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Canadian Sex Workers Offered Support & Counseling Via Text Message

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, March 26 2014

Sex work isn't what it used to be (Wikipedia)

Sex workers are a lot more likely to connect with clients from behind a computer screen than through an open car window these days. Nearly half of the pimps surveyed in a recent Urban Institute study of the underground commercial sex economy reported using online advertisements or classifieds to reach clients. One consequence of this shift is that outreach workers have had to change tactics. In a pilot program called “Project Backpage” activists are scraping phone numbers in “adult” ads on a popular online classifieds site and sending out text messages with offers of support and counseling.

Project Backstage is a partnership between the University of Alberta, the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) and the anti-human trafficking group, the Chrysalis Network.

The messages might read:

“Want help? More choices? We care. There is hope. Counseling, training, income support, victim advocate, peer coach. Please CEASE 780-471-6137”

Or:

Chrysalis Network offers free 24-7 phone counseling to workers in the adult industry. When you’re ready to talk, we’re here to listen. Call 1-866-528-7109

Project Backstage uses FrontlineSMS, open source technology built to create social change, and first used by the Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe.

Rachel Browne, a fellow in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, reports that thousands of messages have gone out to possible sex workers since last year.

“What I like about the technology is the user gets to decide. The person who is in the industry gets to decide whether or not to respond,” Chrysalis founder Jacqui Linder told Browne.

Although the impact is difficult to gauge at this point [see a report on the case study here], more than 100 people have responded, and approximately seven have reached our for help.

Another advantage of texting rather than calling or making face-to-face contact is that a text has staying power.

“In a standard phone call, you might talk to the woman and she may remember the conversation, but forget the details. A text message can sit in that inbox for quite some time,” Gordon Gow, a University of Alberta professor of communication and technology, told Browne. “CEASE has told us about one woman who got the message several months ago, it just stayed in her inbox until she was ready to act on it.”

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