A Style Guide to Covering Child Sexual Exploitation

Over the past few years the sexual exploitation of children has become a popular theme in mainstream news.

Along with deserved attention, the children who endure this exploitation and the service providers who try to help them have seen an unsettling misappropriation of blame in the language used to describe victims, as opposed to perpetrators of what amounts to sex crimes.

“The story to get people’s attention gets voyeuristic,” said Stacey Katz, executive director at WestCoast Children’s Clinic. “There’s a description of a girl in a short skirt, and the kind of stories that work to get attention focus on these details and the framing of prostitution. But you don’t see the same thing with detailed descriptions of buyers. It seems to reinforce the sexualization and criminality of the victims and ignores those who abuse by referring to them by a benign term like ‘John’.”

Project Oakland Kids
Project Oakland Kids held a campaign in partnership with Clear Channel and MISSSEY that was aimed at raising awareness around commercially sexually exploited children and preventing it from happening further by displaying signs like these on billboards around Oakland, Calif. Photo courtesy of ProtectOaklandKids.org

In such a hotly discussed and sensitive area, language matters, and the stakes are high. Political action has followed news coverage, but there remain wide variations in how mainstream outlets cover the issue. Moving forward, advocates are calling for more uniformity in how sexual exploitation is described by journalists.

Coverage of the Super Bowl and its correlation with sexual exploitation made for easy headlines in publications ranging from The Huffington Post’s “Super Bowl Is Largest Human Trafficking Incident In U.S.: Attorney General” to USA Today’s “Super Bowl on guard for human trafficking criminals”.

With headlines blaring, policymakers lined up to offer solutions:

  • In January, President Obama launched the Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking initiative to battle human trafficking and provide more services for victims.
  • On April 25, 2013 Representative Karen Bass and other legislators introduced the Strengthening the Child Welfare Response to Human Trafficking Act of 2013, which amends the Social Security Act to require state foster care programs to facilitate reports on any movement to address children who are victims of human trafficking and who are commercially sexually exploited, as well as mandating data collection on human trafficking.
  • California legislators agreed to allocate $5 million in funds for the 2014-2015 budget and $14 million in 2015-2016 to train child welfare workers and other staff members in prevention and intervention for commercially sexually exploited children. This bill will also provide funding for immediate services to meet the children’s needs.

Understanding that policy is deeply intertwined with how things are talked about, I decided to take a look at what language the major newspapers were using when describing the sexual exploitation of children.

The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times had all produced coverage of the sexual exploitation of minors within the last year. In a review of about seven to nine stories each, I could not discern any rhyme or reason behind choosing the words they used to describe child sexual exploitation.

The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle all used the term “child prostitution” at least once when referring to acts of commercially sexually exploited children. The New York Times used “sex slaves” more commonly than any of the other terms.

All routinely used the term “pimp,” and all but The New York Times used “john” to refer to a sex buyer. The New York Times generally referred to them as “buyers” or “sex buyers.”

This variance in language prompted me to question whether sexual exploitation and the terms associated with it had made it into these newspapers’ style guides. Every newspaper has a regularly revised style guide, style book, or style manual, which sets the publication’s writing standards.

When we queried The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times we received the following responses:

  • The Washington Post: A public information officer notified us that their style guide is only available to staff reporters and not the general public.
  • The Los Angeles Times: Garrett Therolf, a Times reporter who regularly covers child welfare issues, notified us via email that The Times generally emphasizes that the children who are not at the age of consent are “victims” of “johns” and pimps. Instead of referring to victims of sexual exploitation as child prostitutes, Therolf said that The Times more regularly refers to these children as “victims of sex trafficking” or “child sex workers.” But no words are banned, according to Therolf.
  • The San Francisco Chronicle: Managing Editor Audrey Cooper said in an email to The Chronicle that: “We do not have specific rules for these children. Depending on the story, we would use style rules that affect how we write about child victims, under-age criminals and/or victims of sexual abuse.”
  • The New York Times: Louis Lucero II, assistant to the senior editor for standards, said via email that The Times’ Manual of Style and Usage does not have a dedicated entry for “prostitution or child prostitution”.

While mainstream publications grapple with how to describe the horrible circumstances of child sexual exploitation, the federal terminology was made clear by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a federal law passed in 2000:

“Any child under the age of 18 years old that is used for the purpose of exploitation through sexual servitude (prostitution), regardless of the absence of economic leverage, manipulation, fraud, coercion, threats, force and violence is considered a commercially sexually exploited child (CSEC).”

This definition is a clear move away from criminalizing terms, such as prostitute, when discussing child victims.

Yasmin Vafa, director of law and policy at Rights4Girls, led a campaign in May along with The California Endowment that worked to combat the use of “child prostitute” as a term in major publications by reaching out to the style editors at the Associated Press, The New York Times and others.

“Child prostitute, or some form or variation of the term, has been used around 5,000 times by 22 publications during the last five years,” Vafa said.

The use of prostitute, Vafa said, blurs the underlying issue. Instead, she noted, these children are actually victims of rape, since there can be no consent or choice if someone involved is underage.

“We steer away from anything that keeps this in a context of prostitution framework,” Vafa said. “Any type of language that works with that is problematic, and it keeps the conversation culturally sanitized, which is not how it’s realistically playing out.”

A story that ran in the East Bay Express in July by freelancer Lynsey Clark brought the topic of rhetoric and language to the forefront of this issue when she quoted Kate Walker, a staff attorney at the National Center for Youth Law who deals with commercially sexually exploited children, saying, “there’s no such thing as a child prostitute.”

And last month, the Maryland-based Journalism Center on Children and Families (JCCF) released a “Glossary and Guidance” guide for journalists to follow when writing and reporting about child sex trafficking. Among the “never use” terms in the JCCF’s guidance is “child prostitute.”

On the other side of the victims are the perpetrators.

Jodie Langs, director of policy and communications at WestCoast Children’s Clinic commented, “[The JCCF Glossary and Guidance resource] doesn’t reject the notion that “john” should be used. “John” is this polite term and it perpetuates this general culture of impunity around buyers. It’s also just a person’s name. Many people don’t think that’s bad.”

“When you’re writing about it with kids, it’s rape,” she added.

With the term “pimp,” Stacey Katz, executive director at WestCoast Children’s Clinic noted that a “culture of acceptance” around the term has made us desensitized to it.

Both “pimp” and “john,” Katz and Langs added, perpetuate a culture of acceptance of buying and selling girls for sex, an underlying issue that they believe has yet to be discussed fully.

Victor Casillas Valle is a reporter at the Chronicle of Social Change.

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