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Words Matter:  Why we need to stop using the “P” word 


Words matter and no one should know that better than the journalists who get paid for their words. So why is it that we are still seeing the “P” word in modern print?  

A recent article headlined that a “suspect allegedly lured [an] 18-year-old to New York, [and] forced her into prostitution.” By legal definition, prostitution involves “engaging, agreeing, or offering to engage in sexual conduct with another person in return for a fee.”  The victim referenced was not “forced to work in prostitution”, as also stated in the article. The victim was forced to perform commercial sex on the track in East New York and the trafficker would not allow the sexual abuse to stop until she earned a quota he had established. 

Responsible journalism does not attempt to make a story of sexual abuse more palatable. Modern audiences want current information and transparent details. Phrases often used like “forced to work in prostitution”, “engaged in prostitution”, and “offering prostitution services” may be more palatable but they decriminalize the abuse of women and elicit a different reaction and social attitude than say “the individual was a victim of sex trafficking” or “was exploited for commercial sex”.  There is a presumption that the person engaging in sexual activity is doing so consensually when the term prostitution is used.  

Eliminating terms like harlot, whore, hooker, and prostitute is not a consequence of political correctness.  Continuing to use the “P” word, for example, perpetuates false labels and presents barriers for professionals to identify victims, refer suitable services, as well as for victims to self-identify.  The victim in this article, as is the case with most, was not willingly engaged in commercial sex, she was a victim of sex trafficking because she was forced to perform sex by means of coercion and deceit.  

We can better serve those who do fall victim to these crimes by calling the crime what it is: “commercial sex” or “sex trafficking”, not prostitution, because “all commercial sex involving a minor is legally considered human trafficking. Commercial sex involving an adult is human trafficking if the person providing commercial sex is doing so against his or her will as a result of force, fraud or coercion.”  

The Woolf Group (TWG) is a team that is passionate about eradicating human trafficking and serving those who fall victim to this crime. TWG is not only led by the recipient of the 2018 Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons, it is made up of a diverse group of individuals known for the human trafficking trainings they provide for government and private-sector entities, successes with human trafficking policy and legislation in Washington, D.C., grant funds received on behalf of clients, as well as services and focused intervention to victims of this crime. We understand that words and action matter! 


Cindy Johnson, TWG Research Specialist & Strategy Consultant