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New App Aims To Improve Safety of Sex Workers

The industry is eyeing the Quebec-made app Gfendr with a mix of skepticism and optimism.

ByBrigitte Noëltranslated byBrigitte Noël

Image: Mario Antonio Pena Zapateria/Flickr

Translated from VICE Quebec.

As sex workers and human rights advocates continue to fight to change the laws governing the sex industry, a group of Quebecers have developed an app they believe will increase safety within the industry.

Gfendr is a made-in-Quebec platform that seeks to “provide a safe and discreet space for sex workers to advertise their services, search for clients, and chat with them.” Its beta version, which has been online since December with little to no publicity, has already attracted more than 200 users from across the country.

This, says co-founder Mélissa Desrochers, is proof that there is a need for such a product. "I don’t think this app will change everything and solve all the problems, but we hope that it will put in place steps to protect sex workers."

So far, the initiative has generated mixed reviews from sex workers and related organizations who hope its mere existence will demonstrate the need for changes in sex work legislation.

After the 2013 the Bedford decision, the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s sex work laws on the basis that they were unconstitutional. The then-Conservative government was forced to create new legislation, which advocates say has made the industry more dangerous for its practitioners. The law now criminalizes most aspects of sex work, including the purchase or advertising of sexual services and living off the profits of sex work.

This, activists say, pushes workers further underground where they have less access to resources and support.

Desrochers believes that the Gfendr platform addresses some of the most problematic issues by allowing sex workers to centralize the different conversations necessary for their transactions and allowing them to have more information about their clients.

The ideal, she says, is still the decriminalization of sex work. "The exchange of sex for money between consenting adults should not be criminalized," she says. “There are a lot of negative consequences for sex workers, it brings repression and so they tend to hide more, they can not protect themselves. "

Gfendr was developed over the course of four years by a team consisting of Desrochers—then a Phd student in the social sciences—and two colleagues. Desrochers explains a former sex worker—now a social worker—was brought on as a consultant. "We contacted about 30 researchers and roughly 20 organizations across Canada," she says. “People told us that it really filled a need, that there aren’t many things out there to help sex workers. "

According to Gfendr’s press release the app would help sex workers “clearly define the services they are willing to provide, [...] search for and chat with potential clients and negotiate terms before meeting.” The app also allows workers to rate their meetups and add comments. "It's really something that can help you get more info on the clients, which allows you to better evaluate whether it's a good client or not," she says.

Yet some of the app’s features are a concern for Sandra Wesley, the director of Montreal-based sex-worker support organisation STELLA.

"It's illegal on many levels," she says. “It's illegal to advertise someone else's sexual services, so an app or site that hosts those ads is committing a crime. To facilitate or encourage the work of sex workers is considered pimping, and so that’s a charge this company is exposing itself to.”

Kerry Porth, the chairwoman of Vancouver’s Pivot Legal Society and a former sex worker, shared this reaction. “They’re going to run afoul of 286.4,” she said, quoting the Criminal Code. “Anyone who advertises in any way the work of another person is committing an offense.”

Yet Desrochers says the team has done their homework. "According to the Bedford judgment, we fall within the exceptions of the law, we are not pimps to the extent that we do not tell women what they should do," she explains. “We offer technology that helps workers better screen their clients. It's the sex workers who create their own content, we don’t take their pictures, we don’t create their profiles. "

She admits that Gfendr is operating in a grey zone. "We are aware of that, but that's also why there aren’t many resources like this out there." Most of the sex workers consulted by VICE said that while they found the concept of the app interesting, they had several questions.

Toronto-based provider Olivia Grace told VICE that while would probably use the platform, she would continue to request external referrals and do her own client screening. "There isn't an app for what your gut tells you" she says.

Author and former sex worker Mélodie Nelson says that although the idea is good, she wonders about the reality of the proposed safe space. "Clients willing to go through a demanding screening process are rather rare and are already respectful and discreet, and these men are perfectly fine using the traditional ways of meeting a sex worker."

Jelena Vermilion, a trans-sex worker living in Ontario, says that although she has some concerns about the confidentiality of the service, the concept looks promising. "When you hear something new there is always a bit of skepticism," she says. “But they seem to very much care about the health safety and wellbeing of sex workers and their ability to make decisions for themselves. "

At STELLA, Wesley also worries about police’s use of the app, as officers sometimes tend to use such platforms to trap clients by pretending to be escorts. "Police will also pretend to be clients to make appointments with sex workers, to go and question them, lecture them or even deport them if they are migrant workers.”

Yet Melissa Desrochers says she wants to establish a relationship of trust with the police: if authorities know the app is responsible and safe, she believes repression won’t be an issue. "We want to work with authorities to integrate a function where sex workers can anonymously report inappropriate behavior, violent clients, fraud, false profiles, minors or cases related to human trafficking" she says.

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