Why Sex-Trafficked Children Can't Be Called Prostitutes

Under federal sex-trade law, minors are defined as victims.

(Photo: Emily Chen/Getty Images)

Sep 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Children involved in sex trafficking are victims of countless instances of bodily injury and abuse—often they are kidnapped, beaten, and branded with their pimp’s name. Adding insult to these injuries, one survivor says the media too often describes these children as “prostitutes,” as if they were criminals instead of victims.

Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew is on a quest to eliminate the term “child prostitute” and all its derivations from the media’s lexicon. With help from Washington, D.C.–based advocacy organization Human Rights Project for Girls, she has started a petition and campaign, dubbed “No Such Thing,” asking The Associated Press to change its style guide.

“I was not a child prostitute or child sex worker. I was a victim and survivor of child rape,” writes Pettigrew in a Change.org petition. She was sexually exploited from age 10 to 17 and feels the term is “misleading because it suggests consent and criminality when none exists.” The campaign started about two months ago but got a little boost Tuesday night with a tweet from Sean “Diddy” Combs directing his 10.7 million followers to sign the petition. At press time, it had roughly 24,000 signatures.

The AP is the world’s oldest news-gathering operation, and its rulebook is relied on around the world to guide language, grammar, and preferred terms for many news organizations. Take a peek into the 2015 hard copy of The Associated Press Stylebook and you’ll see there is no entry for “prostitution”—child or otherwise. The entry on “children” only covers how to reference a child’s first and last names and when to keep the names private.

It wouldn’t be the first time the news organization has redefined style in the interest of more sensitive treatment. Immigration advocates marked a major victory in 2013 when the AP decided to stop using “illegal immigrants” and “illegals” in its stories—a term long decried as dehumanizing—and hundreds of other news organizations followed suit.

Without specific guidelines, the term “child prostitute” has found its way into mainstream media. There have been 5,000 instances of use of “child prostitute” and related variations in print and online journalism in the past five years, according to a report from Human Rights for Girls and The Raben Group. The AP isn’t the only news outlet using the term. The Washington Post, The New York Times, and USA Today are on the list of organizations referring to minors as child prostitutes.

“We find this language to be inaccurate because these children are under the age of consent, and it’s inconsistent with federal law and most states’ anti-trafficking laws, which consider these children victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking,” Yasmin Vafa, the cofounder of Human Rights for Girls and its director of law and policy, wrote in an email to TakePart.

The term isn’t just important in our understanding of child trafficking but informs public perception and law enforcement as well, Vafa wrote.

Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, federal law protects minors, defining them as victims incapable of prostitution. Yet more than 1,000 American girls under 18 are arrested annually for prostitution, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Even when officers are aware that a sex trafficking victim is underage, a minor can still be arrested and sent to a juvenile detention center despite federal protections, according to Vafa. More often than not, the male buyer gets off without punishment or receives a misdemeanor solicitation charge. Along with fines, those soliciting sex can attend a so-called John school (think traffic school), where they can have their record expunged after paying a fine and sitting through a daylong class.

Vafa and her team are working with law enforcement and judges, urging them to adhere to federal law and treat buyers like they have committed a sex crime, and she notes that a change in terminology is an important first step. Part of the reason victims of sex trafficking are treated like criminals by law enforcement is that they don’t self-identify as victims.

“How do we keep telling these young girls that they were victims of crime when they are still widely being referred to as prostitutes in the media (which subsequently informs how the public discusses these issues)?” Vafa wrote. “How the media discusses matters shapes how the public views and discusses matters. It’s their job to report accurately and without bias on news and occurrences. But this language is biased. And it’s biased against child victims of severe sexual abuse and trauma.”