An important part of social change is the articulation of grievances, especially the naming of injustices. Feminists have developed many new terms that reflect women’s experience of inequality and abuse.
For example, when women started organizing around sexual coercion in the workplace, one of the first things they did was gather in a room and brainstorm about what to call their experiences of being propositioned by bosses and groped by co-workers. They came up with the phrase “sexual harassment,” which stigmatized behavior previously considered innocuous and natural. Naming their experience and framing it as abusive created a new conceptual category that raised consciousness about the harms of workplace sexual coercion. The phrase legitimized women’s negative feelings about this behavior, enabling them to band together, share their outrage and change the law—transforming common behavior into a federal civil rights violation.
Similarly, the term “Ms.” freed women to define themselves without reference to their marital status. The coining of “date rape” and “acquaintance rape” recognized and revealed that most rapists are people we know, not strangers. These new terms contributed to changing our social reality.
In the current movement against commercial sexual exploitation of girls, advocates are challenging old terms like “child prostitute” and “teen hooker” and developing new ones, like “domestic minor sex trafficking.” The girls are prostituted, not prostitutes.
But our language for men who buy sex from girls is totally inadequate. We call them “johns” or “tricks,” but these are relatively innocuous terms we also use for men who buy sex from adult women. We need a distinct term. We could call them “pedophiles” or “child molesters,” but these terms don’t incorporate the commercial nature of what’s going on, and they indicate social pathology. The shocking reality is just how “normal” these guys are—they are teachers, preachers, the guy who repairs your car, your elected representative. According to the recently-released Georgia Demand Study, “Men who purchase sex tend to come from normal backgrounds and seem no more likely to suffer from apparent pathologies than the rest of the adult male population.” The study found that 7,200 men buy adolescent girls for sex each month in Georgia–some unknowingly, but many knowingly. More than 400,000 men in Georgia today have bought a young woman to have sex.
So, let’s give these guys a name. A name that captures the ugly reality of an older man taking advantage of the youth and poverty of young girls—the predatory, pathetic shamefulness of it.
Carrie Baker’s article on treating U.S. minors who are prostituted as trafficking victims, not criminals, appears in the forthcoming issue of Ms. magazine. Join the Ms. Community today and have it delivered to your doorstep!