One of the very first activities we do within our teen program is hand out a worksheet with Words Matter printed boldly across the page.
We ask the teens to select a couple of brightly colored markers, then, we give them the following directions: take one marker and write down negative or harsh words that have been spoken over you or perhaps you have even spoken over yourself. Each girl takes time to write down the words they have struggled with, sometimes recounting aloud the moments they were spoken.
Next, we ask them to pick up the second marker. Line by line, the girls reexamine the falsehoods in light of the Truth of God’s word. They strike through the lies and replace them with truth...the narrative on their paper begins to shift.
Just as we teach our teens girls about the words they personally hear spoken over them, we take the same approach to shifting the narrative around exploitation. There too, words matter.
Despite the age old adage of sticks and stones, words do matter, and they can hurt. In fact, words are incredibly powerful. Our words are a reflection of our perspective. Perspective perpetuates a narrative. When personal narratives for any given issue come together, societal culture is created.
For example, much of the information available about sexual exploitation is gathered from commercialized or sensationalized media sources. With the media's depiction as our primary source of education on this topic, it's easy to believe prostitution looks like Julia Roberts being romanced by Richard Gere. However, this perspective ignores the exploitation and the imbalance of power such a relationship represents. Often, our perspectives are informed by inaccurate sources of information.
So, if the reality of prostitution is not what we have seen depicted in the media, what is it?
As Exodus Cry, a leader in the fight against sexual exploitation explains, “Prostitution is primarily the result of a lack of choice among the most marginalized, vulnerable, and defenseless people in the world” (Exodus Cry, 2021).
The nature of prostitution has routinely been mischaracterized, and because of that, there is a false narrative perpetuated that diminishes the trauma and victimization that is inflicted upon women and girls often labeled ‘prostitutes.’
A quick search of the name Cyntoia Brown will result in a variety of characterizations. One article may read “sixteen year-old prostitute” while another may identify her as “a victim of sex trafficking.” As one researcher asked, “Is child prostitution a crime committed by minors, or against them?” (Adelson, 2008)
Cyntoia’s story, like numerous other examples, represents the battle within our culture for narrative control regarding the issue of prostitution.
Under the Alabama legal system, an adult cannot have consensual sexual relations with a child under the age of eighteen years old (AL Code §13A-6-62). Such interaction is considered statutory rape. The purchase of a child for sex is the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC), also known as sex trafficking of a minor. If an adult pays for sex with a sixteen year old girl, that girl is by legal definition a victim of both rape and sex trafficking. Thereby, she is not a criminal. She is a victim of sexual exploitation. There is no such thing as a child prostitute (Rights4Girls, 2015).
The nature of exploitation relies upon vulnerability as a gateway. Where there is vulnerability in a life, there is potential for exploitation.
Being under the age of eighteen is an inherent vulnerability for numerous obvious reasons. If a child experiences hardships such as chronic homelessness; food insecurity; history of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse; time in the foster care system; the presence of personal addiction(s) and/or the addiction(s) of a caregiver, etc., the child is increasingly more vulnerable and thereby more susceptible to being exploited.
What happens the day after her eighteenth birthday?
The unfortunate truth is that the existence of vulnerability does not lessen. In fact, many women have less access to resources and support after their eighteenth birthday. The result of unaddressed childhood trauma, victimization, and vulnerability is simply unaddressed adult trauma, victimization, and vulnerability.
Quantitative analyses have drawn similar correlations between not only childhood sexual abuse but also childhood neglect, physical abuse, and drug use (Widom and Kuhns, 1996) as indicators for being lured into prostitution as an adult.
Often, the stigma attached to the word prostitute is not synonymous with the lack of choice, on-going intimate partner violence, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or high mortality rate. However, all of the aforementioned conditions are a proven reality among those prostituted. Women involved in prostitution are one of the most prevalently victimized demographics of the population.
Among prostituted women:
82% report having been physically assaulted
83% report having been threatened with a weapon
68% report having been raped
48% report having been raped more than five times
84% report current or past homelessness
88% report a desire to leave prostitution
As top sexual exploitation researcher Melissa Farley states "…payment does not erase what we know about sexual violence, domestic violence and rape” (Farley, 2010). In order to shift the narrative surrounding prostitution, we cannot ignore the causality of the past or the on-going victimization of the present.
The heaviness of this reality leaves us with the question: What part can I play to shift the narrative?
In Romans 12:2, the Word of God says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then, you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Shifting the narrative truly begins with allowing our mindsets to be changed. When truth is revealed, we begin to change the way we interpret the circumstances before us. We begin to exchange the stigma of prostitution for the reality of prostitution.
Before we can serve women and girls, we must first allow ourselves to be changed by the power of God’s word. We must allow our mindsets to be shifted, and we must recognize, in fullness, the false narratives that sometimes limit our compassion. It requires us to consistently take out our brightly colored marker and replace the falsehood with truth.
Exodus Cry, https://exoduscry.com/choice, 2021.
Wendi J. Adelson, Child Prostitute or Victim of Trafficking?, 6 U. St. Thomas L.J. 96 (2008).
Rights4Girls, No Such Thing Campaign, https://rights4girls.org/campaign/, (2015).
Melissa Farley, "The Real Harms of Prostitution," October 2010.
Widom and Kuhns, "Childhood victimization and subsequent risk for promiscuity, prostitution, and teenage pregnancy: a prospective study," 1996.