Child sexual exploitation is an urgent problem in King County as it is nationwide. As a judge and court employee who chair and coordinate the King County Commercially Sexually Exploited Children Task Force, we see these youth in our courts. We see the palpable shame and stigma caused by the trauma of sexual exploitation.

Sexual victimization of children by buyers and third-party traffickers causes harmful, often lifelong physical and emotional damage to children, including teenagers. Under federal and state law, minors under the age of 18 are not legally able to consent to commercial sex. Any person under the age of 18 who engages in any sex act in exchange for anything of value (including food, drugs or a place to stay) is a victim of sex trafficking. Selling and buying sex from minors is a serious felony.  

Therefore, there can be no such thing as a child or teenage prostitute. There can be no such thing as a child or teenage sex worker. These youth are victims of child sex trafficking.

Historically, however, the phrase “child prostitute” was used in courtrooms, the community and the media. Survivors of child sexual exploitation and organizations such as Rights4Girls have worked tirelessly to educate us about these harms and our language surrounding them. Our Legislature has recognized this by passing a Safe Harbor Law to decriminalize prostitution for minors effective on Jan. 1, 2024, allowing time for mandated receiving centers and other services to be established.  

The language we use can perpetuate the harm to victims of child sex trafficking, and it perpetuates stigma for the acts of a child that were controlled by a third party. At King County Superior Court, we have worked hard to develop trauma-responsive courtroom cultures that reduce shame and stigma. Significantly, the media can foster this same trauma-informed perspective in our communities. 

Real progress has been made in the use of language. The Seattle Times has followed this issue and understands sexually exploited children are victims; all media must ensure that the language they use expresses the reality: trafficked children are victims. In the article “Genealogy site an ally for woman suing retired cop” (March 14, A1), The Times lapsed in its use of language. A subhead read, “Entered the sex trade at 16.” A better subhead would have been, “Victim of sex trafficking at 16.”  

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A 16-year-old does not “enter the sex trade.” They are exploited by third-party traffickers and sex buyers. The Times captioned a picture on A4 with the description of the same victim as a former “teenage sex worker.” This language is wrong and sets us back as a community that cares about our children.  

King County Juvenile Court is expanding its work to identify and respond to victims of child sexual exploitation. We recently sought and received a federal grant to implement universal screening of all youth who enter Juvenile Court, including Family Court Becca Programs that work with those who are at-risk, runaway or truant youth.  

Those screened who present a clear concern for commercial sex trafficking will be referred to King County’s Child Advocacy Center and appropriate trauma-responsive, community-based services specifically designed to help exploited children. We are grateful for this opportunity to integrate these practices into daily court processes to identify and help child victims of sexual exploitation.  

Our work is just part of the solution. Our community, including our media, must be precise in its language when discussing child sex trafficking, including buying sex from minors. We are grateful that The Seattle Times continues to highlight this issue, and we look forward to continued partnership in creating a more trauma-informed response in what we do and say. Through awareness and proper use of language, we can combat both the abuse and stigma child victims face and support youth together.