As a children’s social worker I believe the term “child prostitute” is inaccurate, misleading and should be removed from the conversation when discussing issues of sexually trafficked children. Thankfully the Associated Press now agrees.
By bringing attention to the damage that can be caused by using such a misguided term, it is my hope that we can begin to change attitudes regarding what is the proper treatment of child victims of sex trafficking.
In the last five years alone the term child prostitute, or a variation thereof, has been used more than 5,000 times in the media, according to research by the Human Rights Project for Girls in 2015.
Let’s break that down.
The term prostitution refers to the act of engaging in sexual activity for money. It does not refer to being abused, exploited or trafficked, all which pertain to an underage victim of sexual exploitation.
Referring to a child victim of sexual exploitation as a prostitute discounts the huge amount of trauma experienced by the victim. It also contradicts the fact that children cannot legally consent to sexual activity, regardless of whether money is involved or not.
There is also an underlying connotation that a child prostitute has chosen that lifestyle for themselves.
In actuality, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department discovered that many of the children arrested for prostitution (59 percent in 2010) were in the foster care system at some point in their life, according to the County’s Probation Department. They were found to have been coaxed into the work by gang members who were more than willing to prey on the vulnerabilities of children in the system.
Traffickers have been known to keep compliance by abusing the children with drugs, rape and torture.
Does that sound like a job a child would agree to do?
Despite this and the growing sentiment that children must be treated as survivors and not as criminals, there were more than 1,000 child victims arrested and charged with prostitution a year from 1990-2010 in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
To combat the locking up of victims, law enforcement agencies and local governments must come to recognize that children who are being trafficked are not perpetrators – they are victims and survivors.
Los Angeles is one place where the policy makers seem to be on the right side of progress. Last year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors declared that there is no such thing as a child prostitute. Shortly thereafter, the Sheriff’s Department announced that they would no longer charge children with prostitution.
Simply changing a phrase will not end the practice, but these are the foundational measures needed to create a shift in thinking among policy makers, law enforcement and child welfare workers about how to best work with victims of sexual trafficking.
More cities across the U.S. need to take the steps necessary to reroute victims from jail cells into services where survivors can begin to recover and grow.
Survivors need specialized housing, like the one being developed under AB 1730, which would provide exploited children with a housing option that caters to their specific needs. They also need safety and protection and a sense of empowerment throughout the recovery process. None of those things can come to fruition if the children are continually being judged, looked down on, and labeled as criminals.
Whether a shift in language use and attitude will be enough to affect legislative change is up to the policy makers across the United States, but it is up to everyone who cares about children to pressure them to act.
Leading the way is the Associated Press, after advocacy organization Rights4Girls circulated a petition asking the AP to drop the term “child prostitute” and garnered 150,000 signatures. On Monday, April 4, Rights4Girls released a statement that the Associated Press is now instructing writers to refrain from using the term “prostitute” when referring to child victims.
“We also need law enforcement to follow the lead of the news media and stop arresting underage girls for “child prostitution,'” said the Rights4Girls statement on AP’s decision, “and instead get them the care and support that they need.”
Omar Avila is a candidate for a Master of Social Work degree at USC’s School of Social Work. He wrote this article while taking the Media for Policy Change course offered at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.