Cyntoia Brown was a victim of child sex trafficking. Against her will, she was forced into sex with a man who paid her captor to do so. When she feared the man would kill her for refusing sex, she shot and killed him in self-defense. She was 16. And she was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.
Her conviction was handed down in 2006 but her story has spread like wildfire these past few weeks on social media. Kim Kardashian of all people has offered to pay her legal fees. In my school, the day before Thanksgiving we all wrote on a big sheet of paper what we were hoping for. I can’t count how many “justice for Cyntoia Brown”s I saw.
But every single time I read about her case the same phrase irks me: child prostitute. Countless retellings of her story refer to her as a “child prostitute.” I’ve heard people mumble “well what was she expecting, she was a prostitute.” Cyntoia was no prostitute. She was simply a child.
The term prostitute implies some sort of autonomy over one’s decisions. There are many healthy and happy sex workers who operate with clear parameters about what they are and are not comfortable with. A child in any situation cannot consent. She was a sex slave who was raped for the profit of her captors.
The nonprofit Rights4Girls wrote an open letter to journalists and editors to refrain from using the phrase child prostitute. The letter states that “there is no such thing as a child prostitute. 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.”
When we refer to Cyntoia Brown and other victims like her as “child prostitutes” we are engaging in victim blaming. The term implies that they made an illegal decision and should be forced to reckon with the consequences. Cyntoia Brown is not a criminal but instead someone who has suffered immensely at the hands of criminals.
According to the Department of Justice, over 1000 children were arrested for sex work last year. These children were essentially punished for being victims of sexual abuse.
A true fair justice system is one that protects the innocent and punishes the guilty. Not the other way around. Eliminating phrases like child prostitute from our vernacular may seem trivial at first but changing the narrative around sex abuse will have massive ripple effects throughout society.
Kate Dario, Editor-In-Chief