We all know that our words carry weight, but what does that mean when we are talking about sexual exploitation, human trafficking, and prostitution? World Without Exploitation is a “community of organizations and individuals who share a vision and seek to leverage their unique skills and different backgrounds in the fight to end human trafficking and sexual exploitation.” I recently attended one of their webinars that discussed the importance of the words we choose when advocating for survivors of human trafficking. I found this webinar to be incredibly convicting, and it was a good check-in for me and how I carry myself when working to combat human trafficking.
In the webinar, Nikki Bell, a survivor of sex trafficking, talked about how eye-opening it was for her to hear that she was a survivor and not labeled as a prostitute. She said, “She is a survivor who was a prostituted woman. It wasn’t something that she was; rather, it was something that happened to her.”
When talking about someone who has been prostituted, we must be deliberate in calling it prostitution and not “sex work” because many survivors, like Nikki Bell, have shared how deeply harmful the term “sex work” is. It is a term that was created to legitimize and normalize the sex trade industry. And if we are going to end systems of prostitution, we must name them for what they are.
Nikki Bell also offered an interesting perspective that traffickers aren’t always people. She said, “Traffickers can also be opioids, homelessness, poverty, systems of oppression, and so on.” We need to acknowledge this! When we don’t, it becomes exclusive to others that aren’t bound by physical chains, but rather emotional chains. This is why it is incredibly problematic when movies like Taken depict sex trafficking as something that is only recognizable by handcuffs or kidnapping. When viewers know these signs as human trafficking, they do not see how trafficking actually works. They don’t see that traffickers aren’t always people or that victims aren’t always bound by physical chains. We must acknowledge the many forms of human trafficking with intentionality in the words we use. When we do, it acknowledges all forms of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
During my junior year at DePaul University, I began my senior thesis around the topic of homelessness in Chicago. In the process of drafting and presenting my thesis around homelessness, I was challenged to not refer to someone as a homeless person; rather, they are a person that is experiencing homelessness. When we intentionally say that, we are first acknowledging their dignity and identity as a human being. However, when we refer to a human being as a homeless person, it attaches the homelessness to their identity in a way where it makes it seem as though that is who they are and always will be. However, we believe that NO ONE should be experiencing prostitution or homelessness and therefore, we will not label them as such because to do so is to uphold the injustices being done to them. When we refer to them as someone who is either experiencing prostitution or homelessness, the narrative changes to one that is more dedicated to making sure that this person is not bound to their current situation or things that are happening in their life. That is why we must be intentional about the words we use because they can either uplift survivors or tear them down.
Written by Allison Moser, Vincentian Mission Corps