Across the United States, there are markets for sex with children that are not terribly dissimilar to ones in Cambodia, Thailand, and India. Girls are sold for sex in this country with the same disregard for human dignity as those other nations, and they are often tortured in the same ways when they try to escape.
According to the FBI, there are currently an estimated 293,000 American children at risk of being exploited and trafficked for sex. The majority of them are girls between the ages of 12 and 14. These are middle school girls who should be focused on history and math class and playing soccer with friends.
Instead, they are abducted or lured by traffickers and, once in the commercial sex trade, they are routinely raped, beaten into submission, and sometimes even branded. Yes, they are literally branded like cattle, sometimes on their faces. If they build up the courage to try to run away, the traffickers torture or gang rape them. Often, they do both.
These are girls like Jackie, who ran away from an abusive home at 13 only to be found alone and hungry by a trafficker who promised to love her like a father, a boyfriend or Prince Charming. He was nothing of the sort. He sold her to at least six different men every night. When she begged him for food or rest, he beat her.
Unfortunately, in the media, law, and policy, Jackie and other trafficked and exploited girls in the United States are not treated as victims of child rape and sexual violence. They are instead considered delinquents and arrested as "child prostitutes." More than 1,000 children every year are arrested for prostitution, even though most of these children are not of the legal age to consent to sex at all, let alone commercial sex.
Describing trafficked and exploited children as prostitutes is a contradiction in terms. "Child prostitute" suggests consent or agency, when, in this case, there really is none. Moreover, the term "child prostitute" has the effect of dismissing the victimization and abuse that has been committed against the child, and makes it somehow different or more tolerable from other forms of rape or sexual abuse of minors.
Simply put, there is no difference between raping a child, and paying to rape a child.
That is why the Human Rights Project for Girls (Rights4Girls) and The McCain Institute, with support from Google, are joining forces to launch the No Such Thing campaign with one mission: To make clear to the American people that there is no such thing as a child prostitute. There are only victims and survivors of child rape.
Girls who are repeatedly raped, abused and exploited are not child prostitutes. They are victims and survivors of child rape, and they deserve all the legal protections, support, and services afforded to other victims of the same kind of abuse.
This weekend is the Super Bowl. Large sporting and entertainment events have a reputation of attracting illicit behavior as well as loyal fans to host cities. This year, and in the year ahead, let's make it clear that girls who are being bought and sold for sex are not "child prostitutes", they are victims and survivors of child rape.
Language matters. How we are labeled affects how we are treated. Each of us can ensure that the language used, in the media, in policy, and in the public square, gives truth and dignity to what trafficked girls endure.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Rights4Girls in conjunction with The McCain Institute. Join us in our campaign No Such Thing--that there is no such thing as child prostitute, only victims and survivors or child rape. For more information on No SuchThing, read here.