"Human Trafficking" vs. "Modern-Day Slavery." "Slavery" vs. "Enslavement." "Victim" vs. "Survivor." "Prostitute" vs. "Sex Worker." The diverse, meaning, and often frustrating field of anti-trafficking work includes an ongoing discussion about terminology. To many people this may - understandably - seem like a purely academic debate. However, the words we use regarding this terrible issue do things.
At a practical level they can assist with the aftercare of a person who has endured human trafficking or modern-day slavery. The trauma associated with an experience such as sex trafficking can be severe enough that having the option to identify as a "survivor" rather than a "victim" can have a profound impact on an individuals future empowerment. Similarly, identifying as a "victim" of circumstances beyond their control can help those who have endured this trauma let go of feelings of guilt and shame, particularly during the earlier stages of aftercare. Choosing to identify with a certain word can help a trafficking victim or survivor reclaim some of the power that was taken away from them by their enslaver.
When a high profile human trafficking case featuring a powerful offender enters the news cycle the choice of what words are used to describe a person who has endured this evil becomes even more important. A major reason for this importance is the potential for victims and survivors of this terrible thing to become public figures, whether they want to or not. Their feelings of guilt and shame are thrust into the spotlight along with their identities. The ability of victims and survivors of modern-day enslavement to process their trauma can be highly dependent on how responsibly they and their experiences are publicly discussed.
The arrest of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein on human trafficking charges in July of 2019 is a case in point. His arrest came on the heels of the arrest of other high profile, powerful men on these charges such as Tim Nolan and Robert Poole, both of whom were well-known in Kentucky legal circles and local politics (Nolan liked to call himself "Donald Trump's Northern Kentucky Campaign Chairman"). Epstein's arrest also occurred within a year of breaking news about an ongoing human trafficking investigation centered around an attorney in Southern Ohio. This latter news broke in newspapers like the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Like Tim Nolan and Robert Poole, Jeffrey Epstein was a high profile and influential figure. Unlike them, however, Epstein was an internationally known financier prior to his arrest. He was connected to people like Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Alan Dershowitz, and Prince Andrew, Duke of York. While Epstein's arrest represented the continuation of a trend of powerful men finally being held accountable for the enslavement of the vulnerable, it also meant that his victims had the potential to be known internationally. Moreover, as the media made public the sordid details of Epstein's world, the power difference between victims and survivors of trafficking and their abusers became clearer to more people.
On the morning of August 10th 2019, Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his lower Manhattan jail cell of an apparent suicide. He was 66.
While awareness raising is generally a good thing, publicizing the alleged activities of people like Epstein makes it possible for victims and survivors of human trafficking to be traumatized again thanks to conditions like PTSD. The good news is that there is a widespread call for the use of respectful wording when describing Epstein's alleged victims. Users on platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been taking to task media outlets like The Daily Beast and Chicago Tribune for referring to these individuals as "underage women" rather than "children" or "girls." They have also been making the point that anti-trafficking organizations like Rights4Girls and Cincinnati's own Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center (IJPC) have for years; that there is no such thing as a "child prostitute." In the words of Rights4Girls' website: "There is no difference between paying to rape a child and raping a child; all victims of child sex abuse should be treated the same way."
Epstein's alleged victims could not, and did not, consent to being trafficked. Words like "child prostitute" and "underage women" leave wiggle room that mitigates the horror of what allegedly occurred inside his Upper-East Side, NYC mansion. It is important that we hold the media, and ourselves, accountable when talking about this.
End Slavery Now has resources that can help you do just that. As the Epstein case unfolds and more brave victims and survivors come forward, the media and online blogs will continue to discuss the girls caught up in this financier's web of abuse. They will also be the topic of conversations at work and around the dinner table. The human trafficking toolkits released by IJPC are a key resource for discussing human trafficking in a way that does not re-traumatize victims. Rights4Girls has as online campaign to eradicate the term "child prostitute" from news coverage. They have already gotten the Associated Press to stop using the word.
Debates over semantics might seem like a waste of time. For victims and survivors of human trafficking and modern-day enslavement, however, eliminating words like "child prostitute" or "underage woman" can be all too important. Toolkits such as IJPC's and campaigns like Rights4Girls' can help these brave and strong victims and survivors thrive during the aftercare process.
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August 26th is Women's Equality Day in the United States. This year, support an anti-trafficking organization founded by a brave and dynamic woman.