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Sex In The Public Square

91 Bad Words About Young People and Prostitution: The New York Times Edition

It’s only 11 lines and 91 words, but most of them are bad. If you are looking for a clear, concise example of the wrong way to write about young people and prostitution, the story below is perfect. I’d have been angry about this piece of reporting anyway, but coming right on the heels of the fabulous two-day Detroit Youth Passages Youth Sexuality Media Forum, the problems with these 91 words make me all the more mad.

Because the original article is so short, here’s a snapshot of it it here in its entirety.
FBI Cracks Down on Sex Trafficking

  1. Trafficking is conflated with prostitution. Trafficking is a complicated term all on its own, and certainly involves coercion, force, or deception. Prostitution is the exchange of sex for something of value. That does not necessarily involve coercion, force, or deception. When the two are conflated, we can’t tell what’s really happening to the people involved in the story.
  2. The use of the term “child” erases important differences between 5 and 6 year olds, 13 and 14 year olds, and 16 and 17 year olds. A person who is 6 has a lot less power than a person who is 17. A person who is 17 is a lot more likely to be able to make a decision about having sex. The term “child” obscures these important differences and again, keeps us from knowing what the story is really about.
  3. The label “child prostitute” erases all other important aspects of a young person’s identity. These young people no doubt were multifaceted complex individuals who, among other things, exchanged sex for food, shelter, money, or other things they needed.
  4. The term “pimp” disguises different relationships, for example that between a boyfriend or girlfriend or other close relation who benefits from the exchange, between a person who provides a space for the exchange to occur, and a person who uses violence or threats to control someone else’s behavior. These differences are important in terms of understanding the impact on the people involved in the story.
  5. The use of the term “recovered” makes the young people involved sound like property that has been stolen or lost. These are human beings, not lost wallets or stolen cars. This is classic ‘rescue industry’ language, and it needs to be rejected in favor of language that recognizes complexity, agency, and that is accountable to the people who are subjects of the story.
  6. There is a passing reference to the fact that about 10% of the young people in this story “had been missing from child protective services” and yet there is no exploration of the very troubled CPS systems around the country. Here is a link to one very clear story, told by Tara Burns, providing deeply personal illustrations of those troubles. Returning those missing young people to the systems from which they escaped is not likely to do any good.
  7. There is no discussion of why these young people – 168 altogether – were engaging in commercial sex. Their potential for agency is erased in the telling of this story.Some may have been kidnapped, held prisoner, and forced to have sex with strangers. Others may have run away, needed shelter or food, and been offered a deal that involved an exchange of sex. Some may have had the intention to strike out on their own and use sex as a means of providing for themselves. None of this is as good as stable housing, livable wages for safe work, and the love of family, but not everybody gets to start out with that. Here, we don’t know the stories, and the stories matter. 
  8. There is absolutely no context given to help us understand the behavior being reported. Aside from references to four out of 106 cities, we know nothing about how or why these young people were making the decisions about exchanging sex for money, or shelter, or food, or something else of value to them, nor do we know anything about the conditions under which those exchanges were taking place.
  9. The ratio of people arrested to people “recovered” seems strange to me. Look at the numbers. Given the number of arrests, would you not expect there to be more young people “recovered”? Of course, we don’t know what “recovered” means, and maybe there were young people who refused to be “recovered.” That is a story that is not told here.
  10. There is no recognition of the multiplicity of human rights issues involved. For example, the right to bodily autonomy specifically includes the right to choose our sexual partners. Actions that coerce us into sexual relationships violate this right, but so do laws that preclude us from choosing sexual partners freely. Combined with the right to earn a living, laws that criminalize prostitution are clearly in violation of basic human rights. In addition, the International Planned Parenthood Foundation’s Declaration of Sexual Rights specifically recognizes the principle that young people’s rights may differ from adults’ rights, but that those differences change over the course of developmental stages in recognition of increasing ability to make decisions. Treating all people under 18 as “children” is also a violation of human rights.

So, at least ten serious issues in 11 lines. I’m sure there are others. What issues do you see?

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Ps: If human rights and sexual labor are important to you, join in Alexandria, Virginia, on August 14 for the Sex Work, Sex Trade, Prostitution and Human Rights Institute. Organized by Sex Worker Outreach Project’s indefatigable Kate D’Adamo, it kicks off our 4-day Sexual Freedom Summit, and promises inspiration, education, and thoughtful dialogue around complex issues that really matter!