What’s Wrong with Calling a Child a Prostitute?

By Linda Smith

Former Congresswoman Linda Smith is Founder and President of Shared Hope International

Founder and President, Shared Hope International

Although the media will tell you otherwise, child prostitutes do not exist in America. However, prostituted children DO exist.  The difference?  A child cannot be a prostitute because she/he is a victim of commercial sexual exploitation and the federal law defines this child as a victim of sex trafficking.  The difference in language is critical if we are to make progress in national efforts to rescue and restore child victims of sex trafficking.

Shared Hope International (SHI) recently published The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children which compiled more than four years of research into the problem of child sex trafficking in America, done with support from the U.S. Department of Justice.  The problem of incorrect and damaging labels being applied to child victims of sex trafficking presented itself as a primary barrier to the identification, rescue and proper treatment of these children.

First, it is important to recognize that prostitution is illegal in the United States (except for select counties in Nevada where adults can legally sell sex in licensed venues). Even countries which have legalized prostitution make it a crime to control someone in prostitution (pimping).  The United States Congress specifically made it a federal crime to transport juveniles with the intent to engage them in criminal sexual activity one hundred years ago with the passage of the Mann Act (White Slavery Act).  The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) reinforced this position by clearly defining severe forms of trafficking to include the use of a child under 18 years of age in a commercial sex act.

The term “child prostitute” implicates the child in the criminal activity of prostitution and contradicts the well-established history in America of acting in the best interest of the child.  The term denies the child the legal status of victim of a violent crime, thereby creating a barrier to accessing statutorily mandated victim compensation and services.  Stripped of the status of a true victim, the child is seldom if ever afforded  appropriate treatment and rehabilitation.

In America, the average age for a child to be recruited by a trafficker (pimp) into commercial sexual exploitation is just 13 years old.

It begs the questions: What is a child doing on the street?  And, how does she get there? These children are predominantly girls.  They have usually encountered a variety of abusive experiences which increase their risk of vulnerability to a trafficker’s tactical deception.  A comprehensive study of 104 juvenile victims of sex trafficking in Clark County, Nevada revealed that 82 percent were runaways, 47 percent were rape victims, and 89 percent used narcotics.

Consider the following situation of a child sex trafficking victim – is this a “child prostitute” or a “prostituted child?”

She is first molested by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of five. With a steady stream of abusive characters in and out of her life, a house full of drug dealing and using, she is befriended by an older man at 12 years old who promises to care for her and give her a life far safer than her own. Young, vulnerable and eager to be loved, she accepts. However, the promises aren’t fulfilled. She is forced to stand on the streets, scantily clad in the early hours of the morning…approaching strangers and forced to sell her body for sex, hand jobs, acts that seem completely foreign to her. Forced to fulfill a quota of $1000, she services up to twenty men a night – handing every penny to the pimp to avoid being beaten. She is arrested time and time over and misunderstands her innocence when she is constantly labeled a prostitute by law enforcement. She misunderstands her relationship with her pimp, whom she protects from law enforcement because she believes she is ‘loved’ by him. She misses her 14th and 15th birthdays. By the time she is 16, she can’t imagine a life any different. She claims ownership over her job because, well, she doesn’t see a way to escape and she’s beginning to think it’s the only thing she’ll ever be good at doing.

How can these victimized girls call out for help if they don’t even realize their right to be rescued? When law enforcement arrests the prostituted child as a child prostitute, when social service providers call her a prostitute or promiscuous, when her trafficker rewires her mind to make her believe that this life is all she is worthy of, how can we help our girls realize otherwise? The key to rescuing and restoring our American girls is to label them appropriately as prostituted children.

From the media to law enforcement and members of the community, we all have a part to play in the proper identification and response to America’s prostituted children. Terminology that accurately depicts these children as victims will lead to their identification by first responders as victims of domestic minor sex trafficking – prostituted children. SHI research has found that domestic minor sex trafficking victims more readily disclose information about their exploitation when they are addressed as survivors. Furthermore, having a single label for the crime allows multiple agencies, communities, and regions to effectively track, research, and intervene in a single coordinated effort.

A prostituted child deserves freedom from commercial sexual exploitation. A first step we can take in moving this liberation forward is to change perception through a careful use of the label we are applying to the victim.  Each one of these enslaved children is a prostituted child.

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2 Comments

Filed under Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, Linda Smith

2 responses to “What’s Wrong with Calling a Child a Prostitute?

  1. Nikki Longaker

    It’s validating to hear from another expert what Amanda & others have said in her blogs re the actual and virtual enslavement of children & young women for sex, and a proposed, partial solution!

    As a writer and psychotherapist, I agree: language is crucial to how society, law enforcement & victims themselves perceive their status.

    The problem then is that, although we’d view and treat a girl of 13, then 16, as a sex victim, at 19, then 22, she’d have become both an adult and a criminal.

    The literal-minded would insist she’s guilty of a crime & must be punished; so we need to extend the concept of sex victimization beyond mere chronology.

    Aside from the fact that prosecuting her solves nothing – at great financial cost – once imprisoned, the 19 year-old has even less chance of healing from her abuse, getting an education & contributing to society. Already convinced of her own complicity as a child, her once malleable self-identity will harden like stone.

    (We know this in the case of male abusers & pedophile rapists, most of whom were abused as kids. Society’s horror and compassion for the child victim (for whom it does NOT mandate therapeutic treatment) disappear when he becomes the abuser, then ex-con & tormented-Frankenstein monster.)

    The solution is neither to ‘dignify’ the victim by calling her a ‘sex worker,’ as some suggest, or to legalize prostitution.

    Prostitution itself – not the prostitute – the purchase of female (sometimes male) bodies for sex, which nearly always begins with the rape of a minor, is and should remain illegal. To rename it sex-trafficking – both of minors and former minors – if accepted, would enable prosecution of the actual criminals.

    All ‘street’ prostitutes would be seen as victims (except in the case of self-employed prostitutes who insist their occupation is a free choice), who, when tagged by police, could be given shelter, medical treatment, counseling and help in choosing a life, while those who purchase their bodies, or profit from the purchase, would be subject to prosecution. Their penalty could take the form of large fines to pay for services for their victims.

    Hard core pimps could also be forced to work in community service (forbidden all contact with children/young women they had enslaved), or, in cases where brutality & rape can be proven, incarcerated for a long time (the purpose of prison being to protect others from criminal acts, rather than punishment for its own sake, which only further dehumanizes perpetrators, at taxpayers’ expense).

    I urge those who will protest that all who break a law must be punished, to consider the purpose, nature, cost & effects of imprisonment – not only out of compassion, but from a rational need to do what’s best for society overall.

  2. I’ve been saying this for a long time and it’s so refreshing to read it somewhere else.

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