April 12, 2017

Kids Can’t Be “Prostitutes”: How Language Shapes The Way We Address Child Sex Trafficking

By Ingalisa Schrobsdorff

The D.C. Office of the Attorney General  has a new initiative to combat sex trafficking.

The D.C. Office of the Attorney General has a new initiative to combat sex trafficking.

When it comes to young people who are sexually exploited, language matters.

On today’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, Tina Frundt, Founder and Executive Director of Courtney’s House, and Erin Cullen, D.C. Deputy Attorney General, Family Services Division, discussed their work to end child sex trafficking, and they mentioned a number of terms regularly misused by media and the public.

The term “sex trafficking” itself is something the public —and the media— often misunderstand.

“People imagine that in order to be trafficked, there must be some sort of big international ring, or someone’s been abducted and is being held in a basement—things we see in movies and on television,” says Cullen. In reality, most sex trafficked youth are lured out of their homes or are preyed upon after leaving home.

“If you are under the age of 18, no child can be a prostitute; that’s sex trafficking.”

Another common term often misapplied to juveniles: prostitute. Media outlets may refer to an “underage prostitution ring,” but Frundt says that’s wrong. “If you are under the age of 18, no child can be a prostitute; that’s sex trafficking.”

“Anyone under the age of 18 does not need to show force, fraud, or coercion [for it to be child sex abuse],” notes Cullen.

The term “survival sex” is also problematic for many working against child trafficking. When young people engage in sex for somewhere to live, something to wear, or something to eat, “it’s child sexual abuse,” says Frundt. “When we call it ‘survival sex,’ we’re not understanding trafficking, and then we are not giving children the right services. As adults we should be finding them the right housing, a place to stay, because they are a child.”

“I say ‘survivor,’ instead of ‘victim.”

When Frundt talks with young people who come to Courtney’s House for help, she is careful about the terms she uses when asking them to tell their story.

“I say ‘survivor,’ instead of ‘victim,’” says Frundt. “The minute you say ‘victim’ they think ‘I’m weak, and you’re going to judge me.’ So we’re trying to empower them and let them know they are not weak. We tell them: ‘You survived on the streets—most adults couldn’t survive.’”

Instead of “runaway,” Frundt and her colleagues ask survivors how many times they left home. “If you say ‘runaway,’ kids immediately go into a police mindset, and they are afraid they will get in trouble.”

That fear is based in law, as youth can be charged with abscondence ––leaving home or leaving a foster care placement.

For everyday people who may not be reporting stories about sex trafficking, language still matters, says Frundt.

If you call the police and say, “There are some prostitutes out here standing on the corner,” it changes the way police respond, or even if they respond, according to Frundt.

“…If you think they are under the age of 18, then you want to say, ‘I believe they may be sex trafficked,’” Frundt says. Considering what you see in front of you and using the right terms can help police do their jobs. Frundt believes education and awareness can change perceptions–and maybe even shift a system she says too often criminalizes juveniles who are sex trafficked.

The Risks Facing Youth Who Leave Home: Combatting Our Region’s Underage Sex Trafficking – The Kojo Nnamdi Show

The media focus on missing girls of color in D.C. has put a spotlight on another issue: juvenile victims of sex trafficking. Advocates like Tina Frundt, who was herself a sex trafficked as a child, say victims are often victimized again by the criminal justice system. We explore the issues.


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