Words matter and they make a big difference when talking about people or things. Take the words "prostitute" and "sex trafficking victim," for example. One implies a profession, while the other implies a force against someone's will.
This is the reason that a child sexual abuse survivor is speaking up about the term "child prostitute."
A child cannot choose that life, as they are legally supposed to be under the care of someone else, and it's wrong to use that term to imply otherwise. Survivor Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew began a Change.org petition to take a stand and specifically ask Associated Press to stop using the phrase in its reporting.
"According to research by the Human Rights Project for Girls (Rights4Girls), The California Endowment and The Raben Group, there have been more than 5,000 instances in the past five years when reporters for print wire, and online outlets have used the phrase "child prostitute," "child prostitution," "underage prostitution" or other variations on the phrase to describe these exploited children," she wrote.
“'Child prostitute' may seem clear because it conveys the fact that money is exchanged for sex, but it is also misleading because it suggests consent and criminality when none exists?" she wrote. "Many of us are not even of legal age to consent to sex."
She went on to explain that she was 10 when she became a rape victim and like herself, many child victims are beaten, abused and threatened into submission.
Sex work, or prostitution, has a negative connotation as is, but the phrase insinuates that children have a say in taking part in the profession (which when coerced or abused into it, isn't a profession at all — it's captivity, even when they turn 18.)
According to the International Business Times, the AP did respond to Rights for Girls, but not to make a change. Instead, it defended its use of the term, claiming that when it use the term "within the context of criminal proceedings or young people being unwillingly forced into prostitution," it's done so sparingly and it's indicated the children involved have no choice.
"I'm unsure why the Associated Press is being singled out," AP spokesperson Paul Colford told the outlet.
But advocates aren't backing down and the pressure is on.
Pettigrew ended her statement with a plea to the media company:
"I have dedicated my life to ending child sexual exploitation and ensuring that victims and survivors are treated with honor and respect. It is important that the Associated Press take leadership in ending the use of these terms, because how we are named is how we are treated. If respectable media outlets continue to use these terms, children who are bought and sold will continue to be treated as criminals, instead of as victims and survivors of child rape. They deserve to be named and treated as such. They deserve to be treated the way I wish I had been treated.
AP, it's your move.
To sign the petition, visit Change.org.
Cover image: iStock