An article in Wednesday’s Press Democrat (“Teen prostitute testifies Cotati family acted as pimps”) contains a myth that desperately needs to be addressed. Children under the age of 18 cannot be prostitutes; they are victims of commercial sexual exploitation of children, or CSEC.

For The Press Democrat article to refer to this child as a prostitute takes away from the fact that she is a victim. It perpetuates the false idea that a child can consent to sex work. Since we know that this is happening in our own backyard, we want to take this moment to spread awareness and educate about CSEC, how it happens, and efforts to prevent it.

First of all, language around this issue has deep implications. Calling a teen or a child a prostitute insinuates that the child is a criminal. Sexual exploitation and sex trafficking are forms of child abuse, and victims should not be considered criminals. However, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council released a report stating that in most states, the children and adolescents who are victims can still be arrested for prostitution, detained or incarcerated and are subject to having permanent records as offenders. Aside from being at risk of arrest, it is also hard for teens and children to reach out for help, as there are too few services available to meet the current needs of victims and survivors.

There are many forms of manipulation that pimps and traffickers use to target children, including creating a seemingly loving and caring relationship with the victim to establish trust and loyalty before showing their true intent. The Innocence Lost national initiative states that pimps prey on victims as young as 12 to 14 years old, and as many as 325,000 children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico are at risk each year of becoming victims of sexual exploitation. Every state in the United States has reported instances of commercial sexual exploitation of children.

It’s time for us all to eliminate the term “child prostitute” from our vocabularies and start getting these child victims the services they need. Around this country, schools, law enforcement, victim services, business people, health care professionals, judges, courts and lawyers are working together to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of commercial sexual exploitation of children and sex trafficking of minors as well as working to eliminate the demand for it.

Find out more about this issue at an upcoming event, “Human Trafficking and Child Abduction Forum” presented in Marin County by the Jeannette Prandi Children’s Center on Sept. 14.

Rebecca Bevan is executive director of the Center for Innovation and Resources, Inc. based in Cotati.