Stealing Innocence

Why sexual exploitation groups take issue with terms like 'child porn' and 'sex work'

What you say and how you say it can really matter, according to groups Thrive and CASEY.

Some terms can re-victimize people who have suffered through trauma, say members of Thrive and CASEY

When it comes to sexual exploitation, local advocacy and prevention groups say the language people use can re-victimize people and cause more trauma. (Shutterstock)

When it comes to talking about sexual exploitation, what you say and how you say it can really matter to the people who have been exploited.

That's why groups like Thrive and the Coalition Against the Sexual Exploitation of Youth (CASEY) are pushing for people in Newfoundland and Labrador to change the vernacular when it comes to terms like "child porn," "child prostitution," "pimp" and "sex work."

"We're talking about people who have been seriously harmed, and if the words we use really minimize that trauma, we're doing a huge disservice to people," said Angela Crockwell, executive director of Thrive.

"Often our words can even re-victimize people."

1. Child pornography vs. sexual abuse images

When speaking about what the law and general public refer to as child pornography, Crockwell says there is a better phrase to use.

"We're talking about sexual abuse images," she said. "That's what it really is. I think often when we use the wrong language then we either minimize what it is, or we're downplaying or sanitizing what we're actually talking about."

Angela Crockwell is the executive director of Thrive, an organization in St. John's that offers education and other services to young people. The group's Blue Door program helps those who've been sexually exploited. (CBC )

The word pornography comes with certain connotations, she said. The kind accessible to adults online is usually legal and depicts consensual sex between people who are of age.

To tag the word child in front of it doesn't reflect what is happening in those images or video, said Crockwell.

"When we refer to it as pornography, we're also downplaying the harm and trauma that has happened to them."

It's an assessment Const. Lisa Harris of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary agrees with.

She sometimes uses the phrase child exploitation material.

"'Child pornography,' when you say that, it has a certain connotation of legal, legalities, right? Adult pornography is legal. Child pornography is not," she said. 

"'Child exploitation material' — it really solidifies the fact that it's exploitative of the child."

RNC Const. Lisa Harris works in the Internet Child Exploitation unit in St. John's. It's part of the RNC/RCMP Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit. (Ted Dillon )

2. Sex work?

While there are plenty of people who prefer to be called sex workers instead of older terms like prostitute, CASEY volunteer Leslie MacLeod says the term doesn't fit everyone.

"There are many people involved in what is called the sex trade who are not there by choice," she said. "They are folks who have been manipulated, forced, coerced into these situations."

Leslie MacLeod vounteers with CASEY, the Coalition Against the Sexual Exploitation of Youth, in St. John's. (CBC )

For that reason, calling them a "worker" isn't correct since they have no say in what they do.

"When you're not working by choice, to be told that you are doing sex work is actually offensive," Macleod said. "Because they're not doing work. They're doing what they are told to do."

People who fall under this category are not sex workers, but victims of sexual exploitation, she said.

3. Pimp?

While this word is ingrained in the way society talks about the sex trade and sexual exploitation, it's not necessarily the language used by people in the industry.

"['Pimp'] is not a word we hear young people often use," Crockwell said. "We would often hear 'boyfriend.' So I think often when we think about the word 'pimp,' people don't really apply it to them."

"There's also a glorification of pimp culture," MacLeod added, referring to the idea of a pimp as a man who is liked by women, or the depictions of pimps in movies and music.

"I think pimp sometimes, people have an idea of what it is and it doesn't look like that here," Crockwell said.

In cases of sexual exploitation, Crockwell and MacLeod would use a phrase like human trafficker.

With files from Ramona Dearing