The Natashas: What Slavery Looks Like in 2021

Chelsea Sauve

The Natashas.

It sounds like the name of a stellar indie band with epic style and swagger. The kind of band whose oversized vintage t-shirt I’d definitely sport.

Unfortunately, no such t-shirt exists because The Natashas are not an indie band. In fact, they are not a group who chose their name. That title – alongside all the elements of their life – was an identity chosen for them.

So, who are The Natashas?

The Nastahas are victims of the most recent trend in sex trafficking, more specifically the name refers to women from Eastern European countries – mainly Russia, Moldova, Ukraine, Bosnia, and the Czech Republic – who have been deceived or kidnapped into the sex trade. Trafficked around the globe, exposed to horrific emotional and physical abuse, some of these women are being kept against their will in the cities we call home. And Canadians, that includes us. That’s right. As a Canadian, I was horrified to learn that Montreal and Toronto are indeed hubs for incoming Natashas (more on that later).

The Economy of Sex Trafficking

Like most of us stuck in lock down mode, I have picked up some of the books I’ve long wanted to savour. While working my way through my “want-to-read” list on Goodreads, I came across a book titled “The Natashas” written by journalist Victor Malarek. I had zero recollection of putting in on the list, but the moment I skimmed its back cover I knew it was one I had to dabble in.  And as someone who has long studied human trafficking, and more specifically sex trafficking, I was immediately taken by the subject matter.

The buying and selling of human beings is, distastefully, a trade as old as time itself. And while our morally driven selves would like to believe that trade in humans is an economy that exists solely within the pages of history books, unfortunately that is far from the truth. The reality is much starker.

So, what is sex trafficking?

It is a form of human trafficking (aka: slavery) for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Most commonly thought of as an issue that plagues South East Asia, choosing to focus on Thailand or Cambodia or Laos alone is misguided in that it ignores the pervasive nature of this criminal enterprise.

The Natashas are an example of that.

These women represent a different nucleus from which the “supply” of women that litters the sex trade are plucked to meet the insatiable demand for their bodies. The trade in people has taken on a new level of “sophistication”, going so far as to establish training centres where women are indoctrinated into prostitution. Malarek’s investigation led him to discover such training centres in Serbia, and where he acquired insight into pathways through which these women are lured and deceived into a life of enslavement.

Deceived by “mail order bride” systems, offers of high paying gigs as nannies and waitresses abroad, these women are tricked into becoming enslaved through promises of jobs that they hope will lessen their financial hardship. Lured by the prospect of income and hope of social mobility that may otherwise elude them in many of the small towns that comprise the former Eastern Bloc they call home, The Natashas arrive at their destinations (often far away ports in the Middle East, Western Europe or North America) to have their passports and any other identifying paper taken. Soon the prospect of the promised job dwindles far out of sight.

The reality of their situation sets in as these women are drugged and made to service multiple men a day, earning income for their pimps (aka: owners). Malarek describes the network into which these women are sold, where they may change hands from middlemen to pimps as they are sold into prostitution and kept enslaved forced to service thousands of men to “earn” their release. Those who show any form of defiance are beaten, raped, and sometimes killed to serve as examples to the other captured women.

Now before we keep going, I want to be certain that sex trafficking is not confused with sex work. There are some women who choose to engage in sex work and do so of their own volition. And while the clientele served by women who autonomously choose this work often overlaps with those who are kidnapped and forced into sex trafficking, the plight of the women is not.

You’re likely thinking, this is horrific, why don’t these women turn to the police for help?

The emotional and physical abuse suffered by these women is so pervasive that they are afraid to reach out for help. And you may be thinking, what if they are brave enough to try? They may not find a willing audience, or simply one whose pockets have already been lined by the traffickers.

Malarek points out that in many cases, the people tasked with maintaining law and order, such as police officers and international peacekeepers, are amongst the men who comprise the demand that fuels the trade.

The Pandemic and the Human Trafficking

The economic crisis that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic has made existing vulnerable segments of the population more vulnerable to both labour and sex trafficking. The economic collapse and dwindling of social serviceshas left a dearth that traffickers are all too happy to fill. The sex trade specifically, has adapted during these months of the pandemic and is one of the only economies to thrive under its pressure. In fact, the global sex industry remains organized crime’s fastest-growing business with up to two million people trafficked into the slave trade each year. It is reported that sex trafficking is more lucrative than guns or drugs – in this trade, traffickers can profit about $280,000 per year by controlling one victim. You can imagine how much of that cash she sees.

Reuters recently reported that the effects of various lockdown measures as well as “job losses… border closures could undo global gains in tackling human trafficking in recent years”. The pandemic has also created a “new class” of victims – namely those in dire financial straits who are more vulnerable to the empty promises of skilled trafficker.

And this sale of women – the genuine bartering of people – happens on the streets of our beloved Canadian cities. I was astounded to read that in Montreal, a city whose charm is not lost on traffickers, “a Natasha” (and women from other places of origin such as South East Asia and the East Asia more generally) can be sold for approximately $2000.00. Yes, you read that correctly, SOLD. In recent months Montreal has been deemed a hot bed for child sexual exploitation specifically. While we stroll the lush paths of Mount Royal, women and children are being sold two streets away. And in Toronto, sex trafficking has reached such heights that a sex trafficking awareness campaign called “Shoppable Girls” was launched by Covenant House featuring young girls in windows, with the tag line “some things shouldn’t be for sale”. Amen to that.

While the Natashas are the focus of this piece, the sinister reality is that victims of sex trafficking come from all over the globe. Including our own Canadian cities. And while Natashas do account for a portion of the women who make up the sex trafficking supply, 93% of trafficking victims in Canada are Canadian. In a Canadian context, many young girls are lured in by a pimp – termed a “Romeo” – who pretends to be her boyfriend and grooms her before luring her into the network.

Wherever these women are from – Eastern Europe, South East Asia or North America –  whatever their background or circumstance, they share one thing in common: these women did not choose the sex trade. Whether they are The Natashas, The Allisons, or The Veronicas – they are in danger. They are victims of cruel, sinister criminal network and they need our help.