or to bars outside Montreal. The agency didn’t care about the safety of the women they send for slaughter, only their profits counted. Some agencies, under the threat of blackmailing pimps, would send minors because some clients want them very young. It was a very hostile environment.

When I eventually got out of prostitution, there was no financial help. When I looked for a job, I was told to go back to school. There was discrimination and the government agencies were very hostile to women who’d experienced prostitution. The bureaucracy was alienating – you were always having to provide papers and medical certificates. There was no understanding of the reality of women coming out of prostitution. There were no rehabilitation and no return to school programmes that took account of our experiences. It was really discouraging and many women ended up returning to prostitution – especially those who are less tenacious and younger. It all becomes impossible and then they start back again.

This was before they passed Bill C36, which introduced a Nordic Model style law in Canada.

But there’s still very little help for women who want to exit prostitution. The groups that do help women who want to get out are effective, but they are underfunded and have to make do with very little. They lack resources and government support. It looks like the government wants to keep women in prostitution, or they want us to go back to it.

To be effective, the Nordic Model law must be applied, and that doesn’t happen without government backing. If it’s not implemented and if measures to help women exit are not properly funded, the law risks being an empty shell – and the change in social norms and attitudes that are so desperately needed won’t follow.

Those of us who campaigned for Bill C36 are not very visible. The mass media ignore us. Many false rumours and clichés, not to mention coarse lies, circulate about us. We need more places to discuss our struggles and experiences, and to mobilize for political action, visibility, popular education. In short, we need a political, emotional, intellectual, and social presence. And above all, more radical feminism.

Manon Marie–Jo Michaud has been campaigning against violence against women in the sex industry for 15 years, is active in a number of organisations, and founded the Facebook page International Union against Sexual Violence.

Manon Marie Josée Michaud