On 2 November I hosted Cristhina on The Doctor Is IN! webinar for a discussion about online outreach to sexually exploited and trafficked women. She discusses her organization’s development of an online outreach approach and shares some how-to pointers for those who are interested in getting started. I learned so much from this discussion and I’m sure you will find it inspiring and challenging. Here I describe the main points as well as some questions from the discussion time but to get the full story please watch the the video.
Most of the outreach that I am aware of and involved in is the in-person method, in which teams of people meet people selling sex on the street, in brothels, massage parlors, karaoke bars, and wherever else one can find prostitution. What is less commonly done is the online outreach method and I’m now convinced that we need to be doing much more of this.
For quite some time there has been a growing effort among police units and NGOs to track down perpetrators of online sexual exploitation of children and find the children being harmed. However, there hasn’t been a widespread effort to reach out to adult victims of trafficking and exploitation in the same way.
Cristhina’s organization had already decided to start an online outreach program over a year ago and so when the lockdown restrictions came into force they were primed for action. I highly recommend that you see or listen to her description of their outreach project but here are some of the main points. She has also put together a “Online Outreach 101” handout that she is graciously sharing.
About an hour before the outreach two of their team members get together to research the classified ads and make a list of 15-20 numbers to contact during the outreach. It is important to do this right before so that you will be calling people who are currently working.
At the time when they make the outreach calls, there are between 6-8 people together. A team member takes notes and they take turns making the calls. Different team members speak different languages which is extremely important as the prostituted women come from many different places. The outreach sessions usually last about 2 hours.
The Surf and Sound report, which discusses the role of the internet in smuggling migrants and trafficking in human beings, summarizes the link between the internet and human trafficking in this way:
“Trafficking in human beings and smuggling of migrants and asylum seekers have been evolving in the past few years in order to adapt to the ever changing geopolitical, technological and social contexts. This adaptation path involves also a massive use of the Internet in the various phases of the human trafficking and the smuggling processes (i.e. recruitment, transportation and – for THB – exploitation) both in origin/transit and destination countries.
“Researchers have widely acknowledged the role of internet in the trafficking in persons. A group of specialists engaged by the Council of Europe found that ‘the Internet industry and the sex industry are closely interlinked and the scope, volume, and content of the material on the Internet promoting or enacting trafficking in human beings for the sole purpose of sexual exploitation … are unprecedented’.
“It has been underlined how the Internet facilitates the role of traffickers because it ‘can rapidly connect buyers of commercial sex with trafficking victims while simultaneously distancing the perpetrator from the criminal transaction’ (Congressional Research Report, USA, 2011).”
This report was published in March 2107 so we are already way behind in getting up to speed on using the internet for good!
I highly recommend this article for anyone who is interested in learning more about the intersection of internet and human trafficking.
Building and the ongoing care of the outreach team is of vital importance. Cristhina’s team members all go through an initial vetting process and then they go through training on trauma, trauma-informed care and effective outreach as well as have a probationary period of observation and gradual interaction before they become full members of the team. She notes that there was a shift in some team members because some who were doing the in-person outreach didn’t feel comfortable doing the online method, but they found others who preferred the online method.
Online ads for sexual services are usually much more explicit than what one sees (there are exceptions!) on in-person outreach outings. There are several ways to block the images to protect yourself from ingesting the pornography. This helps your mental state, but it also helps you keep the personhood and dignity of the person in your mind and not the degrading images and helps you refrain from judgment, even if unintentional. Cristhina shares a beautiful story of when she met in person for the first time one of the women she had been calling – please listen to it yourself.
— One of the most important messages that I took from this is that they have discovered a more diverse population of women online than they ever did during in-person outreaches. They have demonstrated that this method is very effective.
— There has never been a more important time to begin something like this. Cristhina said that the women are much more receptive to help since the pandemic began. There is a higher level of desperation for income, as well as a increased interest in leaving prostitution.
— You do not have to be a tech geek to do this! There are people who know about the technology needed to carry this out safely and securely. I’m attaching a handout put together by a colleague that lists recommendations for hardware and software for these endeavors.
This is of course the account of one organization in Europe but there are many more examples and methods to carry out online outreach. Cristhina’s organization focuses on women, but these principles can and should be done to reach out to men, transgender people, and of course children.
There were many more questions followed by an in-depth discussion in the non-recorded portion of the webinar. If you have questions for me or Cristhina, please post them in the comments of the video or contact me with “Webinar Question” in the subject line. Cristhina also developed an “Online Outreach 101” handout and I have another handout outlining more technical details for those who are interested in getting started. To receive these please contact me here.
I look forward to seeing you and answering your questions on a future webinar!