TORONTO (The Thomson Reuters Foundation)--The sex industry has gone digital and community outreach workers are adapting by using text messaging software to reach potential victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
A report released earlier this month, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, highlighted the significant impact of the Internet on the underground commercial sex industry in the United States. Street-based sex work has become more dangerous, less lucrative, and easier to detect, the report said.
In Canada, anti-human trafficking and women’s groups say the use of the Internet as the primary way to sell sex has made it almost impossible for them to make initial face-to-face contact with women in the sex trade.
“Project Backpage”, a pilot program in Edmonton, Canada that started in 2012, is using FrontlineSMS, software created to effect social change through text messaging.
In the first effort of its kind, the University of Alberta has partnered with the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) and Chrysalis Network, an anti-human trafficking group, to send text messages offering support and contact information to phone numbers scraped from ads on the Edmonton “adult” section of Backpage.com, an online classified advertising website similar to Craigslist.
“We’ve seen the shift from street presence to the online presence, so we wanted to reach people who don’t know about the community resources,” said Kate Quinn, director of CEASE. “We thought this would be a very innovative way to put [our] message out.”
While there is no substitute for human contact, texting may lead to a phone call, which may lead to a personal relationship, said Chrysalis founder Jacqui Linder. “This is a superb technology to create an introduction to somebody who is in the sex industry who may need assistance,” she said.
Mass text messaging campaigns using the FrontlineSMS software are mostly carried out in countries in the developing world, such as Malawi and Benin.
“Very often people forget that there are lots of people in the West who are vulnerable and for whom the best way to get ahold of them is through their mobile phone,” said Laura Walker Hudson, CEO of the Social Impact Lab Foundation, which makes FrontlineSMS.
“For women who are vulnerable, the phone can be a lifeline.”
Since last year, thousands of text messages have gone out to hundreds of phone numbers culled from the Edmonton ads. Among them: “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.”
While the focus of the pilot program is on the outgoing messages rather than the replies, some recipients did text back with messages ranging from, “Thank you it’s an amazing thing you’re doing,” to, “don’t text me that bullshit.” Anyone asking to stop receiving the messages is moved to a Do Not Text list.
“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,” Linder said.
At this point, it is difficult to determine the impact of Project Backpage, according to the project’s recent report. More than 100 replies have been received, and there have been approximately seven instances in which people contacted CEASE or Chrysalis because they received their text messages. The report describes one woman who contacted CEASE after she received a text message, saying she was being “forced by her pimp to come to Edmonton from Toronto.”
CEASE received phone calls from two women last March who received texts and wanted to meet in person and Chrysalis received a phone call last December from a woman who said she was at risk of a drug addiction relapse and wanted support. CEASE met with these women and offered them services, and Chrysalis provided phone counseling to the woman who contacted them.
The Project Backpage team said their campaign has drawn a clearer picture of the sex industry landscape in Edmonton. The project confirms that women working in the industry fall into different categories, Linder said.
“What this project did is [serve] as a random sampling of who’s out there,” she said. “Not everybody who’s in the industry is being harmed and coerced, not everybody who’s in the industry is in distress…But until the message was sent out and people replied, we didn’t know who was out there in our own little city.”
Because there are certain times of the year when sex workers will be most receptive and when they will not, the time and cost of mass texting campaigns can be minimal. Based on input from CEASE staff, Gordon Gow, professor of communication and technology at the University of Alberta, said Project Backpage has incorporated some assumptions about when it might be best to release the texts.
Gow said he envisions Project Backpage as a series of seasonal campaigns.
“There are peak periods, like right around Christmas time when demand is high,” he said. “At that time, they’re not really receptive, because they’re busy and flush with cash. But come January, when business drops off…they may be struggling financially a bit and more open to the message.”
Text messaging also has distinct advantages over voice phone calls.
“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,” said Gow. “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.”
He added that the low cost of campaigns like Project Backpage is an advantage for NGOs. They can send out “literally hundreds of messages for peanuts, pennies.”
The response from sex workers in Edmonton who have received the text messages, sometimes several in one week, has been mixed. Some workers interviewed said the messages are useless and condescending and others said it is a good, non-invasive way to address exploitation in the industry.
Project Backpage, which will continue texting, has received interest from police forces and academic circles in other parts of Canada. Gow said he and his team are looking to collaborate with Alberta Health Services to supplement the campaign with health-related messages.
“In this day and age, it’s really hard to find a free project that is actually useful and this is a very useful tool,” said Linder.
“It’s not the whole package, it’s part of a suite of services that I think is important to offer to the commercial sex industry and I think it would be great for other cities to have a similar project.”
--Rachel Browne is a fellow in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.