As Jeffrey Epstein, the registered sex offender and wealthy financier, faced charges of sex trafficking girls as young as 14 in federal court this week, the investigative reporting of Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald received credit for reigniting the case 11 years after Epstein's plea deal for soliciting minors for prostitution.
But other media outlets have drawn critique from some sexual abuse survivors and advocates who point to language choices they say sanitize the accusations against Epstein, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The media has been blasted for using terms such as "underage women" instead of "children," for saying "sex with minors" instead of "rape," for using the phrase "paid for sex," which they say erases coercion.
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"When journalists use words associated with consensual sex to report on sexual assault, they omit the very elements that make it a headline in the first place … coercion, threats, violence, manipulation … or even the legal charges. Legally, there is no such thing as 'sex with a minor.' It’s instead recognized as statutory sexual assault, child sexual abuse, rape, or corruption of minors, or any other legal charge … but 'sex' by itself implies consent," said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Experts in human trafficking, sexual violence, law and media ethics say the media's language around such cases reflect a combination of factors, including adherence to legal definitions rather than colloquial terms, avoiding words that would compromise the presumption of innocence prior to conviction and reporting limitations, such as having access to court documents but not victims.
But experts also note that word choices carry weight and excessive caution could whitewash the charges.
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'Underage women' vs. 'children'
Dozens of news outlets have referred to Epstein's victims as "underage women":
- FOX Business Network: "The businessman stands accused of sexually abusing underage women at his residences in Florida and New York."
- New York Magazine: "Jeffrey Epstein, the man now accused of running a sex trafficking ring involving underage women, some of them in their early teens."
- New York Times: "Very embarrassing that [Labor Secretary Alexander] Acosta is one of the people who’s supposed to protect underage women from being sold as sex slaves."
Donna Hughes, a leading international researcher on human trafficking, said she finds the term "strange."
"A female under the age of 18 is a girl, while a female over 18 is a woman or young woman," she said. "Using the term 'underage woman' implies that she is a mature woman, but the law has made her 'underage.' The implication is that the law could be changed to lower the age of consent —- or even eliminate it. ... Personally, I would not use 'underage woman.'"
Houser said the term is inaccurate.
"It is a word that implies the ability to make adult choices such as engaging in an adult sexual relationship," she said. "But that’s not the case in this story. It would be more appropriate to say 'teenaged girls' or 'girls' or 'children.'"
In a post on the website Fatherly, "Stop Calling Epstein’s Victims Young Women. They're Children," the writer says "in no world is a 14-year-old an underage woman."
"Proper terminology is important," the post read. "And using the incorrect terms obscures the fact that Epstein, a billionaire adult, is accused of assaulting children and trafficking them for nonconsensual sexual acts."
A spokesperson for New York Magazine said going forward it will use “children” or “underage girls” depending on context.
'Sex with minors' vs. 'rape'
In referencing Epstein's previous plea deal, Bloomberg wrote that the "agreement allowed the wealthy money manager to dodge federal charges for having sex with minors."
In a Facebook post that has since gone viral, a childhood rape survivor took issue with the term, saying, "it's rape. Call it rape."
"When we use our 'polite words,' we create the impression that sexual abusers aren't really THAT bad," Jenna Glatzer wrote.
Experts say one reason why reporters are not using the term "rape" in this week's coverage is because it is not used in the legal definition of sex trafficking.
"The crimes the media is reporting on are federal crimes — there is no federal rape statute per se — they are using the language federal prosecutors are using, which is the language of sex trafficking," said Martina Vandenberg, founder and president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center,
Donna Hughes, a leading international researcher on human trafficking, said rather than “sex with a minor," she would say “victim of child sex trafficking."
Gene Rossi, who has three decades of criminal and civil litigation experience at the U.S. Department of Justice, says sometimes the media can be overly cautious.
"Generically, there is no legal barrier to a reporter calling it as it is," Rossi said. "The media tend to somewhat sugarcoat the essence of the allegation when it comes to sexual violence. ... It would be like if someone was accused of murder and the article on the murder said 'the alleged defendant took the life of of another person.'"
'Paid for sex'
A story in the Washington Times this week read, "Billionaire Jeffrey Epstein ran a 'vast network of underage victims' he paid for sex."
Houser said she takes issue with that term when referring to victims under the age of 18.
"When we say 'paid for sex' it erases the coercion, manipulation, intimidation or even violence inherent in the situation and instead sanitizes it to sound like a business transaction between consenting people," she said.
What the media has done right
Despite some criticism, experts say many news organizations have used proper terminology and given the Epstein case appropriate weight.
"I think the media is doing a good job stressing that it is a big and dramatic event," Rossi said. "That this could be a small part of a bigger puzzle."
As Vandenberg notes, there might not have been a case if not for Brown's November investigation on Epstein. The Herald identified about 80 victims who alleged they were abused by Epstein from 2001 to 2006.
"This story is a tribute to the power of investigative reporting, because this case would have died long ago," she said. "Those girls, now women, would have been completely forgotten but for this one journalist who would not let it go."
You may also be interested in:
- Who is Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire charged with sex trafficking girls as young as 14?
- Sex trafficking, prostitution is anything but a 'victimless crime'
- Robert Kraft case highlights risks facing Asian women
The FBI has urged Epstein victims to call 1-800-CALL-FBI.
If you've seen what could be human trafficking or if you need help, the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-373-7888 is confidential, toll-free and available 24/7 in more than 200 languages. Text: “BeFree” (233733). Chat: humantraffickinghotline.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jeffrey Epstein's sex trafficking case: What do you call his crimes?