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Victim Verbiage: How The Right Words Give Personhood.

Though I will be using words like girls or women as they reflect the gender disparity within the sex trade, I recognize anyone, regardless if you are a woman, man, trans, gender non-conforming, etc. can and are victimized by the sex trade.

In Ohio, then 15-year-old Alexis Martin was referred to as an “escort” and “manipulator” by her judge. In Texas, an 18-year-old trafficking survivor, Jessica Hampton, was called a “prostitute” in open court. In Pennsylvania, online animal rights communities have taken to attacking then 14-year-old Ajahnae Smaugh, writing comments calling her a “child prostitute.” In reality, these girls and countless more are victims of sex trafficking, and their stories have become a complicated narrative of victim blaming and mislabeling. 

Comments left online regarding 14-year-old Ajahnae Smaugh.

This narrative of referring to children as anything but trafficking victims not only is shameful victim blaming, it's simply false. Children cannot be prostitutes or escorts, only trafficking victims. No matter the circumstances, minors cannot consent to sex with adults, and any exploitation of their bodies otherwise is trafficking. Federal law even recognizes exploited minors as child sex trafficking victims, so why is it so hard for everyone else to do the same?

The labels we give child sex trafficking victims matter. When we deem a survivor a “prostitute”, this label follows her throughout her path to becoming an overcomer. Often, survivors of sex trafficking, particularly those of color, are not seen as victims of crime and are instead arrested for prostitution-related offenses. The label of “prostitute” means that the courts, social workers, and society sees her as complicit. It gives her more autonomy than she truly had. Child sex-trafficking survivors’ bodies were used as commodities, and labeling them “prostitutes” strips them of their rights as a victim. 

If we start referring to these survivors using the proper terminology, they will be seen as the victims they truly are. Using terms like sex-trafficked child, sexually-exploited child, victim of child sex trafficking, child sex trafficking survivor accurately portrays the abuse they suffered. The false narrative of autonomy and blame hurts these survivors through every stage of both their legal battle and their healing journeys. 

Beyond this, referring to any person in the sex trade as a “prostitute” can be just as harmful. The sex trade is harmful, not empowering. The power dynamics within any commercial sex interaction make true consent impossible. Whether women within the sex trade are being trafficked, or are there due to poverty, addiction, trauma, or any other reason, money doesn’t buy consent.  By referring to women within the sex trade as “prostitutes” it once again implies autonomy rather than exploitation. Using the term prostituted person, transforms their exploitation from label to an action. The term prostituted person shows everyone that their time in the sex trade is something that happened to them, not their entire personhood. Their lives aren’t defined by the sex trade, their identity is not just “prostitute”.

Words matter. The words you use to talk about someone, their personhood or their experiences, influence how you see and treat them. In the criminal justice systems, victim-blaming terms like “prostitute” imply the girls and women victimized by the sex trade chose to be there on their own free will. Rather than using terms that blame victims for their own exploitation, words like prostituted person or victim of child sex trafficking, give personhood and agency to survivors. These words let survivors be seen and show we know they were harmed, and we want to support them, not blame them.

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