The FBI's recent recovery of 16 juveniles in a joint operation targeting commercial sex trafficking in New Jersey around the Super Bowl demonstrates law enforcement's vigilance and effectiveness in combating the sexual exploitation of children. However, it also conjures a somewhat misleading image of juvenile victim's experience in the commercial sex trade.
IOFA program development intern, Alexa Schnieders, shares her thoughts on "child prostitution" and how our terminology reflects the identity we impose on a subject:
I sat in on a discussion recently that began with, “Sex trafficking should be called rape trafficking.”
Others in the room cringed over the harsh four-letter word. All innocuous and/or glamorous connotations of the sex trade disappeared as the reality of violence and exploitation took their place. Does semantics wield that much power?
When speaking about sex trafficking, misuse of the term “prostitution” has the ability to strip sexually exploited women and men of all victimhood.
Prostitution is generally defined as “the act of engaging in sex acts for hire,” necessitating both consensual sex and received payment. According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), victims of sex trafficking engage in sexual acts under “force, threat or coercion.” This definition of sex trafficking aligns with rape, i.e. victimhood, however in sex trafficking situations there is the added element of rape for the profit of someone other than the survivor/victim.
The word “prostitution” becomes further problematic when it is partnered with the word “child.” Just as the TVPA informs us that someone forced to engage in sexual acts under force, fraud, or coercion is a survivor/victim of trafficking, so too does it state that any child under the age of 18 who engages in a commercial sex act is the survivor/victim of sex trafficking. Based on this legislation, a “child prostitute” simply cannot exist.
While the difference between the terms “survivor/victim of child sex trafficking” (also correctly referred to as “commercially exploited children”) and “child prostitute” may sound like a matter of political correctness, it is much more than that. Using the correct terminology signifies that children are the survivors or victims of a heinous, brutal crime. “Child prostitutes,” on the other hand, are young criminals. While the term “child prostitute” may more effectively grab the attention of a public who responds to sensational language, calling exploited children “prostitutes” perpetuates incorrect notions that these children willingly engage in sex (to which they are too young to consent) and that they are to blame for a choice (that they did not make).
This difference must be understood by all of us, including partners in the field. As advocates, learning and employing the appropriate terminology is our first step towards making change. Our language conveys our understanding of the issue as well as our intentions in our work. While we adopt language that correctly describes the population of survivors and victims we serve, it is our responsibility to encourage our partners to do the same. As the anti-trafficking movement uses this language more consistently, it is our hope that it will begin to affect the language used by those around us as well and that, little by little, the larger paradigm will shift towards one in which survivors of child trafficking are recognized as just that – survivors.