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Why The Way We Talk About Underage Victims of Sex Trafficking Matters

In recent weeks, the case of Cyntoia Brown made national news once again after the Tennessee Supreme Court denied a challenge to her life sentence. Cyntoia was sentenced to life in prison in 2006 after being convicted for the 2004 murder of Johnny Mitchell Allen. At the time, she was just 16 years old — and Allen was her 43 year old rapist.

Cyntoia Brown is a victim of sex trafficking. Forced into the sex trade by a boyfriend, Cyntoia was picked up by Mr. Allen on August 6, 2004. She has stated that she shot Mr. Allen after he raped her, believing that he was reaching for a gun under his bed. Prosecutors allege that her killing of Mr. Allen was intentional, and that her plan was to rob Mr. Allen. She was tried and convicted of murder. Cyntoia’s case is now before Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, who will make a determination on clemency.

While Cyntoia Brown’s case has garnered national attention because of its unusual circumstances, there are thousands of victims of sex trafficking whose stories are not heard. Far too often, these victims are treated like criminals, charged with crimes such as solicitation and prostitution — and never given the help that they need to escape trafficking and recover from trauma.

In story after story about girls and boys forced into the sex trade, these young men and women are referred to as “prostitutes.” Many of the stories discussing the Cyntoia Brown case call her a prostitute, or describe what occurred prior to the killing of Mr. Allen as prostitution. This language choice is not only offensive — it is wrong.

Language matters in this context. If a person is under the age of 18, she or he cannot be a prostitute; that is sex trafficking. A person under the age of 18 does not need to be forced, defrauded or coerced into commercial sexual activity with a buyer/trafficker to be considered a victim of human trafficking.

In Tennessee, where Cyntoia Brown is incarcerated, the age of consent is 18. Under Tennessee law, the 43 year old man that she killed was not “having sex with” her — he was raping her. In Pennsylvania, the age of consent is 16, as long as the other person does not have authority over the minor (for example, a teacher or coach).

By describing victims of sex trafficking as “prostitutes” instead of victims, we are assigning them an agency that they do not have — and a portion of the blame. In the United States, the word prostitution carries certain connotations. If a person is described as a prostitute, many people will automatically view them as somehow responsible for any type of sexual assault that may occur. Using the right language reframes the way that we respond to victims of sex trafficking.

In Pennsylvania, the “Safe Harbor Bill” was passed in October 2018. This law is crucial, as it (among other things) provides that there is no such thing as a child prostitute. You can read the full text of the bill here.

Finally, it is important to understand that human trafficking does not always involve an international or even large-scale ring of criminals. In reality, most youth who are trafficked for sex are teens or young people who left their homes voluntarily or who were lured out of their homes. They are often trafficked by individuals or small groups, including the young person’s family or boyfriend. Acknowledging this is critical to understanding that sex trafficking happens everywhere — including right here in Westmoreland County.

By changing the way that we talk about underage victims of human trafficking, we can change the outcomes for these young women and men. If a person is forced into the sex trade, she or he needs our support and understanding — not judgment. At Blackburn Center, we offer services to victims of all types of violence, including human trafficking. Our hotline is available 24/7, and is always free of charge and confidential. Call us anytime at 1-888-832-2272 or 724-836-1122.

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