We've all seen scantily clad girls: on the street, on the Internet, in ads for "gentlemen's" clubs. Bodies and faces that conjure a myriad of responses: lust, fear, curiosity, perhaps even contempt, but rarely the most appropriate one: trafficking victim. UNICEF estimates that globally up to 1.2 million young people are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation and up to 300,000 of them are American children walking the streets of our cities. If you care to look beyond these shocking statistics and stirring images to learn more, look no further than Rachel Lloyd's powerful, superbly reasoned and articulate memoir Girls Like Us (Harper Collins) published April 5th.
Growing up fast and hard in Great Britain and Germany, leaving school at 13, arriving in New York alone and penniless at 23, Rachel Lloyd would seem an unlikely heroine of any story, let alone one in which she becomes the leader of a long overdue movement for social change. Over the last 15 years, Rachel has emerged as the de-facto spokesperson for the much-needed overhaul of our approach to the commercial sex industry. Rachel founded GEMS (Girls Education and Mentoring Service) this country's largest program to help girls leave the sex industry, has won numerous awards, has been featured in a documentary, successfully lobbied Albany for vanguard legislative change and been received by President Bush in the Oval Office. She is a star and happens to be outspoken (you'd have to be to assume her mantle in a world that rarely gives the time of day to young, poor, exploited, often abandoned, always misunderstood girls) and she is a passionate advocate for the rights and needs of our underage and exploited girls. This book tackles a sensitive subject with clarity, compassion and a biting sense of humor.
Girls Like Us is Rachel Lloyd's story, but it is also the story of every young girl who has been exploited into sexual servitude. She nimbly switches from her own wrenching experiences to the harrowing tales of the girls she has mentored and loved throughout her 15 years running GEMS. In doing so, she delivers a thorough exploration of this most misunderstood human rights abuse. For make no mistake, once you have read Rachel's memoir you will never be able to look at the sexual exploitation of children, and the women they become, as a victimless crime. Nor will any reader walk away still blindly believing that these children chose to be sex workers.
Girls Like Us can proudly and legitimately take its place in a long line of memoirs that ask us to bear witness to unspeakable trauma. What sets this book and Rachel's own journey apart is how hard she has had to fight to be seen as a survivor rather than a temptress, to have the suffering she and hundreds of thousands of girls have been subjected to understood as the bona fide human rights abuse it is. The passages that detail the devaluation of their struggles are particularly hard to read. It is unlikely that any genocide survivor or a former child soldier would find himself or herself in the Oval Office and be singled out for public humiliation:
"Suddenly, a Republican lobbyist... grabs my arms in a vice grip. Before I have had the time to register this invasion of my personal space, he stage-whispers "Long way from the street, eh?" I feel like I have been slapped. Hard. The last thing on my mind today was the streets, the life, my past -- it has been fifteen years. But apparently it's the first thing on his.....Unless you'd grown up in the White House, it's a big deal for anyone to be invited to the Oval Office. And yet apparently I'm supposed to be more honored, more grateful, more something because of my shameful beginnings."
Thus we understand the stigmatization and re-stigmatization that victims of commercial sexual exploitation are subject to by the prevailing culture and those who are supposed to be helping them.
Rachel has spent much of the last 20 years fighting for her survival, for the lives and the rights of the girls at GEMS: with law enforcement, in the courts of New York and in the court of public opinion. She has championed the re-framing of our understanding of child trafficking, worked to change the language used to describe commercial sex and the exploitative nature of the work, to have the world understand that the girls whose bodies are sold for sex do not do so by choice, but rather by the absolute lack of choice.
Girls Like Us tells the whole story with visceral power: dreadful childhoods, vulnerability, recruitment and brain-washing by pimps, life on the streets, abuse and violence by johns, humiliation, stigma, and for the lucky girls, recovery and empowerment. It is a page-turner, an eye-opener, a call to action and a moving and inspiring story. It is told throughout with wit and candor. Lucky for us there are girls and women like Rachel Lloyd.