Sex work is the world’s most dangerous female profession, with a homicide rate of 204 per 100,000, sex workers are over 50 times more likely to be murdered than women in any other profession. In some venues, where established brothels operate, panic buttons allow sex workers to call for help in the event of violence, providing a measure of safety.  A recent study in Vancouver showed that sex workers who operate out of brothels (with such safety measures) are significantly safer than sex workers on the street.


The Keep Safe Initiative seeks to create a mobile panic button system for street sex workers. Existing devices with embedded GPS and cellular technology will be provided to sex workers to call help to any location at the push of a button. These devices generate an SOS text message at that goes to a pre-specified number with GPS coordinate and a link to their position on Google maps. Through focus groups with current sex workers we plan to refine our plans, selecting a device model and operational system that sex workers would find useful and be comfortable with. Of particular note, at this time, it is undecided who calls for help will go to, with ideas ranging from friends or local sex worker advocacy organizations to 911 dispatch, or possibly a combination of several parties with the functionality available to choose between them.

Vancouver is the ideal city to pilot Keep Safe as the safety of sex workers has been high on the public agenda with the Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry and the city is making great strides in this important area, with the public showing a high interest in innovative solutions like ours. Sex workers and sex worker advocates in Vancouver have also already come out in favor of implementing a GPS-based safety device for sex workers. According to a January 2012 survey of sex workers, published in the Downtown Eastside Consultation Report, sex workers cited GPS emergency devices as a measure they believed would improve their safety.


From its founding in 2012, the Keep Safe Initiative has been driven by the concept that any attempt to improve the safety of sex workers should be driven by sex workers themselves. While the concept was originally created by medical students (Isabel Chen and Kyle Ragins), it was not until they were approached by Vanessa Forro, a longtime sex worker advocate, who encouraged them to pursue the project and connected them with the sex worker community that things began to move forward. Keep Safe’s first step was to present the idea to Vanessa’s contacts in the sex work community to get feedback and see how they could create something that sex workers felt would be useful. After lots of positive feedback from sex worker advocates and refinement of our concept, the project has moved forward and is now in a fundraising phase in order to run focus groups with sex workers on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and a pilot based on the results of these focus groups. The final form Keep Safe will take remains wholly in the hands of sex workers and what we learn about their thoughts and preferences through our focus groups.