When we talk about child trafficking, we try to be very careful about the language that we use because language matters. Even though it can get wordy, we try to talk in terms like “children who have been victimized (or trafficked or exploited)” and “survivors of trafficking.” We try to be thoughtful about where we’re putting agency and power, to continually send the message that trafficking and exploitation is something that is done to a person, but that it doesn’t have to define a person, and to recognize the strength and resilience of those who have experienced and survived it. We do this because we listen to survivors and they tell us that this matters to them, and helps them as they reclaim their dignity and power. What we don’t do: we don’t use the term “child prostitute.”
Why We Don’t Say “Child Prostitute”
We try very hard to steer away from terms like this, except in cases where we need to quote someone else who is using it, for one reason that’s quite clear-cut and for one that’s more subtle.
The clear-cut reason
We believe, and it is also legally recognized, that children cannot consent to selling themselves. Full stop. Even where it seems like, superficially, a child is making choices that lead to their exploitation, if you dig beneath the surface, you can usually find that they’ve been coerced, manipulated, or otherwise pushed into it, generally by an adult–whether by family desperate for money to survive or by a trafficker who has befriended them and offered them something they felt was missing in their lives (often love, affection, or the promise of safety). It doesn’t matter how the child dressed or behaved. Sex with children is rape.
Also, we know in terms of psychological development, that minors haven’t the capacity to adequately assess consequences and risk, especially for something so beyond their scope of experience. As children transition into adolescence, risk-taking behavior increases while the cognitive capacity to regulate impulses is still considered relatively immature. This is especially true for children in families with high levels of conflict and low levels of cohesion. (McCormick et al, 2016) We don’t allow children to vote, serve in the military, or drink alcohol. We don’t give them adult level punishments (or at least we’re not supposed to). Calling them a “prostitute” suggests free will where they have been manipulated and coerced, and it suggests criminality where there has been victimization. Again, this is about putting the responsibility and power where it belongs: in this case, the crime and the blame lies with their trafficker.
The subtle reason
The less obvious reason we don’t use the term “child prostitute” has to do with the way sex trafficking intersects with racism, and how children of color, especially Black children, are often seen as older than they really are and are subject to hypersexualized stereotypes. They’re more likely to be seen as sexually aggressive, deviant, and promiscuous. These stereotypes are divorced from the historical context that promoted the exoticization and fetishization of racial minorities and led to the circumstances that made them more vulnerable to trafficking. Meanwhile, “[l]awmakers presume that minors have consented to prostitution even when the minor is below the age of consent.” (Cheryl Nelson-Butler, 2015) This leads to a failure to properly identify those who’ve been victimized as victims and can lead to victims being criminalized–prosecuted for prostitution, illegal migration, and/or other charges related to the trafficking instead of given the help they need to escape their exploitation, and begin the process of healing and of successful reintegration into society. We have to recognize that children, regardless of race or ethnicity, are children and deserve equal and proper access to justice and the full array of victim services.
Being careful with language can be frustrating, but taking a stand against trafficking is about more than rescuing victims. It’s about truly seeing and supporting those who’ve been victimized in all their complexity, including the circumstances that led to their vulnerability to exploitation. And hopefully we’ve shown that the language we use has actual legal consequences. “Child prostitute” is a vivid and dramatic term. It’s evocative and attention-getting, but it can cause real harm to children who have been trafficked or otherwise exploited.