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:


The online sex industry is constantly changing and by extension, so must HUSTLE’s Netreach. When the program first started, men were largely advertising their services through Craig’s List. The 2013 Bedford decision of the Supreme Court of Canada brought about important changes to legislation on how you can advertise sexual services. As a result, the sex work landscape in Canada has changed considerably. Men still use online dating and hookup apps and sites to promote their services, but they can’t do so explicitly. They have to use a range of code words and phrases to make their services known. In order to find the individuals that they are trying to reach, Netreach has to keep up with the lingo.

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.

Netreach offers an important service that reflects the changing nature of sex work and social interactions more generally, but it is only one of the services offered by HUSTLE. In fact, many times, Netreach is used as a way to link clients to in-person services, whether that be the provision of safer sex and other harm reduction materials, or medical appointments at one of HIM’s clinics. In fact, if someone wants to meet in person and lives in the Vancouver area, the Netreach team tries to make that happen immediately by inviting the person over to the office or by going to meet with them in their neighbourhood. If they are not able to provide the required services themselves, Netreach refers their users to other services in their area.
In cases where a person has a general question about HIV transmission or health, the conversation doesn’t necessarily move beyond the virtual sphere. But when things get more personal, Netreach tries to move the conversation away from the dating app or site to another medium. Not only does this ensure that people receive the support that they require, whether it be on the phone or in person, but it’s also a question of security.

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, 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.



  • A lot of organizations seem afraid to start offering services online or to use social media in their activities because of the ever-changing nature of the internet. A Facebook page is useful, but only if people already know who you are; just like you have to go to where people are in person in order to make your organization and your services known, so too must this happen in online outreach.
  • Though Netreach works with individuals who face precarious economic situations and may be living on the streets or without stable housing, many of their clients own very high-tech and up-to-date technologies. After all, their livelihood now depends on this technology. People find a way to access the internet, whether through their phones, cybercafés or libraries.
  • While you can’t guarantee the accuracy of what someone is telling you online, you have to take everything seriously. There was a case where a young man described a situation that was literally right out of a movie – they still provided him with the support and referrals that could help him. The simple fact that people are reaching out, even if a worker feels skeptical of the information, is an indication that they may need attention and support.