Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Why Terminology Matters

Terminology Guidelines

Last week, a global inter-agency group released a fairly long document, titled "Terminology Guidelines for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse" (you can find the direct PDF link here). Why does this matter? It matters because there are a wide variety of words that we use to describe a wide variety of topics with regard to the sexual abuse of children, and the sexual exploitation of children. As their document is 114 pages long, this will serve to highlight some of what they say, why they say it, and recommend specific terms based on their recommendations.

A Matter Of Terminology

Some argue that the terminology that we use does not matter. Sexual abuse is sexual abuse, a perpetrator is a perpetrator, and a victim is a victim. However, some terminology can not only minimize what is done to the victim of abuse, and make it seem less harmful than it actually is, it can also perpetuate myths that enable sexual abuse to happen rather than preventing it. In short, the words we use when discussing child sexual abuse and associated crimes matters because we have to be simultaneously respectful both to the victims of such crimes, and to the facts surrounding such crimes. Without giving due respect, we can do more harm than good by the words that we use.

In their introduction, they say, "Greater conceptual clarity on terminology is thus needed to ensure stronger and more consistent advocacy, policy and laws in all languages across all regions of the world. To engender more clarity in the conceptualisation, definition, and translation of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children, a multi-stakeholder dialogue involving the voices of a multitude of actors at all levels is needed."

In other words, words matter.


This term begins on page 8. Minor is generally a term used to describe someone who is under the age of majority, or the age someone becomes an adult. The most common usage is in legal, law enforcement, and similar situations. They recommend using the word "child" in most contexts, and define "child" to mean anyone under the age of 18. Their conclusion? Use "minor" in legal issues, and "child" everywhere else.

Child Prostitute And Child Sex Worker

This term begins on page 31. These terms should be avoided, due to the implication that children in such situations are there by choice, are consenting to their work, and are paid for it. Children who are trafficked or exploited for sexual purposes are not paid, cannot consent, and are not there by choice, they are forced into those situations. Therefore, "child sexual exploitation victims" or "sexual exploitation victims" should be used. These terms are closely related to the next term.

Child Pornography

This term begins on page 35. This, perhaps, is one of the most important terms addressed in the guidelines. Both legally and linguistically, the use of the term "pornography" to refer to images and videos of real children that depict the sexual abuse of children of varying levels is completely misleading. In traditional pornography, there may be some exploitative elements, but the actors are adults who are consenting to act and model for pornographic purposes, and are paid to do so. However, images and videos that depict real children in sexual situations, whether those images involve children on children or adults on children, means that a real child is being sexually abused on film. It involves a real victim, and that real victim can be extremely affected by the knowledge that images of their sexual abuse are on the internet for anyone to see.

In short, such images and videos of real children are sexually exploitative and cannot accurately be described as pornography. Therefore, both the guidelines (p. 35-38) and other researchers have recommended that either "child sexual exploitation material" or "child sexual abuse material" (CSEM/CSAM) should be used to describe such imagery, and the terms "child pornography", "child porn", "kiddy porn", "pedo-porn", or other terms involving the word "pornography" are to be avoided altogether.

Important Note: The imagery I have just described is a completely separate issue from cartoon, computer-generated, or otherwise fictional representations of children involved in sexual situations, and will be addressed separately at some point in the future.


This term begins on page 51.Grooming is the process of building trust in a child, the child's community, and breaking down the boundaries that might otherwise hinder someone to be sexual with the child. Grooming can be online or in person, and a significant portion of grooming does take place on social media, though it should be noted that 95% of new sex crimes are committed by first-time offenders, so while it seems to make sense to restrict social media use to sex offenders, the reality is that an adult approaching a minor on social media is, in general, a red flag. According to the guidelines, it is a term that has a generally agreed upon meaning and can be used safely.

About grooming, it should be noted that some grooming is slower is about gaining the victim's trust, but some is also more abrupt and coercive, so as to gain immediate leverage and can take less time than the traditional idea of grooming. It should also be noted that not all grooming behavior is intentional, not all behaviors that appear to be grooming are in fact grooming, and not all behavior that is in fact grooming will appear to be grooming. Some grooming, such as showing pornography or CSEM/CSAM to children, is illegal and is of itself a sex crime, but most grooming does not involve illegal behavior.

Important Note: While there are warning signs to sexually abusive acts, those warning signs do not automatically mean that sexual abuse is the end goal. The presence of warning signs and grooming behavior should warrant further conversation with the person exhibiting the warning signs and grooming behavior, and if necessary, separation from the child involved. The focus in such conversations should be around getting the person in question help and letting them know they have a safe space to be honest, and the conversation should steer clear from accusing the person involved of sexual behavior with children.

Child Sex Tourism

This term begins on page 56. Child sex tourism has traditionally referred to travelling for the specific purpose of sexually exploiting and abusing children, but the term has been increasingly debated. Considerations are the word "tourism", which is a legitimate industry, and "child sex", which amounts to child sexual abuse. In short, the term should be avoided because it has a high potential to normalize the practice of travelling to sexually exploit children.


This term begins on page 86. They recommend the use of the term "preferential offenders" to describe those who sexually abuse or exploit children because they prefer children sexually, and recommend avoiding the term "pedophiles". They further recommend using the term "situational offenders" to describe those who sexually abuse children without a sexual preference for children.

In short, pedophilia and pedophilic disorder refer to "the clinical diagnosis of a mental health condition". Their note about the condition is:
"According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), paedophilic disorder is a part of a larger group of paraphilic disorders, characterised as a “persistent and intense atypical sexual arousal patterns that are accompanied by clinically significant distress or impairment”. The change in terminology from “paedophilia” or “paedophile” to “paedophilic disorder” in DSM-5 was intended to reflect the growing acceptance among mental health professionals that not all individuals who present with symptoms of paedophilic disorder are perpetrators of child sexual abuse or exploitation."

They further note that, "The terms "paedophile" and "paedophilia" continue to be overused and misunderstood, often seen as a label for a person convicted of child sexual exploitation or sexual abuse rather than as a term for a clinical condition."

I sincerely hope that their recommendations are familiar to you, as I have said much the same thing for quite some time. I have a number of different posts on the subject (here, here, here, and more recently here). Therefore, the fact that a global inter-agency cooperation dedicated to determining the proper terminology is saying the same thing really should catch your attention. It is time for the misuse of the words "pedophile" and "pedophilia" to end.


While I did not cover every single term, that does not mean that the other terms mentioned throughout the rest of the guidelines are unimportant. Frankly, trying to whittle down the amount they say about the terms I did include to a few paragraphs was a challenge, as was deciding which terms to include here. While I certainly encourage people to read through all of the guidelines, I recognize that not everyone has the patience to go through a 114-page document describing every single term related to child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation. I hope you found this breakdown illuminating.

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