Language Matters: A 9 year old does not have a "career" in prostitution

By Katie Feifer

Language matters when we speak about sexual violence. Using language of consent to describe crimes of violence is one of the ways we do a disservice to rape victims and continue to reinforce damaging messages about rape. One example: a child victim of Jerry Sandusky was commonly referred to in press accounts as “having sex with” Sandusky when in fact, the victim was forced to orally copulate the older man.

We continue to focus on language because until we talk about sexual violence in a truthful, accurate way, we as a society will not think about and accept sexual violence in a truthful, accurate way.

Today’s case study centers on the language we use to talk about prostitution and prostituted and trafficked girls and women. Many consider prostitution a victimless crime, a choice that women make, and certainly not a form of exploitation or abuse or violence. The reality is far different. (It’s a much bigger issue than we’re tackling in this post but you can read more about it here.)

The AP filed a story by Ramit Plushink-Masti about Houston’s efforts to rehabilitate people in prostitution. And in their opening paragraph, they referred to a 9 year old prostituted girl as someone who “had a full-fledged career in prostitution...” And the article went on to use more damaging language to refer to prostituted women and girls as "street walkers" and "hookers."

First, almost no 9 year olds have “careers”. But a 9 year old who has been trafficked and exploited by her mother and others, raped and abused by men who buy sex from her????? We continue to minimize and to soften the horror of the crime and the trauma its victims are subjected to when we use language like this, when our words make legitimate and commonplace what is ugly and awful.

As the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation says in its blog post,  This is a giant failure by the Associated Press and Plushnick-Masti to recognize that Tricia Chambers is a survivor of childhood sexual assault. Instead, they continue to stigmatize her and others who are in a program trying to exit prostitution, by calling them “hookers” and “streetwalkers.” This is incredibly offensive and harmful, and reinforces the cultural norm that people in prostitution are to blame, when many are actually crime victims.”

We are joining CAASE in asking you to Tweet @RamitMastiAP and @AP and tell them they got it wrong. A child in prostitution is a victim of a heinous crime. They must do better in deepening reporters’ understanding of these issues and work to not re-victimize survivors of sexual assault and trafficking. They must edit this story and show that they will do more to educate reporters about the realities of sex trafficking.”

Language matters.

Shining a Light on the Global Epidemic of Sex Trafficking and Sex Tourism

By Katie Feifer

Recent news about U.S. Secret Service men patronizing prostituted women and girls while in Colombia advancing a trip for the President has brought the bright light of media attention to the global problem of sex trafficking and sex tourism.

Thankfully, in the midst of media coverage that seems aimed at titillation or attempts to discredit the President or the Secret Service, we are seeing blogs and articles that steer our attention where it really ought to be: on the global epidemic that is sex trafficking and sex tourism.

Men are buying thousands and thousands of prostituted men, women and children who are little more than slaves: indentured, tortured, and forced to work against their will in a multi-billion dollar industry that is highly profitable to those who control the prostituted people.

We appreciate media coverage like the article by Rachel Durchslag of Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) in Huffingtonpost.com that rightly calls us to action to stop the demand for prostituted women, girls, boys and men. Those men who buy children or adults for sex, whether in Colombia, Thailand or Chicago, must be stopped. Their behavior is morally reprehensible and criminal – never ever something any of us should condone. And by staying silent about their behavior, we are condoning it.

And we are glad to see articles like the one in USA Today by Kirstin Powers decrying our lack of outrage: “We have a global epidemic of sex trafficking, and President Obama and members of Congress should take this opportunity to express the outrage that should be the natural reaction to slavery.”

And so should we all.

Violence Against Women Matters: A Story From One State That MIght've Been Written From Many

By Samir Goswami

On February 3 2010 Scott Lee Cohen won the Democratic primary to become a candidate in the general election for Lieutenant Governor of Illinois. On February 4th, Chicago’s news media flooded the airwaves and newsprint with revelations that he abused his ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend. Since then, Scott Cohen has dropped out of the race; however, this would not be the first time that a political figure in Illinois has been in trouble for violence against women.

Blair Hull, a candidate for U.S. Senate was arrested for domestic battery. Mel Reynolds, a U.S. Congressman was convicted of sexual assault of a minor. Scott Fawell, chief aide to former Illinois Governor George Ryan, exchanged government contracts for lobbyists and arranged visits to prostituted women in Costa Rica. Alexi Giannoulias, currently Illinois’ State Treasurer and Democratic nominee for Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat authorized loans from his family run bank to a convicted pimp.

As the nation has amply witnessed, much media and public attention is focused on public corruption in Illinois, little on how elected officials treat women, which is a disservice to Illinois voters. Violence against women, whether it is domestic battery, sexual assault or the exploitation of women in prostitution is as pervasive among politicians as it is in the rest of society.

Do we want our elected officials to simply disregard, and in some cases perpetrate acts of harm against women? Do we want these men to run our state and represent us? How does that affect their votes on legislation about women’s safety, health and well being? What message does that send to young boys throughout the state? These are key questions that voters of all political backgrounds should ask because the answers matter.

In the 2010 Illinois budget funding for domestic violence programs was cut by nine percent, funding for sexual assault programs was cut by 19 percent and no funding was provided for preventing abused children from being further victimized by pimps and traffickers. Each percentage point of funding that is cut means that hundreds of women will not be able to flee abusive partners because they have nowhere to go. Hundreds of victims of rape will not be helped and thus their rapists not prosecuted and taken off the streets, and more children will have to suffer and endure child abuse in silence.  A state’s priorities are reflected in its budgets. These are not the actions of a state that prioritizes addressing violence against women in any meaningful way.  

How did we get here—how did we get to a point where an issue that affects one in four women in Illinois gets such little investment? We got here by willfully ignoring the many, many stories about abusive men that stare at us in the face every day. Actually, Scott Cohen told Illinois voters in the very beginning of his campaign that he had been arrested for battery. Despite this revelation by a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of the fifth most populous state in the nation, Illinois’ news media did not adequately cover the story, his opponents did not make an issue out of it, and apparently the few voters who voted in the primary did not think that his propensity towards harming women mattered.

Violence against women does matter. It is the news media’s duty to adequately report it, it is all of our duty to work against it, and it is our civic obligation to ensure that our elected officials, rather than being perpetrators themselves, champion measures to end sexual harm. We have gotten to a point in Illinois that the message we send to a victim is that the violence that was perpetrated against you, the horror that you had to endure, is only important if it serves a higher political purpose.  And that is simply not acceptable.

Samir Goswami is a 2010 Chicago Community Trust Fellow and a Chicago Foundation for Women “Impact Award” winner.