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If you want to fight against the abuse of children …
Watch Your Language

by Andrew Vachss
Originally published in Parade, June 5, 2005

Also available in Russian (

Watch Your Language by Andrew Vachss

The softening of language—"forbidden love" for the sexual exploitation of a student—shapes our perception of hateful criminal acts.

Years ago, I participated in the rescue of a child from bondage. Destiny (not her real name) was 13. She had been repeatedly raped by a pair of predators to "educate" her. Then, along with several other young girls, she was forced to sell herself to strangers. Each day, she woke to the threat of disfiguring brutality if she failed to bring in sufficient money that night. Later, it was reported that "pimps" had been arrested, and "a number of child prostitutes were taken into custody."

What was wrong with calling Destiny a "child prostitute"? After all, she was a child, and she was engaged in prostitution. First, the word itself implies a judgment of character. Don't we call people who sell out their moral convictions in exchange for personal gain "whores"? More important, prostitution implies a willing exchange. Ultimately, the term "child prostitution" implies that little children are "seductive," that they "volunteer" to have sex with adults in exchange for cash (which, of course, the children never see).

The difference between calling Destiny a "child prostitute" and a "prostituted child" is not purely semantic. It is more than the difference between a hard truth and a pernicious lie. It not only injures the victims; it actively gives aid and comfort to the enemy. By allowing the term "child prostitution" to gain a foothold in our language, we lose ground that can never be recovered. Look at the following examples:

  • A judge spares a predatory pedophile a long prison sentence on the grounds that "it takes two to tango." Another grants work–release to a sex offender, declaring that the 5–year–old victim was "unusually promiscuous."

  • A teacher is arrested for sexual intercourse with a minor student in her class. The newspapers describe the conduct as "a forbidden love affair."

  • A young actor, in an interview given before his drug-overdose death, describes how he "lost his virginity" when he was 3 or 4 years old.

How have such grotesque distortions taken control of our language? To answer that question, we must first ask another: Who profits? Who benefits from pervasive cultural language that trivializes violence against children?

Pedophiles are very familiar with the power of language. They would have us believe that child pornography is a free–speech issue. They know that if they succeed in placing "child prostitution" anywhere on the continuum of voluntary sexual activity, they will have established a beachhead from which to launch future assaults.

We must understand that such language is no accident—it is the deliberate product of cultural lobbyists. There is a carefully orchestrated campaign to warp public perception, a perception that affects everything from newspaper coverage to legislation and even jury verdicts.

Why call the sexual assault of a child "fondling"? Why term incest a "nonviolent crime"?

If they can get us to accept that children consent to sex for money, it will be easier to sell the idea that they can consent to sex for "love." But an adult male who sexually abuses little boys is no more "homosexual" than one who victimizes little girls is "heterosexual." They are both predatory pedophiles. There is no such thing as a child prostitute; there are only prostituted children.

When we use terms such as "loses one's virginity" in referring to adult sex acts with children instead of calling it "rape," or when we say that teachers "have affairs" with their pupils instead of saying that the teachers sexually exploit them, the only beneficiaries are the predators who target children.

This is not about political correctness. It is about telling the truth. In any culture, language is the undercurrent that drives the river of public perception. That undercurrent has been polluted for too long. If we really want to protect our children, it's time to watch our language.

© 2005 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.

PARADE Contributing Editor Andrew Vachss is an author and attorney whose only clients are children. His novel "Two Trains Running" will be published on June 14 by Pantheon. Visit to learn more.


When it comes to child abuse, the language we use can distort the reality of the crime and create a roadblock to justice. The next time you hear a news report, keep in mind what the following terms actually mean—and the consequences of the conduct described.

An individual with intense, recurrent sexually arousing fantasies and urges toward prepubescent children. Those who decide to act on such feelings can be termed "predatory pedophiles." The predatory pedophile is as dangerous as cancer and as camouflaged in approach. His presence becomes known only by the horrendous damage left in his wake. Predatory pedophiles most often operate inside a child's "circle of trust." He (or she) may be a teacher, a doctor, a scout leader, a police officer, an athletic coach, a religious counselor or a child–care professional. They are protected not only by our ignorance of their presence but also by our unwillingness to confront the truth.

Nonpenetrative sexual misconduct with a child, often resulting in severe emotional damage to the victim.

Sexual assault of a child, often resulting in both physical and emotional damage.

The rape by extortion of a child by a family member, creating a climate of oppression and fear in the child's daily life that inevitably results in profound long–term damage.

The sexual exploitation of a child under the guise of a consensual relationship. This pedophiles' perversion of the word "love" is routinely promoted in all their literature as "harmless" or even "beneficial" to the victim.

A child, often held captive against his or her will, who is physically and/or emotionally coerced into performing sex acts with adults for the profit of others.

The cultural software is being recoded....

ECPAT (History):

In 1990, researchers and activists helped to establish ECPAT (an acronym for End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism as a three-year campaign to end "sex tourism," with an initial focus on Asia. As the terms "child prostitution" and "sex tourism" are no longer used in the sector, today the organization goes by its initials ECPAT. Anti-Slavery International was one of the original supporters, and helped to set up a branch in the UK.

Columbia Journalism Review, August 28, 2016
"AP now recommends that writers avoid using the word 'prostitute' when a child is involved, as in 'child prostitute,' 'teenage prostitute,' and so forth, because it implies that the child 'is voluntarily trading sex for money,' Kent says, and a child, by definition, cannot do so."

"But many child welfare advocates and officials in government and law enforcement say that while the data is scarce, they believe that the problem of prostituted children has grown, especially as the Internet has made finding clients easier."
"Running in the Shadows: For Runaways on the Street, Sex Buys Survival," New York Times, October 27, 2009

"Two charged in Prince William [County] with prostituting girl"
Headline from the February 27, 2010, edition of The Washington Post

"Prostituted women, men and children are often physically abused, psychologically coerced, and fearful of reporting their abuse to authorities," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said.
"Father and son busted on sex-ring raps," Daily News, April 23, 2012

"Maryland pimp sentenced to 15 years in jail for prostituting a teenager as often as 25 times a day," Daily News, February 08, 2013

Andrew Vachss has been writing for Parade since 1985. In response to endless requests, we have collected all his past Parade articles here.

Additional examples of language that needs to be changed....

Ohio man confesses to raping 5–year–old, blames victim: 'She was experimenting'
"A Lake County judge sentenced 51–year–old Clifford Taylor to 22 years in prison after he confessed to raping his girlfriend's daughter and coaxing her into oral sex with the promise of a Pudding Pop. During his sentencing, he tried to backpedal, and claimed his tiny victim forced herself on him."
Daily News, November 22, 2014.

If all you read on the "Elmo puppeteer case" was the headline, you might understandably believe this human was "found innocent" or "wrongfully accused" as opposed to having the charges dropped due to a Statute of Limitations ruling.

Same thing with CBS anchor Rob Morrison: Anchorman Cleared, doesn't much sound like a case where a man who'd pled guilty to choking his wife was later permitted to withdraw his plea and have his record cleared after completing a Domestic Violence Program.
It seems the media still hasn't learned what Andrew Vachss wrote about back in 2005: Watch your language. The words we use actually shape the perception ot the matters we discuss, in both conscious and unconscious ways.

"Teacher Daniel Reilly repeatedly had sex with former student, a teenager, and tried to keep the affair silent: prosecutors"
The sixth-grade teacher accused of bedding a 14-year-old former student performed his perverse acts in the Queens apartment he shares with his wife and baby daughter, prosecutors said Tuesday.
Daniel Reilly, 36, is accused of having sex at least 10 times with the girl in his Forest Hills apartment over an eight-month period beginning last October and continuing into April — with their most recent illicit hookup just four days ago, according to court documents.
Read the Daily News article, April 09, 2013

"[The] former governor of Oregon [Neil Goldschmidt] just acknowledged that he had sex with a 14–year–old girl ... He went to the biggest paper in Oregon and they reported on it. Now, remember this guy was governor of Oregon, and this girl is 14, right? Well, they reported it as a relationship. Now that's the biggest newspaper in the state—a relationship? That's interesting to me how the papers can, if they choose, take all the edge off what is, to me, the worst crime a person can commit, which is to violate a child."
Andrew Vachss interviewed by the Night Watchmen, June 2004

"I believe that many people who were abused as children do themselves—and the entire struggle—a disservice when they refer to themselves as 'survivors.' A long time ago, I found myself in the middle of a war zone. I was not killed. Hence, I 'survived.' That was happenstance ... just plain luck, not due to any greatness of character or heroism on my part. But what about those raised in a POW camp called 'childhood'? Some of those children not only lived through it, not only refused to imitate the oppressor (evil is a decision, not a destiny), but actually maintained sufficient empathy to care about the protection of other children once they themselves became adults and were 'out of danger.'

"To me, such people are our greatest heroes. They represent the hope of our species, living proof that there is nothing bio–genetic about child abuse. I call them 'transcenders,' because 'surviving' (i.e., not dying from) child abuse is not the significant thing. It is when chance becomes choice that people distinguish themselves. Two little children are abused. Neither dies. One grows up and becomes a child abuser. The other becomes a child protector. One 'passes it on.' One 'breaks the cycle.' Should we call them both by the same name? Not in my book. (And not in my books, either.)"
Andrew Vachss, Survivors and Transcenders


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