These days, “narrative change” is the holy grail in the advocacy world. It’s a simple idea: alter the way that we look at familiar and often entrenched institutions and societal norms. Think about the fact that we no longer see bullying as a rite of passage, sexual harassment as just “being playful” in the workplace, or drunk driving as what happens when you have a little too much fun at the office party.
For The California Endowment, narrative change is about reshaping the way Californians and the nation think about who matters in our society and the ways that we all get and stay healthy. At its most basic level, we are working to change the idea that health is not only what happens in a doctor’s office. It happens all around us in everything that we do.
Health is the difference between an abandoned lot and a playground where kids can get exercise. It’s the difference between a liquor store or a grocery store with healthy foods and drinks. It’s the difference between health care for some and health care for all, including undocumented Californians and Americans.
It is also the difference between children who have lifelong physical, mental, and economic consequences of sexual violence and trauma and those who don’t. That’s why, last year, we embarked on another effort for narrative change with an incredibly important project around the sex trafficking of underage girls.
Right here in California, hundreds of girls, some as young as twelve, are trafficked and “sold” to buyers who pay to engage in acts of sexual abuse against children. When law enforcement intervenes, the buyer is let go with a slap on his wrist and the girl is arrested for “prostitution.” In fact, some prosecutors tell us that buying sex from a child is less consequential than a DUI.
Let’s unpack that narrative: Underage children are raped, arrested, put in juvenile detention, and the rapist faces almost no consequences, while the child is punished. The only difference between these children being raped and children who are raped in an empty classroom is the exchange of money.
So we set out to change how we talked about these girls and how they are treated by law enforcement. There were two starting points: getting Los Angeles County, one of the biggest in the state to stop arresting girls and instead get them the care that they need. The second point was to get everyone to stop using the phrase “child prostitute” for one simple reason: children can’t consent to sex, let alone prostitution.
Our campaign had a simple rallying cry that came from a survivor herself: There’s No Such Thing As a Child Prostitute.
After a lot of hard work, last fall, we joined Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell at an event with elected officials, survivors, and others where he made a clear declaration that there was “no such thing as a child prostitute” and that his office would institute a new protocol to ensure that when trafficked girls are identified, they will not be arrested but instead immediately be referred to health services.
We also partnered with internationally recognized Survivor Advocate Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew to launch launch a petition at Change.org urging the Associated Press to stop using the phrase “child prostitute” when reporting on trafficked girls, the idea being that the AP sets the tone for the rest of the news media. The petition was signed by more than 150,000 people and attracted the support of names like Russell Simmons, Ashton Kutcher, P. Diddy or Julianne Moore.
We just learned that the AP heard us and updated its legendary Stylebook to eliminate the use of the phrase “child prostitute.” because as the Columbia Journalism Review reported “it implies that the child ‘is voluntarily trading sex for money,’ [AP standards editor Tom] Kent says, and a child, by definition, cannot do so.”
There could be no better and more important example of narrative change and the way it can affect the lives of real people, including children.
The narrative around trafficked children is changing but is not completely changed and our work continues. We urge you to join us and, together, we can make narrative and real life changes for thousands of girls.