The future end of commercial sex trafficking rests with those who have had those experiences and who can lead the movement—those who are most impacted by the issue are the ones who need to be empowered to lead, said Rachel Lloyd, an advocate against commercial sex trafficking and CEO of Girls Educational & Mentoring Service (GEMS).
The Women and Gender Studies Program hosted Lloyd, who also authored Girls Like Us, to speak about the abolition of sex trafficking this past Tuesday.
Having been subjected to prostitution herself, Lloyd worked in the sex industry as a teenager until she left at age 19. In 1997, she began to work with incarcerated women. Her experience with high school students at Rikers Island High School inspired her to start GEMS, a girls and women empowerment organization based in Harlem.
Her experience at Rikers Island was her first introduction to what commercial exploitation and trafficking looked like, outside of her own experiences. Lloyd noted that despite there being very few examples of people leaving the sex industry due to it carrying such a stigma, it is important for those still in the sex industry to understand.
“I didn’t have any particular resources, there was no funding, it was just me and my particular memories of being in the commercial sex industry and leaving at 19,” she said. “Very few of us ever saw examples of those of us who had successfully made it out.”
There was—and is—a very clear dichotomy within law enforcement between those who are seen as real victims, and those who were seen more as criminals, she said, claiming that victims from other countries are often seen as more necessary to help than those in the U.S.
“That work … has really been about helping people recognize that that dichotomy is false and that what happens to girls in this country is very similar to what happens to girls in [other countries],” she said. “You don’t have to be from another country to feel like you don’t have options in this one.”
Lloyd said that it is often difficult for many people to understand that there are psychological, often unnoticed bonds between these girls and those who employ them in the sex industry—the mental bond often being much stronger than the physical bond, she said.
“You don’t have to be chained to a wall to feel like you can’t leave,” she said. “There isn’t necessarily a physical chain keeping them.”
Lloyd discussed that simply rescuing girls from situations of sexual trafficking and domestic violence is not enough to really help the cause. Early intervention, she said, is critical to helping vulnerable young people.
“Rescue can’t be a plan for anyone’s life,” she said. “That’s not a long-term plan. It has to be about empowerment, about opportunity, about building on the inherent strengths that someone has.”
Lloyd recommends that those who are truly invested in the problem of sexual trafficking should mentor a young person for four to five years, pointing out that there is rarely someone with an already strong, consistent adult presence upon his or her walking into GEMS.
“Are there girls being born right now in New York City who are going to end up walking in the doors of GEMS in 15 years?” she asked. “And, if so, haven’t we failed in some way? We need to reduce the amount of young people that we’re serving.”
Right now, Lloyd said, the abolition of sex trafficking is a popular issue—generating extensive enthusiasm and momentum for addressing the issue now, making it important to seize the moment. The most effective way to further the initiative is for the leaders of it to be the industry’s survivors, she said.
“We need to empower folks who have had these experiences—we need to empower survivors to be in positions of leadership,” Lloyd said. “What creates real social change is love. Love for other humans, and love for ourselves, and love for humanity.”
Featured Image By Kemeng Fan