According to the UK Network of Sex Work Projects, “The World Wide Web (www), chat rooms, social networking sites and portals are the latest and most rapidly expanding medium through which sex is sold globally.”
Adult Sex Work
Demographics of adult sex work and the climate of the sex industry in Vancouver have changed dramatically over the last ten years. Whereas traditional methods of sex work have historically been on-street, print advertising, phone chat and escort service/brothel, a notable trend has developed in recent years with marked increases in the number of individuals involved in the sex industry who are members of virtual communities where they develop a presence through profiling, chat rooms and SNS in order to attract customers and sell sex; all of which have established themselves as a new and distinct culture whereby adult sex workers organize and meet in order to work in the sex industry. As more traditional methods of sex work diminish, an increasing number of sex workers are utilising the ‘net’ as their working medium, especially with the ambiguity of laws that currently regulate the sex industry.
Youth and Sexual Exploitation
Today, youth are actively involved in online experimentation with identity, peer relations, risk taking and the creation of a virtual community where they feel safe, secure and supported by their peers while they discover their capability, creativity and individuality. This new virtual community development presents a unique opportunity to reach out to youth, build relationships and join them in their own environment; a community that is rapidly expanding to include a variety of resources, forums, chat rooms and blogs. Youth have staked a claim in the World Wide Web and we, as service providers have a responsibility to meet them where they are at, respect their community and engage with them on their own terms.
Our distinction between adults and youth engaging in selling sex takes into account that while, legally in British Columbia, youth under the age of 19 engaging in sex work is considered sexual exploitation, many young people do not regard themselves as exploited, citing the fact they it can be a mutually beneficial arrangement where both parties involved are getting their needs met. Conditions that serve to further exploit youth include, but are not limited to, f poverty, circumstance and the presence of individuals in society that prey on their vulnerabilities, seeing them as being ‘easy targets’. Regardless of the differing perspectives of the impact on youth and current law, the fact remains that the internet has proven to be an alarmingly effective new tool through which many youth are lured or forced into sexual exploitation at an early age.
HUSTLE: Men on the Move is an outreach and support program of HIM - Health Initiative for Men http://www.checkhimout.ca/, designed and implemented by experiential individuals who see a need for specific front-line programming & support services for male sex workers. Attention is also given to identifying and supporting street-involved youth who may be at risk of exploitation in Vancouver’s down town south and West End communities.
The cornerstone of the HUSTLE program has been in the building of relationships with sex workers and youth through traditional on-street outreach. Over the past three years, HUSTLE has noticed a sharp decrease in street presence of active survival sex work on local strolls and tacks and an increase in online internet presence. HUSTLE has engaged in program evaluations for its three years of service delivery. The most recent evaluation (2010) sampled 41 street involved youth and active survival male/trans sex workers asking respondents if they used the internet for situations involving selling sex/sex act exchange. 71% of our sample disclosed an online presence relating to sex work (adult) and exchange of sexual services (youth).
‘Netreach’ pilot project description:
HUSTLE aims to launch a pilot internet outreach program (Netreach – www.ukswp.org) that will effectively engage with the growing population of male sex workers and youth at-risk of exploitation that access the internet personally and professionally in their daily lives. Online outreach will find new ways to engage men and youth by creating a two-way dialogue with existing clients and reach new clients who previously have not accessed or engaged with HUSTLE and HIM.
HUSTLE will utilize existing resources to facilitate the program in house at the HIM offices using up-to-date drop-in computer systems. During the initial pilot phase of ‘Netreach’, HUSTLE will continue to provide on-street outreach one shift per week and engage existing clients in the natural networks they are in such as strolls, tracks, cafes, SRO’s and drop-in centres. The weekend shift will be designated for beginning an outreach presence online and establishing profiles on various SNS, dating sites, and online classified services i.e. Craigslist.
The primary goals of the ‘Net reach’ program are as follows:
Ø To provide outreach and initiate relationships with adult sex workers and youth at risk of exploitation in the virtual networks they frequent;
Ø To reduce isolation by building relationships with other youth and adult sex workers who previously have not accessed supports and services from HIM;
Ø To increase public awareness of HIM Programs and services; (capacity)
Ø To share resources and facilitate access to relevant services through referrals and partnerships;
Ø To facilitate health promotion by creating/strengthening community partnerships making referrals with other health service providers i.e. sexual health orgs, street nurses, STOP HIV Project treatment and prevention programs
Ø Professional development training specific to internet outreach;
Ø Statistical data/information gathering through logging and evaluation of project:
Ø Increased understanding and development of internet outreach policy/procedure; (see attached)
Ø Ongoing training/professional development specific to internet outreach ethics;
Ø Highlight best practices and insight into the ongoing funding/development of a sustainable internet outreach service for individuals involved in the sex industry;
Ø To explore levels of violence/youth sexual exploitation and need for formalized reporting and information sharing regarding violence;
Ø To develop an internet outreach training guide to be shared with other service providers embarking or engaging in online outreach of their own.