I have been eagerly awaiting Rachel Lloyd’s book, “Girls Like Us,” since I met her last summer. Lloyd is the founder and director of GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), an organization that helps teenagers whose sexuality has been exploited for commercial gain. In “Girls Like Us,” Lloyd blends memoir, reportage and political thinking to critique a free market society in which absolutely everything is for sale. She leads us to systemic solutions, which Lloyd and the members of GEMS have designed and won. That combination gives readers a way into an otherwise impenetrable issue. The girls’ stories allow a gut-level understanding of the trade’s enormous scale, and a clear sense of what needs to change, from the language we use to the laws we pass.
A book like this can be tough reading, and Lloyd is clearly aware of the potential for fatigue. Her own story begins with her single mother in a small English town, winds around to stripping in German clubs at the age of 17, moves through a series of violent relationships with pimps and ultimately has her leaving “the life” to go to New York and, eventually, start GEMS. Her storytelling is raw and straightforward; not hiding the shame and fear that accompanied her early “decisions,” but never veering off into melodrama, and even including a more-than-occasional flash of humor.
Lloyd’s story grounds those of dozens of teens, and a few pre-teens, putting many faces on a pattern so normalized that it permeates our music, television, hospitals and police stations. When the reader starts to feel overwhelmed by the numbers, Lloyd presents a girl. As soon as the girls start to blend together, she returns to her own story. As soon as you’re overwhelmed by story, she gives you some analysis. It all builds toward a policy change so practical that I can only wonder why no one thought of it before: Bills such as the Safe Harbor Act in New York, which among other things mandates that underage people involved in the sex industry will not be charged with prostitution. Girls under the age of 17 are legally too young to consent to sex in New York, and yet they are charged regularly with sex crimes. The law took effect in April 2010.
Lloyd, whose heritage is Anglo and Roma, eloquently describes the role that race and class play in the popular understanding of sex trafficking. Girls who are trafficked across borders are thought of as victims, and so are white, middle-class American girls. But the black and Latina girls with whom Lloyd works are thought to havechosen their life, to be oversexed or scheming or too lazy to do anything but sell themselves. They are referred to as young adults, even when they are far under 15, and cops call their rapes “theft of services.” Even though federal law says that anyone under the age of 18 who is sold for sex is a victim of severe trafficking, with no need to prove coercion or force, if the girl is an American and of color, she will too often be arrested, charged with prostitution and jailed.
In a particularly striking section of “Girls Like Us,” Lloyd notes that media attention related to exploited and missing girls matters:
It makes a difference in whether your disappearance gets copters and dogs or flyers. It makes a difference in how you’re treated by a jury of “your peers.” It makes a difference in whether your family members are believed or taken seriously. In over a decade of working with thousands of girls, most of whom have been missing at some point, many of whom were literally kidnapped and held by force, I have never seen a GEMS case that has gotten an Amber Alert.
Lloyd’s treatment of the men of color is evenhanded. She notes that the stereotypical image of a black pimp hides the huge numbers of white men who occupy that role or otherwise benefit from the exploitation. She recounts the story of the pimp of her of her girls, whom she encounters late at night in a hospital. Through the course of their long talk, she can see his own history of abuse, his own limited prospects, his own genuine feelings for the very girl he has been beating and selling. She can see him thinking hard as she’s talking to him, but hears a week later that he is selling new girls. He can’t go all the way to her side because the benefits are too good and he has no incentive to stop.
In organizing, the most difficult emotional contradictions arise as people who have been victimized struggle to stop blaming themselves while unearthing their own power to make new choices. Anyone who builds a life after exploitation does so not just because she encounters the rare sympathetic cop; not just because a new law gets her victim services rather than incarceration; not just because a Rachel Lloyd is there to advocate on her behalf. Girls who escape decide to take a life-changing dare, somewhere along the line of a long, painful process of self-discovery and acceptance. That acceptance has to apply to every part of the whole, whether for individuals or a society. The lost parts, the survivor parts, the stupid and the smart parts. That is Lloyd’s ultimate gift with “Girls Like Us”—daring us to join the movement to liberate girls from sexual exploitation, and giving us the feeling that we can do it, no matter what has gone before.
For other resources on this issue, see the Showtime documentary “Very Young Girls.”