Sex trafficking. Sex exploitation. Slavery. Prostitution. One of these things is not like the others.

During the past few months, a trend in the language used to describe victimization has emerged. This language seeks to dehumanize the very individual experiencing sexual assault daily, and this language wrongly simplifies the complexity of substance-use disorder and ignores the lack of accessible treatment. This language declares sexual exploitation as a victimless crime and overlooks what is tantamount to the enslavement of another human being.

In its most raw form, exploitation is the act of unfair treatment of a human being in order to benefit from their work. The addition of the word “sex” only changes the definition slightly: the sexual abuse of another through the exchange of sex or sexual acts for food, shelter, protection, money, substances, and/or other basic necessities.

We have determined that sex trafficking is a violation of human rights. Globally, this multi-billion dollar industry meets the criteria for a crime against humanity. Research has demonstrated that more than 80 percent of victims of sex trafficking have experienced childhood sexual abuse. Why is it then, when we look at our streets, in our neighborhoods, at these same people, we see them as the problem?

As a social worker, I see the trauma, the resilience and the circumstances that create such inherent vulnerabilities. As a victim’s advocate, I see the system restraints, the criminalization of victimization and the need for impactful social policy change. And as a human being, I see another human being.

We are a community comprised of individuals with diverse experiences, understandings and social beliefs. My hope is that we take steps to re-examine our value-systems: that we, as a community, can decide to value keeping one another safe. How we do that is up to you.

I have provided a few definitions, so let me end with one more: By definition, sex trafficking is the illegal business of recruiting, harboring, transporting, obtaining or providing a person for the purpose of sex. Federal statute includes that any commercial sexual exploitation of a minor is considered sex trafficking. Maine law, however, does not share that same caveat.

We owe it to our city, to our county and to our state to support those who have been victimized, who have been exploited, who have been trafficked. We owe it to ourselves to find ways to connect with one another to truly explore the root issues that lead someone to becoming vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation: systemic poverty, oppression and violence. Safe Voices and Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services — partner agencies in this work — collaborate to address this issue, but we do not seek to do so in isolation. We need everyone’s help.

We challenge everyone to recognize the impact of language. To remind ourselves, our friends and family, our neighbors, that we, together, create the fabric of a beautiful and diverse community. But communities are not without their struggles. We challenge everyone to commit themselves to ending the exploitation of our women, men and children.

It starts with a change in our wording: survivor, not criminal. Victim, not prostitute. Human being, not problem. Community, not division.

Us, not them.

Hailey Virusso is sex trafficking and exploitation safe house program manager, on behalf of Safe Voices.

Hailey Virusso


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