Live models were making a point about how young women are turned into products for the sex trade in this storefront display on Queen Street West in Toronto on Feb. 22. Michael Swan

‘Shoppable Girls’ spreading the word

  • February 28, 2020

What’s a teenage girl worth? About $280,000 per year in income for sex traffickers, according to Covenant House research.

In the run-up to “Human Trafficking Awareness Day” Feb. 22, Covenant House in Toronto mounted a display of girls for sale in a Queen Street West storefront. The shop windows featuring “The Amara, The Ellie, The Maya and The Samantha” were part of a public awareness campaign called “Shoppable Girls.”

“We’re standing here on Queen Street talking about sex trafficking,” said Covenant House anti-human trafficking services manager Julie Neubauer.

“We’ve got people stopping, taking pictures, people on streetcars who are looking in. We’re generating a lot of chatter about this issue that I think a lot of people still believe doesn’t happen in Canada.”

Supported by marketing consultants Weber Shandwick and advertising agency TAXI, Covenant House designed a campaign that includes a website ( and the social media tag #ShoppableGirls to reach teenage girls and their parents.

People seem unaware that victims come from all social strata, small towns and big cities, according to Covenant House.

Toronto Police Service research shows sex trafficking is about a $1 billion-year industry in Canada and 93 per cent of its victims are Canadian citizens. Nine out of 10 young people trafficked for sex are girls with an average age of 17, but some as young as 13.

Since Covenant House began programming in 2013 aimed specifically at girls leaving the sex trade, it has helped an average of 50 girls a year.

Toronto cops have seen increasing numbers of victims since 2014 as they’ve ratcheted up enforcement, recording a rise in victims from 33 in 2014 to 60 in both 2017 and 2018. In that same span, the number of trafficking charges has increased from 365 to 410.

Neubauer admits she’s unsure whether or not Toronto sex trafficking is getting worse.

“I’m not sure whether it’s the chicken or the egg,” she said. “Whether or not the increased numbers of survivors who are coming forward are having more people talk about it — that people (victims) are saying, ‘Actually, now that you’re talking about it like that, this is what’s happening to me.’ Or whether there is an increase in the actual activity of sex trafficking.”

Covenant House offers a broad range of services for young women exiting the sex trade, including residence at Rogers Home to restart their lives over a two-year span, 24-7 support at Avdell Home and its “supported lodging program” for young people who face discrimination and other barriers in the housing market.

“If you or someone else gave me a MasterCard gift card for $100, what I have used that money for is to replace clothes that they lost when they left (the sex trade). So if they’re leaving an exploitive circumstance, and they’re leaving right then and there, they leave stuff behind,” said Neubauer.

She regularly goes shopping with girls who need basic necessities they once received from traffickers.

A more substantial gift, perhaps $10,000, would enable Neubauer to house young women through the roughly two-year process of counselling, possibly reconnecting with family or restarting their education, said Neubauer.

When it comes to prevention, Neubauer’s top weapon is information. It’s not uncommon for young women to fail to see what’s really happening to them, she said.

“The way traffickers work is they create these situations where they, young women, believe they are in situations of trust, or relationship, or friendship,” said Neubauer. “So there’s this misunderstanding about what’s actually happening.”

In 2018 Covenant House and survey company Ipsos Reid questioned 500 girls aged 12 to 16. They found only 38 per cent of the teenagers believe their parents were “very aware” of their social media activity.

Online friendships are often the gateway to luring and grooming by sex traffickers. 

Ultimately, girls become entirely dependent (financially and emotionally) on their traffickers.

In a focus group, mothers told Covenant House the Shoppable Girls campaign is a wake-up call, a warning to be more aware of what’s happening in their daughters’ lives.

The Shoppable Girls launch event attracted politicians and law enforcement out to support the campaign.

“We’re grateful to have people from the city and the province and in Ottawa focus on this issue,” Neubauer said.

The next challenge is “more resources for the survivors, to help them exit,” she said.

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