HUSTLE provides services to self-identified men who have been or are currently involved in the sex industry in the Vancouver area, in Western Canada. Initially based at PEERS Vancouver, the program moved to the Health Initiative for Men (HIM) in 2012.
Around the time that Vancouver was hosting the Olympics in 2010, the HUSTLE street outreach workers started to notice a sharp decline in the number of people that they were interacting with on Vancouver’s sex strolls. It took them a while to figure out where the men had gone, but they eventually found them — sex work had moved online. In the process, HUSTLE came to realize that they would need to add a new component to their outreach: thus was born Netreach.
Initially inspired by the online outreach programs of the UK Network of Sex Work Projects, Netreach is now funded to provide 5 hours of direct online outreach on Saturday afternoons and email support throughout the week. The live outreach is done by the Community Outreach Coordinator at HIM and a volunteer, who log on to about 8 dating and hookup sites each to share information and make themselves available to men who are involved in the sex trade and experiential or at-risk youth.
Over the years, Netreach has learned some key lessons on what it means to provide online support to vulnerable communities:
With new apps and sites appearing and/or disappearing constantly, Netreach also has to mirror the ever-changing landscape of internet sex. They do so by being involved in online communities, by studying popularity trends in apps and sites, by asking their clients to keep them abreast of new developments and by searching the top Google results of pertinent keywords at any given time.
Rules, rules, rules…
In addition to being a moving target, apps and sites all have their own policies and criteria as to who can reach their users and how. You must abide by these rules if you want to avoid getting banned. Before they set up camp on a new app or site, the Outreach Coordinator pours through the terms of service and, if necessary, gets in touch with the website administrators to tell them who they are and what they plan to do. For the most part, 99% of these apps and sites are welcoming to community organizations.
For example, Squirt is a hookup site where Netreach currently does some of its outreach. Prior to the Bedford decision, the site used to allow people to list their escort services, but this is no longer the case. While HUSTLE is still allowed to do outreach on the site, they too can no longer specifically mention that they are a service for sex workers. Instead, they share health bulletins that provide timely information on PEP, PREP, the recent syphilis outbreak in the MSM community, and other news of interest. They are able to read between the lines and when they find someone who may benefit from their support, they use a soft outreach approach to say something along the lines of: “If you need any harm reduction supplies, feel free to get in touch with us.”
Whereas Squirt allows interventions like Netreach to send out as many messages as they want, this isn’t the case on other sites, where you are bound to a certain number of messages. And while on some sites Netreach can contact users directly, in other cases, they send out bulletins and make their presence known, but they have to wait for people to get in touch with them. On some sites, users are geolocatable, meaning that you can identify who is based in or around the Vancouver area, while on other sites, this isn’t the case. Netreach offers its services to anyone who requires them, and so it is that they recently helped a young man find support in Phoenix, Arizona.
Since its inception, Netreach has been making sure that it constantly asks how it can protect the confidentiality of its clients, while protecting those who are vulnerable to exploitation and online predators. The program is in an ongoing process of reviewing its procedures for social media and outreach. Because they are dealing with sex work, an activity that is criminalized in Canada, Netreach has to be very careful not to put their clients in a situation where their written words could be used against them. In many cases, the apps and sites that they use to do their outreach are based on servers in the United States, meaning that they abide to US laws, including the Travel Act.
Though perhaps slim, the chance that Netreach may be subpoenaed for information that could be used against someone is taken very seriously. Upon their first contact with a person, they are quick to let them know that they should be careful about what they say. To that end, people are invited to email or to call the toll-free number. While they log every interaction that is had, this information is saved offline, using nicknames and eliminating any information that could potentially be identifying. In their records, they don’t link back to anything online, nor do they save any images or photos.
While they’re careful to protect the identify of their clients, as per Canadian law Netreach has the duty to report any situation where a minor may be at risk of being injured or exploited. In cases like this, they file a report to cybertips.ca, a government agency that has the resources and know-how to find the real people behind the online presence.
In developing these policies, Netreach benefits from its close relationship with the Vancouver Police Department. They remain in close contact with the sex work liaison, who is able to offer specialized advice on cybersecurity. The Ministry of Social Development in British Columbia also created an online outreach procedures guide that has been very useful in allowing Netreach to refine its safety strategy.
Though the two approaches may be complementary, online outreach is not the same as in-person outreach. It’s more of a process and it can take a lot longer to build trust with your users. It took Netreach at least a year of being consistently online before they started being taken seriously. They now receive referrals through some of their previous clients, which they take as a true sign of success.
The quantity and nature of the interactions are also different online than they are in person. In some cases, they may have only 2 or 3 people reaching out to them in a week, but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a pressing need for this type of intervention. If anything, HUSTLE’s Netreach wishes that there were more organizations to share the workload. After all, online conversations are happening 24 hours a day and the internet is always shapeshifting. At the moment, Netreach can only be live for 5 hours every Saturday and while it offers a precious service, there is room for its own services and other interventions to grow.