Ending Human Trafficking: Words matter Part 1 – Why you shouldn’t say “prostitute”

“Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.”  Psalm 141:3

Words matter. The bible is full of verses that speak to this very sentiment, but the one most often repeated is “What goes into someone’s mouth doesn’t defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them …” Mathew 15:11. When I was growing up there was a word my father hated when I’d say – truth be told I only said it because I knew he hated it, teenagers, right? [insert eye roll]. He hated the word “crap”, swore up and down that it wasn’t “lady like” to use that word. I’ve never fully understood his distaste for the word, but as an adult I do my best to not use it.

I’ll admit, I’ve sworn a few times in my life, usually when I’m really upset, frustrated and lost. My friends who swear all agree that there is power that comes from saying certain words, it feels like the fullness of your emotion is represented in some words. Absolutely no one can miss how you are feeling about a specific topic if you use specific words. Both Christians and non-Christians agree on this one thing – words have power!

Entering into the fight against human trafficking, there are a lot of “curse” words, I guess you could call them. It isn’t just the dictionary meaning applied to them, but the cultural messages that tag along with them when they’re spoken.

“The tongue can give life or death …” Proverbs 18:21

The reality is, we’ve all likely said these words or phrases often in our lives – some of these phrases are actually most often heard IN SIDE circles committed to ending sex trafficking.

I’ve heard speakers say “prostitute(s)” instead of “person being prostituted” [or sold, bought, etc.].

Or, “alleged” instead of “reported” when referring to sexual violence cases that have not been recognized in a court of law.

I’ve heard phrases like, “Sex with minors” instead of “raping minors” when referring to adults being charged and/or convicted of criminal sexual conduct.

Or, “boys will be boys” in response to young boys, men and even older men committing horrendous abuse and violations on another person.

Or, “Man up” and “Be a Man” instead of “hey, do the right thing!”

Or, “Grow a pair!” and even this one “he/she has some balls!” instead of “hey! Have some courage!” or “gosh! Look at that courage that person displayed!”

You may say, “Jess, don’t you think you’re being a little sensitive?”, and to that I scream back, “NO!” [see what I did there?] but all kidding aside, the answer is “yes and no”.

I am being sensitive to the power that our words hold over ourselves and others around us. I’m not being sensitive as in my feelings are so hurt that I can’t function and go through life with you if you tell me to “grow a pair” when I’m feeling scared about something – although it’s kind of mean so please don’t.

The thing is, many of us don’t know the origins of the words and phrases we’re even using. We just use them because they’ve always been said around us. We aren’t taught the “right” way to communicate our thoughts and feelings. For instance, let’s look at some phrases often used today in every day lingo and see how “not serious” the origins are…

Can you tell me, without googling, where the phrase, “rule of thumb” comes from? …. I’ll give you some time to think about it.

If you have to google it, okay – otherwise you can read further and I’ll just tell you!

Common law in the United States up to 1976 – you read that right – allowed for husbands to whip their wives as long as the stick or object was no bigger than the width of their thumb so it was coined… can you guess? “the rule of thumb.”

Okay, how about another one? Where does the phrase, “fly by the seat of your pants” come from? …. This one is a fun one actually. It stems from pilots in the early years of aviation not having all the fancy gadgets and electronics that we do today. Pilots were literally, “flying by the seat of their pants”.

Simple words like “coke” or “pop” can tell people which part of the United States you are from. [it’s pop by the way!].

So, what’s the big deal with saying some of the above? Our words have the power to either invite people into a conversation or push them out of the conversation. By giving something a word, we have the ability to give it worth and credence.

Calling a woman (or man) who is a victim of trafficking or being prostituted a “prostitute” perpetuates a myth and continues to hide victims from being named.

Because when most people hear the word “prostitute” they think, “a person, typically a woman, who gets paid to have sex.” or worse.

The word prostitute has a horrible stigma attached to it. Consider the times you’ve heard prostitute referenced… especially in the church? It typically goes something like, “God even used a prostitute to show His love for the people!” It’s said with such disdain and disgust.

The intent of telling stories of women who’ve been prostituted in scripture is often times to show us the grace and depth God will to reach his children, but honestly I think we’re missing the point of God using “prostitutes” [to take their lingo].

It isn’t to show the depths God will go to show Himself, but in actuality God is demanding US to see EVERY. SINGLE. HUMAN as holding inherent worth, and value EQUAL to everyone. Yet time and time again I hear this word being used to deny the truth of who God is.

When we hear the stories of those women, we hear them as second nature, we hear the grace of God through their “sin” rather than see the redemption and truth of God’s choices.

Not only this, but consider the deeper stories behind the many women in the bible referenced as “prostitutes” and you’ll uncover the chains of sex slavery, abuse and violation time and time again. So now, what we’re really continuing to hear are pastors and christian’s alike ignoring the abuse and violation of God’s children, and attaching the word “sin” to spread a message.

Again, turning it from redemption for that person from God, to an example of God ignoring the “sin” of that person. We begin to see victims as active and willing participants into another person’s sin. And this spreads to our current conversations about sexual violence – where so many times we participate in victim blaming thinking patterns.

God could use anyone [and does] to spread His messages, but He chooses time and time again to use the forgotten, rejected, abused, and lost children of His. He does this for one purpose.

To send a message to those women, to every person who’s been violated, that we are not alone, forsaken, forgotten, or unworthy of great things. That we are not bound by the sins of others. That we are redeemed. 

For the sake of sounding like a broken record… Our words matter. So let’s use them to change the world!

– Jess




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