Sep 3, 2013
04:33 AMThe Connecticut Story
New Haven-Based Group Takes on Sex Trafficking, and Words Used to Described Those Involved
In a world in which sex attracts attention, it’s not rare to see prostitution arrests, mugshots or brothel raids posted on the Web or televised.
Images, names and phrases such as “child prostitute” and “romantic relationship” flash before us and, more often than not, that’s where the coverage ends.
But researchers in various fields suggest the words used around prostitution and sex trafficking often have lingering effects, are damaging to the survivors or are just plain inaccurate.
“The overarching thing to remember is that words shape society’s perceptions,” said Ryan Day of Love 146, a New Haven-based organization committed to the abolishment of human trafficking.
Though it has long been around, phrases such as sex trafficking recently flooded media outlets after a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe resulted in the recovery of five commercially sexually exploited teenagers in Connecticut, and 105 nationwide. The investigation spanned 76 cities and towns across the country. In Connecticut, the victims were between 15 and 17 years old; in Sacramento, Calif., a survivor as young as 14 was recovered.
Under federal law, the age of consent to cross a state border for sex is 18, therefore trafficked children are not classified as prostitutes but are legally considered victims, Day said.
The language society uses around exploited children can be crucial to their recovery and to avoiding re-victimization, said Love 146 U.S. Prevention Education Manager Kimberly Casey.
“Rather than treating them as youth that have consciously made ‘bad decisions,’ we suggest that it would be more appropriate to consider them as youth whose vulnerabilities have been exploited,” Casey said. “If as a society we refuse to use exploitative and demeaning language, we will position ourselves to create a supportive environment for those who are being victimized.”
Casey said she often uses a word association exercise in her trainings to drive home the “power of words.”
In one exercise, “prostitute” and “commercially sexually exploited child” are written on opposite sides of a board for students to say what comes to mind. For “prostitute,” words such as “dirty” and “STDs” come up; for “commercially sexually exploited children,” words such as “alone” and “scared” come up, she said.
To further drive home the power of words, Casey asks members of the class to imagine how children from the second group would feel if they were treated as if they were part of the first.
“We emphasize how such actions can reinforce feelings of shame and distrust, and discourage exploited youth from seeking help,” she said.
A further example, she said, would be using the word “slut” in the case of a girl or young woman who engages in repeated casual sex, as such a word closes the door on any type of conversation or disclosure.
Yi-Chun Tricia Lin, director of women’s studies at Southern Connecticut State University, said she believes the media, as well as those who write and teach, can make a difference in the way language is used. Lin referenced Connecticut feminist Kate Swift, who pioneered nonsexist language in the early 1970s, as an example of what is possible.
When it comes to the media’s use of language, the problem might be the lack of a “polite euphemism for sex slavery,” said Yale University anthropology professor Joe Errington.
“Sex slaves, sex slavery, that might be a little strong for the media,” Errington said. “People are going to trade off accuracy to hold the words at a psychological distance.”
While the term “sex slavery” is considered too strong by some, the phrase made it into President Barack Obama’s Clinton Global Initiative speech in 2012, when he addressed human trafficking as a whole, calling it “modern slavery.”