There was a “prostitution sting” in these parts this week, and the papers and police keep on referring to these young women as prostitutes. It is making me beyond ragey. If one is not of legal age to consent to sex, it is completely erroneous to refer to them as someone who gets paid to have sex. Just to get this out of the way and make it clear, this is not an anti-sex worker article. I have many complex feelings on that subject as a whole. I feel that legalizing prostitution would allow people who choose to participate in the trade to receive better treatment and protection. That is incredibly over-simplified, because it would also continue to blur the line between who is an active, willing participant and who is not, and again, this is a huge issue that is not easily summed up in one article. I repeat, however, that this is not an anti-sex work screed. This is about changing the language we use when discussing children involved in sex work and taking the focus off the prostitution angle and focusing the rage, disgust, and legal remedies where it should be— on the traffickers themselves.
This is part of a larger problem that we see play out in the media too often. Who can forget the New York Times article about the gang-raped 11-year-old in Texas that questioned how the poor young men were “lured into such an act” and placed heaps of blame on the inappropriateness of the girl’s clothing, makeup, and parenting. We see it all the time with pretty much any rape case, where the victim’s actions and behavior is questioned relentlessly instead of the fact that the rapist fucking raped them. There has been much attention focused on recognizing the victim-blaming in these narratives, and slowly but surely, I am hoping it will eventually start sinking in and getting better. When it comes to prostitution, though, things get even more tricky when trying to change the language.
The reality is most people view prostitution as a dirty business that only those “slutty sluts” would ever partake in. It gives people the opportunity to get up on their high horse and condemn the behavior and rejoice in seeing “these people” taken off the street. One less hooker makes their streets safer. It wasn’t that long ago that I might have characterized a prostitution sting in a similar fashion, because I had never really thought about it that hard. It wasn’t until I started working with the organization I volunteer with a little over a year ago that I even realized what a huge issue human trafficking was. I have never felt more naive and uninformed than my first meeting with them where they started discussing what a large problem it was and all I could say was, “Are you serious?!?!” To learn that there are places in my town (population around 50k) that house slaves; men, women, and children that are forced into labor or sex work, boggled my mind. It has forced me to reexamine how I view so many different things, and has, in all honesty, made me substantially more suspicious of almost everything and everyone.
It has also made me much more angry. Angry about how people are mistreated, angry about how little funding there is to help, and angry about how hard it is to get people to pay attention. If it doesn’t affect their lives, just like it didn’t used to affect mine, they don’t, or won’t, think about it. And I get that, I really do. We all have so much going on in our own lives, our own worries and struggles and stresses, that it is hard, and often a luxury of time, to step back and have the time to critically assess the information we are provided with. But when a young girl, a child, is being categorized as a prostitute, it changes people’s perspective. It softens the reality, the cruelty and nefarious underpinnings of the whole problem. “Prostitute” means one is breaking the law; “victim” means the law is being broken against them. Perception is incredibly important, and changing this one word puts a completely different spin and tone on the situation. And maybe, just maybe, if people are able to start recognizing that the children are victims, they might be ready to start accepting that there are adults in this situation as well, who are also victims of an unjust system that punishes those being forced to sell their bodies instead of digging deeper to punish those that are enslaving them.
For more information on human trafficking, please see these links—