Born to a drug-addicted mother, Nikki spent her childhood moving between foster homes and group homes where she experienced repeated sexual and physical violence. At age 14, Nikki was placed with her biological father, but sadly soon after, she was sexually abused by her father and his friends.
Like countless other girls forced to protect themselves because of our collective failure, Nikki ran away from the endless abuse she endured at the hands of the very people entrusted to care for her. Isolated and with nowhere else to turn, Nikki fell victim to a trafficker and for the next two years was bought and sold for sex by men all across California. At age 16, she was arrested and incarcerated for prostitution – despite not even being old enough to consent to sex and despite a federal law that defined her as a victim of human trafficking.
Today in the media and in the law, too many trafficked and exploited girls in the United States like Nikki are not seen or treated as victims of child abuse and rape. They are instead routinely treated as delinquents and arrested as perpetrators. Each year, more than 1,000 American children are arrested for prostitution.
But it is not only our legal system that treats abused and exploited children as criminals. According to research by Rights4Girls and The Raben Group, more than 5,000 times in the past five years, media outlets have used “child prostitute,” “child sex worker” or “teen prostitute” to describe minors trafficked for sex.
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That is why we have launched a new campaign and petition drive to declare that there is #NoSuchThing as a child prostitute – to end the use of this concept in both language and law. We are holding an event Wednesday with Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, county supervisors and celebrities; the executive director of Rights4Girls will be speaking Thursday to the Sacramento Press Club.
We can no longer pretend that words don’t matter. The media have acknowledged this fact by, for instance, ending the use of the term “illegal” in favor of “undocumented” in the context of immigrants, and in moving away from “homosexual” in favor of “LGBT.”
This issue ought to be no different. As our campaign urges, how we are named is how we are treated. Victims of child sex trafficking like Nikki ought to be named and treated as we treat all other victims of child sexual abuse and trauma – with respect, services and support.
Yasmin Vafa is co-founder and director of law and policy of Rights4Girls, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.