New awareness campaign will target johns seeking sex at Montreal Grand Prix

After a two-year absence, Montreal is gearing up for next week’s return of one of its marquee events, the F1 Grand Prix du Canada.

But sex worker advocates worry that the roar of the engines and the long-awaited flood of tourist dollars flowing into the city could drown out the problem of the sexual exploitation of women and young girls that the event has become notorious for.

“Every year we get calls from panicked parents about their daughter who listened to a friend and decided to get into the sex industry during the weekend of the Grand Prix,” said Jennie-Laure Sully, community organizer with Montreal’s Coalition for the fight against sexual exploitation (CLES), which is launching an awareness campaign that coincides with the event.

These young girls are often lured by the promise that they can make lots of money just by trying sex work for Grand Prix weekend, said Sully. They are often coerced into staying in the sex industry by pimps who make them believe that seeking help from the authorities will make them subject to legal action.

CLES first started the annual campaign for the 2016 Grand Prix, using messages like “Buying sex is not a sport” and “The truth about sexual exploitation.” This year’s campaign, running across digital TSAs and social media, is the first to directly target would-be johns and sex tourists.

“The reason why there’s a sex industry is that there are clients who are willing to pay for sex,” said Sully. “We’re hoping we’ll get emails and calls not just about ‘How can we protect our women and girls?’ but how can we change the behaviour of certain men who think they’re entitled to impose what they want with their money, and get the sex they want, when they want, regardless of the consequences.

“They’re willing to pay even if it harms someone, and we need to have that conversation,” she added. “For years and years, people have been talking about ‘Let’s protect our women and girls,’ but…we need to talk about the [men] that are doing the harm. Unfortunately when it comes to sexual exploitation, people are not even acknowledging that the clients are doing the harm.”

Created in-house with funding from Quebec’s Secrétariat For the Status of Women—with art direction provided by Vasilis Dandelis and photography by Josias Gob—the simple creative shows images of men from the waist down, either holding money in front of their groin or with money tucked into the zipper of their pants. The accompanying message reads “Paying for sex is illegal in Canada.”

Passed in 2014, Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, “treats prostitution as a form of  sexual exploitation that disproportionately impacts on women and girls.” Its overall objectives are to protect those who sell their own sexual services; protect communities, and especially children, from the harms caused by prostitution; and reduce the demand for prostitution and its incidence.

The ads are presented by a group called the “Un trop grand prix (Too high a price)” committee, which in addition to CLES is comprised of the Montreal YWCA, Prévention jeunesse Longueuil, and Prévention jeunesse Laval. The committee logo combines a woman’s face and the chequered grid of a start/finish line, with the words “Too high a price for women and girls.” All of the creative links to the Too High a Price committee website.

The Grand Prix du Canada is a major economic boon for the city, with research showing that it brings an estimated $90 million in spending from visitors outside the Greater Montreal Area and more than $42 million in economic benefits to the city.

But the event has also been identified by some groups as a major site for sexual exploitation and trafficking, with a 2016 report by the National Post saying that men can order a prostitute during the event with as much ease as they can order a pizza. That same year, a report by ECPAT International labelled Montreal a “high-risk hub” for child sex tourism because of its proximity to the U.S. border and high profile events and festivals.

Chris Powell