Communicators as advocates – Watch your language

November 20, 2007

If you’re communicating on behalf of your non-profit’s clients and/or stakeholders, you’re often taking on the role of advocate. When this happens, what you say and how you say it takes on increased significance. As an advocate for children and youth who are sexually exploited, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, and arguing about, language.

For the past several years, I’ve been involved with a group trying to change the way child sexual exploitation is represented in the media. The group is called MAISEY (Media Awareness Initiative about Sexually Exploited Youth).

In a nutshell, this group has been encouraging the media to use the term “child sexual exploitation” rather than terms such as “child/teen prostitute” or worse, “teen hooker.” Why? Because these terms are victim blaming and imply a degree of choice on the part of the child. Other forms of sexual abuse don’t carry the same pejorative meaning (e.g. incest, sexual assault).

Critics of MAISEY have accused the group of arguing over semantics that really don’t have a negative result. Those of us who have worked with youth who are healing from sexual exploitation are keenly aware of the effect these terms have on them. Working through their deep level of shame and self-loathing requires them to be able to redefine what happened to them as abuse rather than it being their fault. No matter the behaviour on the part of the young person, it is wrong for an adult to have sex with a child.

We also know that sexual abuse offenders rationalize their deviant sexual fantasies and actions by telling themselves that their victims either deserve what they get or in reality wanted it to happen. These thoughts are part of what enables them to continue to offend. By using more accurate terms to describe sexual abuse, we avoid reinforcing the offender’s errors in thinking.

MAISEY’s focus is on the media because it is a conduit to our community. We beleive that media content both reflects and shapes our perceptions and attitudes about the world around us.

Many members of the media have done exceptional print and broadcast stories that manage to raise public awareness of the very complex, psychological, environmental and societal components of this massive human tragedy that destroys many young lives.

Award winning journalist Julian Sher, for example, has written extensively on the issue including commentary advocating for a change in language away from the term “child pornography” to “child abuse images”. He points out that the countless photos exhanged by sex offenders over the Net are “crime scene images” not pornography which has the connotation that they are just harmless pictures.

We need to do more, however, to ensure that children who have been sexually victimized are not re-victimized in the media. We need to guard against subtly, and sometimes overtly, blaming the child for his/her own abuse. Let’s stop coverage that emphasizes the “lifestyle” of the young person without providing the context that has placed him/her in harm’s way. When there isn’t the air time or page space necessary to do this, using terms such as “child sexual exploitation” rather than “child prostitution” can provide some context while meeting the often overriding need for brevity.

Is a change in language going to eradicate the sexual abuse of children through prostitution? No. The issue is complex and as a society we are far from placing a priority on the antecedents of abuse such as violence, poverty, addiction, mental health issues and incest, for example. However, perhaps a change in language will make it more difficult for us to discard the victim and the issue.

The bottom line is that the old terms aren’t appropriate/accurate when referring to children. Would we accept labeling someone with a developmental delay or handicap as being a “moron” or “retarded”? At one time these terms were perfectly acceptable. Did changing these terms make a difference with respect to the integration of affected individuals into full community life? I believe it did play a part in our changing perception and was also a reflection of our changing perspective.

Language evolves and as communicators and advocates we must choose our words carefully to ensure that we are representing clients and stakeholders accurately and with respect.

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