Study finds many sex workers want to use technology to connect with their children

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It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but a novel research study is finding that many London sex workers want digital literacy for the same reasons everyone does — to be connected to the world.

Especially their children’s worlds.

Researchers expected sex workers’ focus for digital training would be on accessing social services or jobs or training — all mentioned as goals in some interviews.

But many workers stressed that a key reason to get more savvy online was to be like everyone else.

“We think they have different needs than ours. No, they have the same needs, to want to be included,” said researcher Jodi Hall, a nursing professor at Fanshawe College and Western University.

“So how do people feel connected these days? They go online. They go on Facebook. They go on Twitter.”

But too many of London’s sex workers, close to middle age, with negative feelings about school and living on society’s margins, can’t access or understand the technology they need.

“They want to connect and be included and they see the world moving on, and they don’t how to play catch-up. And we’re not paying attention,” Hall says.

Hall is lead researcher on a two-stage project that eventually will create some kind of digital lab for sex workers in Safe Space, a grassroots organization that’s part of the research.

The first stage of research, using interviews with 19 workers and art sessions to assess their thoughts and feelings about technology, is almost complete and the research team shared some early findings.

As with any group of people, the workers’ thoughts and feelings about the value of technology vary.

The initial interviews smashed some stereotypes of sex workers.

“We have a stereotype of what a sex worker is — young, possibly trafficked, white, with no children, a wayward youth,” fellow researcher AnnaLise Trudell, a post-doctoral fellow at Western, said.

“The vast majority (surveyed) had multiple children, were older than 35, the average age probably 42.”

Because of criminal convictions and drug use, many sex workers lose custody of their children.

A key goal for many workers: “Being able to go on Facebook to be able to see their children, who have been apprehended,” Trudell said.

One-quarter of the interview subjects identified as Indigenous and one-fifth as LGBTQ, though that number could be higher because the question wasn’t asked in early interviews.

Many workers already face the barrier of age when it comes to joining the digital world. But their experiences in school as children set them further back.

“So many women had such a negative association with learning, with a classroom . . . (and) severely negative interactions throughout their lives with learning,” said Magdalen Moulton-Sauve, a Safe Space co-ordinator and researcher.

“You can see how going to a computer class would almost be off the table for some of these women.”

The negative feelings about classrooms spilled over into the interviews, where many women viewed questions about technology as stressful tests with right and wrong answers.

That prompted interviewers to scale down the formality of the questions and add a two-night art session to the research.

The negative feelings about classrooms and traditional learning will help researchers set up the next stage, an actual learning space hosted by Safe Space and an assessment of the experience.

The organization is looking for new quarters to handle the lab and growing demand for services, and will hold a fundraiser Aug. 26 at London Sports Park.

That digital space, opening as early as January 2018, likely would invite the other agencies involved in overseeing the research, such as Literacy London, the public library and the city’s Ontario Works department, to help teach, researchers suggested.

“This population is already actively engaging in helping each other,” Hall says.

“This is just another skill they can share. We would formalize it and supply the technology.”

— — —

What sex workers say

“It scares me because I feel like it’s going too fast and everything is becoming computers and I can’t rely on a computer, I need a person.”

“I’ve been thinking about going back to Fanshawe now that they’ve got the waived tuition . . . But there’s lots of things that are done in the school system now that didn’t exist when I was in the school system. I don’t even know if I could sit and write an essay on a computer.”

“Sometimes you need technology, but eventually you have to hit the pavement.”

— — —


What: SafeSpace Pasta Dinner Fundraiser

When: 5:30 p.m., Aug. 26

Where: London Sports Park, 99 Brookside St.

Tickets: $15 in advance

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