Teenage girls forced to work as prostitutes under the thumb of violent pimps and traffickers—that's something that only happens in faraway places like Cambodia and the Philippines, right?
Sadly, no. Right here in the U.S., countless young girls and women are forced to sell their bodies on street "tracks" and in hotel bedrooms every year, from Oakland to Atlantic City.
A new memoir from Rachel Lloyd, herself a survivor of the commercial sex trade, underscores just how widespread—and heartbreaking—America's sex trafficking problem really is.
Lloyd's book, Girls Like Us (HarperCollins, 2011), is a powerful and haunting page-turner. She describes her own escape from the world of stripping and turning tricks to founding New York's Girls Education and Mentoring Service (GEMS), which has helped countless girls break free from "the life."
From its opening scene of an 11-year old describing being pimped by her 29-year-old boyfriend, to Lloyd's own "epiphany" that got her out of "the life" for good, Girls Like Us holds the reader in, daring apathy.
Lloyd spoke to TakePart about how individuals can get involved to help organizations like hers and end human trafficking in America.
TakePart: Can you give us an idea of how prevalent this is across America?
Rachel Lloyd: I think, frankly, that is one of the hardest things to do because it's an underground population. Because this isn't the group that's going to come forward in a research study. The best kind of numbers that are out there come from a University of Pennsylvania study, which isn't a count of how many, but of how many young people are at risk—and I think that's probably an undercount.
But they're talking about 200,000 to 300,000 young people in this country are at risk for some kind of commercial sexual exploitation. There have been a couple of other studies that estimate that a couple hundred thousand young people are involved in the commercial sex industry. We know that last year we served 330 girls and young women [at GEMS] who either are or have been involved in the commercial sex industry—99 percent of whom have been under the control or a pimp/trafficker. And I think, every week, it is disturbing and stunning how many different parts of the country are having arrests.
What do you tell people when they say "this doesn't happen here in the U.S?" How do you explain to them how these girls get caught up in "the life?"
The thing we try to help people recognize is that you don't have to be from another country to feel like you don't have options in this one. There are a huge amount of young people—boys and girls—who are growing up in our country who don't feel like they have viable options for their future. So when you don't feel like you have options and somebody comes along and presents you with something that looks like an option—looks like love, looks like care, attention, a home, and those are the things you don't have right now, and are missing out on—that can be fairly easy to lure someone in.
When we begin to help paint a picture of what it's like for a 13-, 14-, or 15-year old girl who has been, generally, sexually abused at home, or physically abused at home, who has run away or who is in the foster care agency, with a real lack of family support, and an adult man whose sole focus in life is making money off of girls, when he comes along and he begins to tell her that he loves her and he will be there for her, it's not that hard to see how those next steps take place. What I'm seeing already with the book, and what we've seen with the film I produced a few years ago—Very Young Girls—is how many people, particularly women, are able to say 'Oh my goodness, I was so young at 13, 14, or 15, and an adult man at that point could have told me anything, because he was grown and I wasn't.' When there's a predatory adult on the scene, it's not that hard to lure someone into the sex industry. Particularly when that kid has already experienced trauma and violence and abuse
What are you hoping will come about from putting this book—and your story in particular—out to the public?
You know, in the beginning I was really reluctant to use my story. I'm already pretty public about my experiences and have dealt with that over the last decade, and wasn't sure if I wanted to put additional information out there. But ultimately I could write about my own story better than the girls' stories, and I felt like if that could be helpful in any way to people as an entry way into understanding what it's like for a girl or a young woman, then it was worth it. My hope is that people were able to connect on a very human level—that there's real empathy and compassion—not just on an academic understanding of "ok this is happening here," but a real "oh this could have been me, this could have been my daughter, these are girls who are real, as opposed to a statistic or a story in the news."
What steps have been taken by lawmakers and policy makers are encouraging to you, and what more needs to be done to make your job of helping these girls even easier?
The shift in people's cognizance and understanding of the issue, and ultimately people's compassion—I mean neither GEMS nor any other agency can be in every place—so knowing that the girl who walks into the ER or the girl who is in a local junior high school now and is struggling with this, or the girl who does come into contact with law enforcement, all those professionals are sensitive and have empathy and treat that girl with compassion and respect and connect her to some kind of services and support. That is how we begin to change this issue. If we can talk about this and be frank about who's doing the buying, on this issue, and have frank conversations with men about buying sex and what that means to girls and young women in the sex industry, the more we can put this issue out there and be honest about what's happening, the more we can address it.
I wonder if you could share a brief success story, one that can highlight why organizations like GEMS are important and can change lives?
Honestly, I could give you a hundred stories. I was just on Facebook this morning, and a girl who we served on and off from 12 up to 20 [years old] is now in college, has a 3.7 GPA. I mean, this is a girl who was trafficked all over the country from the age of 12. She was being sold out in Las Vegas, in Atlantic City. I mean this kid has had guns in her face, and has experienced some really brutal violence, and is doing phenomenally well. She just got picked to be on the debate team. She has worked at GEMS, and is just a great role model for her peers.