by Ellyn Bell
The words child and prostitute should never be used together in the same sentence, at least and certainly not in the context of the word “child” modifying the word “prostitute”.
But altogether too often, and of recent, we have seen these two words together. And although they have caused a reaction in many, that reaction has been difficult to fully comprehend. [Click here, here, and here for examples].
This is because the underlying assumptions are completely lacking clarity, and we have no common understanding of the root of the problem. On one hand, we know that by law, those who are under the age of 18 are in most states considered “children” and legally cannot consent to their own exploitation sexually.
On the other hand, it’s complicated. While some youth are being forced into the sex trade, many others believe that they are choosing their lifestyle—and for all practical purposes they may be. But our sympathy as a society wanes when we hear this type of thing and it doesn’t make for a good story.
We want a story of a victim that can be rescued and is grateful for the rescue, not a hardened, sullen child or teen ready to go back to the boyfriend, girlfriend, pimp or trafficker once they are released from custody or whatever placement to which they have been confined.
Of course, there are the exceptions, because nothing is true across the board. But for many sexually exploited youth, who end up in juvenile detention or who have come from systems of placement or dysfunctional family systems, what we understand as their exploitation is the least of their worries. Their deeper concerns lie with the basic needs of acceptance, belonging, autonomy, and love. What looks like exploitation to the outside world is just a part of the quest for survival. And herein lies the societal disconnect.
As for the word “prostitute”: In general, this word degrades a human being to a sellable object. The definition according to Merriam-Webster is a person who has sex in exchange for money or a person who uses a skill or ability in a way that is not appropriate or respectable.
This is troubling when applied to children for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it becomes a statement on the value of the child. This label, and all of its associated consequences, often causes long-term emotional damage. It is preferable to look at the word “prostitute” as a verb and recognize that children can be prostituted. To be prostituted then is a moment in time and an action; not a life sentence or a label to be overcome.
Society tends to view exploited youth under the noun definition of “prostitute” rather than as youth who have been prostituted. Until policy makers, advocates, and the media truly look at the depth of the issue and all of the interconnections with childhood trauma, abuse, attachment to caregivers and also the ties to the adult sex industry; the number of sexually exploited young people will only continue to rise, and the problem will become more underground and yet more normalized
All quick legislative fixes are doomed to fail if they only bandage a superficial wound. Looking at the issue comprehensively requires addressing all of the components of a demand-driven system and the huge profits gained by those who benefit from selling others.
Ellyn Bell is the executive director of the SAGE Project in San Francisco