Commercial sexual exploitation of children, or human trafficking, is when a commercial sex act is exchanged for something of value with a minor, and/or when force, fraud, or coercion are present. The legal and cultural language around what we refer to as “commercial sexual exploitation” has evolved over time. We’ve shifted the use of our language to match our current understanding of the power dynamics, legalities, and the lived experience of young people that experience sexual exploitation. Here’s what we know at this point in time:
- Commercial Sex Act:
- this can include any sex act that is given in exchange for anything of value. The sex act could be traded for money, food, drugs, a place to sleep, transportation, a phone, or even social status in a certain group. A commercial sex act becomes commercial sexual exploitation when someone’s choices are limited by force, fraud, or coercion.
- Sex work / sex industry:
- sex work is the industry where adults consent with other adults for commercial sex acts. The age to consent in commercial sex acts is 18, while the age to consent to sex (without commercial exchange) in Washington state is 16.
- Prostituted Youth:
- The terms “prostituted children/youth” or prostitution in reference to children and youth are outdated. These terms imply that the parties involved are consenting to a commercial sex act. A minor cannot legally consent to prostitution, because any commercial sex act involving a minor is defined as human trafficking.
- Sex slavery:
- referring to a young person’s experience as sex slavery is problematic. When they come to see you, they likely won’t identify as a slave, and may even identify parts of their experience that they like. Furthermore, once we start referring to young people who are exploited as slaves, we may be inclined to refer to them as individuals we need to “rescue.” This is unhelpful and counterproductive to our advocacy framework of empowerment and relationship-building.
- Other language:
- We are likely to encounter a subculture of shared language among survivors of sexual exploitation. Someone may identify that they are in “the life” of exploitation, that they are “working”, “making money”, or even dating. This language also evolves and changes over time and can vary between communities.
We still have so much to learn from the experience of young people who survive sexual exploitation. As we learn, our shared language can evolve as well. We can stay informed and flexible to these changes.
Application to Advocacy
It doesn’t usually make sense to use all this jargon with survivors. Often, a young person experiencing sexual exploitation won’t identify themselves as a survivor when they first come to see us. One young person's motivation to leave or stay in the life will look differently than another young person, which in turn will impact how they frame their experience. In fact, they may or may not identify with any of these terms during their time with us. As advocates, it is helpful to listen to the language used by the young person and reflect back how they frame their experiences.
Overall, our advocacy with young people who are experiencing commercial sexual exploitation must include relationship and trust building at its core. This means employing active listening techniques and continuing to honor the autonomy and empowerment process of survivors. With sexual exploitation of children and youth, this may also mean that we challenge our biases about trafficking, and engage in continued learning. We are seeing an increased awareness of sexual exploitation and emerging scholarly research on its prevalence and impact. As advocates, our ongoing learning sources can certainly be drawn from these academic sources; however, let us remember that the expertise lies with the survivor. Our research is informed by the lived experience and stories of survivors of sexual exploitation. As we center the survivor experience and stay flexible in our shared language, we will engage in effective advocacy and promote lasting healing.