The Primary Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse
Stopping child sexual abuse... before it can happen.

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Incorrect Terminology

Words matter, especially when talking about child sexual abuse. They matter so much that an inter-agency group reporting to INTERPOL made up of many different groups that all advocate for victims of child sexual abuse in varying ways created a fairly long 114-page report discussing at least 75 different terms related to child sexual abuse and exploitation. You can view the full report here (PDF), but what follows is a summary of some of the recommendations that the report makes regarding terminology. These terms are not an exhaustive list of all terms that are incorrect, but are highlights that consider media articles and common language.


Minor: Child p. 8

Many legal contexts such as law enforcement, corrections, and law use the word "minor" to refer to anyone under the age of majority. While this may be appropriate for legal contexts, the recommendation is to use the word "child", because using the word "minor" can objectify children. 

Child Pornography: Child Sexual Exploitation Material/Child Sexual Abuse Material p. 35

Like the reasoning behind recommending sexual exploitation victims over child prostitute, a child who has had picture and video taken of them in sexual situations with adults or other children is not being paid, is not acting, and cannot consent. They therefore cannot be considered a pornography actor. These situations also constitute abuse. Their preferred terms are child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) or child sexual abuse material (CSAM), but a nice alternative I have seen is simply sex abuse images. 

Pedophiles: Preferential Offenders p. 86

As discussed in the guidelines, the word "pedophile" does not have an agreed meaning and is used imprecisely to refer to people who have sexually abused children. Pedophilia is treated by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition) as a sexual orientation that is separate from pedophilic disorder. As a pedophile is someone with pedophilia, the word "pedophile" should never be used to describe someone who has sexually abused children and feels an ongoing sexual attraction to children. Instead, "preferential offenders" should be used. 

Child sex tourist: Avoid Completely p. 89

Like "child sex tourism," this term minimizes the sexual exploitation of children by conflating it with a legitimate industry, so it should be avoided entirely.


Child Prostitute/Child Sex Worker:

Child Sexual Exploitation Victim(s)/Sexual Exploitation Victim(s) p. 31

The implication from "child prostitute" or "child sex worker" is that the child is in a consensual situation of giving sex in exchange for money. As children cannot consent and are not paid, and are often in these exploitative situations due to factors beyond their control, the preferred term is child sexual exploitation victim or simply sexual exploitation victim.

Grooming: Use Special Attention p. 51

Grooming typically refers to the process that someone may to gain the trust of a child and those around the child to be in situations where sexually abusing/exploiting the child is possible. Grooming can involve a wide variety of behaviors aimed at breaking down a child's boundaries to make an abusive act seem normal. Grooming can happen both online and in person. 

According to the guidelines, grooming has a generally agreed meaning and can be used safely. However, special attention needs to be paid to how and when "grooming" is used, as not all grooming methods constitute actual sexual abuse, and not all behavior that might appear to be grooming is grooming. Some media articles may refer to grooming as if it is a crime, when this is not the case. 

Child Sex Tourism: Avoid Completely p. 56

Child sex tourism is a term that was used to mean those who travel for the purpose of sexually abusing or exploiting children. As tourism is a legitimate industry and sexual abuse and exploitation is not, the fear is that using the entire phrase can unfairly stigmatize the tourism industry. It also has the effect of normalizing child sexual abuse and exploitation by conflating it with said legitimate industry, rather than treating it as the aberration that it is. It is best to keep the two separate.

Other Recommendations Not On The Guidelines

While the terminology covered by INTERPOL's guidelines is certainly exhaustive, they focus almost exclusively on the harm that the terms covered can cause to children. As such, their guidelines leave out several recommendations that should be given some consideration.


Sex Offender: Someone Who _____

"Sex offender" has increasingly become a reference to sex offender registration, and as such carries the implication that a sex offender is a registrant on a sex offender list. Because of this, the term "sex offender" is sometimes used to mean those who have not yet been caught, but are committing a sex crime against others, which is misleading. It can be common to read guides to how sex offenders groom victims, behavior signs of potential sex offenders, etc. 

These can be confusing, because research has shown that the clear majority (95%) of those who commit sexual crimes are not on a registry when they commit them. Using "sex offender" can make it seem like registered sex offenders are usually responsible for sex crime, when the opposite is true. A better term to use would be "someone/those who commit/ted [crime]", as it does not carry the connotation of being a registrant. Additionally, using this person-first language also gives the more correct impression that those who sexually abuse/exploit children are often those we trust, not the monster in a trench coat driving a white van. 

Child Molester/Child Molestation: 

Sex Abuser/Child Rape

Molestation is not a great word to use about child sexual abuse, because it is not negative of itself and can dumb down what was done to the child. While the guidelines clear this term for use because it has an agreed meaning, it can also imply a wide array of ideas, whereas sex abuse, sex abuser, and child rape are specific. It is best to call child sexual abuse what it is directly and not minimize it by calling it by any other name.


Sexual Predator: Sexual Solicitor

"Sexual predator" and its counterparts "child predator" and "online predator" are increasingly being used to describe those who approach children for sex on the internet. While this certainly may seem like predatory behavior to most, we typically use the word "predator" to refer to animals who consistently prey upon other animals. 

The reality is that a wide variety of motivations come into play with those who seek out children for sex on the internet, just as there are a wide variety of motivations for sexual abusers. "Sexual solicitor" does not carry the connotation of a single, obsessive motivation, but describes only the behavior of soliciting someone for sex. When referencing only the solicitation of children, "sexual solicitor" could become "sexual solicitor of children". 

Pedophilia: Child Sexual Abuse

Pedophilia is a specific term for a sexual attraction to prepubescent children, while child sexual abuse refers to the rape of a child. They are two separate terms that should not be interchanged in any way. Confusing the two can mean that a young pedophile feels that he/she will inevitably abuse children because of his attraction, and can mean that a sex abuser feels like he cannot help abusing children because it is not a choice. Neither of these feelings hold up to reality. Sexual abuse should always be called by its proper name, and never confused with the condition of pedophilia.