By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times
On July 2nd, 1992 I was lured into running away from home with a man who promised me a new life. This man told me that he would introduce me to Hollywood celebrities and that he would help me travel cross-country to experience different cities and different cultures. He said he could help me become a model or an actor or a songwriter. This man promised to change my life and to make my dreams come true.
Within hours of running away from home, this man threatened me and forced me into a life of prostitution. Approximately 36 hours later, I was spotted on the street by Atlantic City police officers. I was arrested, strip-searched, and threatened with juvenile detention until I gave them my real name. Handcuffed to a bench, I waited for my parents to arrive at the station.
I ask you- did I choose to do this? Based on these facts, would you say that I, at 14 years of age, set out to be a prostitute in Atlantic City? No, I didn’t. If I was guilty of anything, I was guilty of naivety.
I spent my Fourth of July feeling like a criminal. Everyone from the police to my classmates to psychiatrists called me a teen prostitute. I had to change high schools four times.
Rachel Lloyd, founder of Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), stated the following on a recent episode of America’s Most Wanted that featured sex trafficking in the United States:
“We know how important language is in our culture…when we talk about girls and young women as prostitutes or teen prostitutes or child prostitutes… [it] has so much stigma attached to it…the visual that comes into your brain when you…hear that word [is] a girl standing on a street corner with fishnet [stockings]…”
Rachel points out how this word carries with it a predetermined perception about how that child arrived in that position and why she is still there.
I wholeheartedly agree with Rachel. Not only does the word prostitute imply choice but it carries with it centuries of stigmatization. At 14 years old, I began to believe that I was a prostitute. I couldn’t understand that I was victimized because I believed I must have chosen to be a prostitute. I initially refused to testify against my traffickers because I believed they were now the only people who accepted me.
“[The trafficker] might beat you, he might sell you…but at least he accepts you,” stated Rachel Lloyd while explaining the mindset of a victim, “society doesn’t have a lot of empathy for girls who have been in the life.”
Rachel explains that traffickers will tell young women and children that the police won’t believe them, that their family will no longer want them, and that nobody will treat them nicely.
And, unfortunately, this is often true. This is the reason why many girls, including myself, chose to return to the traffickers; I felt shunned by society.
The answer to this problem is to stop labeling child victims as prostitutes! These children are victims of commercial sexual exploitation and child sex trafficking.
“When you talk about a young person being trafficked or exploited,” explained Rachel Lloyd, “the ed on the end makes it something that was done to that person; it’s not who they are.”
For nearly 20 years I carried a sense of guilt and shame with me, and I can trace it back to one single word: prostitute.
In order to help trafficked children understand and overcome their victimization, it is imperative that society changes the language used within this crime. And this change must begin with the media.
Below are samples of very recent news article titles:
Phoenix woman arrested for nude photos of teen prostitute (Isn’t it interesting that the perpetrator in this article is named Phoenix woman while the victim is labeled teen prostitute?)
Alleged pimp, 14-year-old prostitute arrested at Colonie motel (Notice that the man involved is an alleged pimp while the teenager is, without question, given the term prostitute.)
Police: Man offered 3-year-old as prostitute on Craigslist (This doesn’t even make sense! The only reason the word prostitute is used for this 3-year-old child is because the man was selling the act of rape.)
Hotel Linked To Child Prostitution Case Takes Action (Nowhere in this title does it mention the trafficker involved. It alludes to the idea that this hotel must take steps to deal with a nuisance called child prostitution. The two words do not belong together; it’s an oxymoron.)
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines a severe form of trafficking in persons as, sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age. If federal law mandates that a child cannot legally consent to prostitution, then why is the media sensationalizing their news articles with pictures and terms that implicate shame and choice on the child.
Because people labeled me as a prostitute at age 14, I began to self-identify with that word. I thought it represented who I was and what I was. The word trafficked takes the action off of the child and places it where it belongs- on the trafficker.
As a survivor of child sex trafficking, I demand that the media stop calling child victims any of the following disempowering labels: prostitutes, child prostitutes, teen prostitutes, hookers, sex slaves, or sex workers.
The first step to empowering our children to overcome this victimization is to recognize them as victims, or survivors, as opposed to criminals.
In celebration of your own freedom and independence this week, I urge you to fight for those rights of child victims of commercial sexual exploitation and child sex trafficking nationwide, and abroad.