Celia Williamson, director of the University of Toledo Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute, speaks during a news conference at the Reynolds Corner Branch Library in April of 2017.
Language is important. It can be used to denigrate someone and lift up another, regardless of the facts. In the recent media coverage of former Toledo Police Officer Michael Moore, who was recently found not guilty on charges of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and compelling prostitution, lots of damaging language was thrown around. However, the most damaging language was not directed at the former Toledo police officer who was standing trial, but at a girl, who was a 14-year-old child at the time of the crime and who was — and this is the most important part — the alleged victim of the crime.
The Blade depicted the accused officer as a rather nice guy. He was someone who, because of this case, voluntarily “took himself off the payroll,” “apologized for drawing [his friend] into the situation,” and “was good at taking drugs off the streets.”
The alleged child victim — who, again, was not standing trial — was described as a liar, extortionist, and, by WTOL as a “child prostitute” and “under-aged prostitute.”
The language about the alleged sexual interaction was described in the trial and by The Blade as someone paying to “have sex.” When an adult is alleged to have paid sex with a child, the person is called an “alleged child molester,” the child is called an “alleged victim of commercial sexual exploitation,” and the act is called “commercial sexual exploitation.”
Language can be a powerful way of denigrating oppressed populations who society views as less valuable. Despite both the federal law and Ohio law that says that youth who are involved in the commercial sex trade are victims of the crime of child sex trafficking, The Blade chose to characterize the alleged victim as an “admitted prostitute.”Admitting the label assigned by the oppressor doesn’t mean it’s true.
For several hundred years, the n-word was used to describe a population of people. If you asked a slave back then if they were indeed the n-word, they would have told you yes. In fact, in Ohio, a 14-year-old that has sex with an adult for money is a child sex trafficking victim or, at the very least, a child that is so desperate for money that she needs our immediate help, not our denigration. The adults in these cases are the people that should be held accountable, not the child. Child sex trafficking is modern day slavery as identified by our federal government.
But besides language, logic is also important. In this case, former Office Moore made two things clear: First, he thought the child was 19. Second, he previously had a vasectomy. If he is innocent, why is this information relevant?
He also admitted he gave her money, but not for sex. He was afraid she would report her “lies” to the police department. When asked if he thought he was the victim of extortion, he said yes. And when asked why he didn’t arrest her, he said he “didn’t think about it.”
A police officer that is on the job every day, with the expressed purpose of identifying crime and arresting criminals, didn’t think about it?
He further insisted the text messages that were sent to a witness about the situation, where he actually talks about wanting sex, was just a joke. Because, as we all know, Toledo police officers sometimes joke “back and forth” with the public about wanting sex.
While he was not found criminally liable, hopefully the internal affairs investigation will see the inappropriateness of this officer’s actions and do their job. Our job is to continue to help this girl and other girls like her to know they are loved and valued.
Thank you to the media for re-traumatizing a child, whose life, as the defense described it, could indeed be in survival mode. Thank you for stripping her of her dignity by putting in writing — for her friends, her school, and her community — that this child is a prostitute. And thank you to the legal system, for putting the alleged victim on trial in this case. It will indeed be more difficult to convince children to come forward to talk about their victimization.
In Toledo, we prefer not to shoot our wounded, whether it be with a pen in a Blade article or a news story on WTOL.
Celia Williamson is the director of the University of Toledo’s Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute
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