Wrestling with the intersectionality of language and response
As lawyers and activists, Shared Hope’s Policy Team is frequently fielding the question, “Why does it matter?” “Why does it matter what language we use?” “Why does it matter who responds to the plight of a trafficked child?” “Why does this specific law matter?” These questions are sound—in fact, we are grappling with the same. These questions are at the heart of every bill we write, every testimony we provide, and every conversation we have. If we fail to uncover and respond appropriately to the “why,” we will fail in our efforts to respond appropriately, through law and policy, to the victimization of our nation’s trafficked children.
Ultimately, language shapes how we view a person or issue. Referring to a commercially sexually exploited child as a prostitute not only conjures up a plethora of stereotypes and assumptions, it lays the foundation for the responses that a child will receive. Whereas a “prostituted” child stirs up the misplaced idea of an incorrigibly wild tween who deserves correction and punishment, a child victimized by a serious and systemic sexual crime properly identifies that child as requiring and deserving of protection, sympathy, and services.
More bluntly, the underlying crime of child sex trafficking is the raping and sexual molestation of a child. Our society and legal systems rightfully identify this type of sexual conduct between an adult and child as sexual abuse and violence; money neither sanitizes this crime, nor reverses the role of offender and victim. Language matters. Our commercially sexually exploited children are not criminals, they are victims of a crime, victims of circumstances, and in too many states, victims of a criminal justice system that punishes, rather than protects.
This year, ten states sought legislation that demands protection not punishment for commercially sexual exploited children. If passed, these ten states would join the 19 other states to clarify that a minor cannot be prosecuted for prostitution offenses. These states understand that children, facing unimaginable plights, are victims, not “prostitutes,” “delinquents,” or “rebels.”
Words matter. Our responses matter. Your support matters.
States who introduced Non-Criminalization Legislation in 2017:
- Rhode Island
- South Dakota
- West Virginia