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Urban Legends and Hoaxes: How Hyperbole Hurts Trafficking Victims

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I can't believe I'm saying this, but for once I agree with a Village Voice story on trafficking. Today's article "The Super Bowl Prostitution Hoax" is about the Super Bowl and the huge influx of trafficking victims that everyone's predicting. And the Voice is right -- it's just not true.

For the last few years, the Super Bowl has been touted as the biggest trafficking event, especially for minors, in the country. While there have definitely been some reported cases, the statistics just don't bear out this claim. The real crime is happening when no one's looking and no one cares, not when every media outlet, advocate and cop has its sights set on it. As the founder and executive director of GEMS, the nation's largest direct service provider to commercially sexually exploited and domestically trafficked girls and young women, and as a survivor and a long-time public advocate for raising awareness of this issue, I am probably surprising some people by saying this. But, frankly, it needs to be said. Hyperbole only obscures the true issue and damages the movement's credibility. It's critical that as a field that we pay attention to statistics, ensure that the information we're putting out there is accurate, and make sure people focus on the larger systemic issues that exacerbate and make young people so vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, instead of focusing on media-friendly quick fixes and sensationalized stories.

The truth is that commercial sexual exploitation of youth (including girls, boys, and transgender youth) in our country is a very real problem and domestic trafficking -- particularly of underage girls and young women -- is not, as the Village Voice would have you believe, made up by puritanical extremists looking to get government funding. The Voice is hardly an unbiased party in this, nor is it balanced journalism simply reporting the facts. Village Voice Media owns Backpage.com, which has come under attack for its sex ads, which are known (not simply by advocates but by law enforcement and prosecutors in actual cases) to be facilitating the sale of both underage girls and young women over the age of 18 who are trafficking victims. Village Voice Media makes an estimated $22 million each year in revenue from these ads and therefore has little interest in ending this practice. Village Voice Media is the Rupert Murdoch of the trafficking world and the Voice is its Fox News churning out flawed statistics to back up mocking "investigative" reports that claim that the commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking of young people in our country (underage "hookers" as the Voice calls them) is not really happening -- and, if it is, then it's not that bad.

I've been doing this work for 15 years and running a nonprofit working directly with girls and young women for 14 years. I have seen firsthand thousands of girls and young women who have been bought and sold (some as young as 11) by adult men to adult men. Each year we serve over 300 girls and young women ages 12 to 24 who've been victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Over 98 percent have been under the control of a pimp, most were recruited into the sex industry under the age of 18 (although it's a myth that your 18th birthday suddenly makes exploitation less exploitative), and the overwhelming majority are low-income young women of color, over 70 percent of whom have been in the foster care system and all of whom have histories of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and/or neglect prior to their recruitment. The girls and young women I work with every day are victims of some of the most heinous forms of violence and abuse, both from their pimps/traffickers and from the "johns," the adult men who buy them. Their lives have been impacted by racism, class-ism, poverty, and gender-based violence, and it's only been in very recent years that they've even begun, slowly, to be seen as victims, not willing participants in their own abuse. These aren't stories that have been created for the media or to secure funding. As a nonprofit executive, I can say that the myth that we're all just rolling in the money (or doing this work for the money) is both ludicrous and frustrating. I and many, many others like me throughout the country are doing this work because we believe that we shouldn't live in a world where youth are vulnerable to exploitation because of the zip code that they're born in, where their human rights are violated every day, and where we accept that some people should be bought and sold for sex simply because they're not seen as valuable. I'm proud of the work that we do and know that we're having an impact on the lives of the girls and young women we serve and are, very slowly, making a dent in the systems that impact them and society's perception of their worth and value.

As a movement, we've worked hard over the last decade to get people to recognize that commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking is even happening in the U.S., and sometimes the anger and outrage at what we're seeing -- girls beaten, raped, sold and then frequently criminalized and scorned by society -- can overtake a balanced response. In a effort to get people to care about this issue, we've been less than careful with the statistics and in an effort to get the media to cover this story we've often reduced it to the most basic elements. (I've been guilty of this too.) We've focused on quick fixes and good vs. evil responses that rarely address the true causes or empower the young people that we're serving. In doing so, we've played right into the hands of those who'd like to deny that this is even happening, those who are profiting handsomely from the continued exploitation. The truth is that there are likely more girls and young women who are trafficking victims being sold on Backpage.com than there are being brought to the Super Bowl this year. We don't need to hype anything up or sensationalize it, the truth is bad enough.

You can preorder your paperback copy of "Girls Like Us," Rachel Lloyd's memoir here and get the hardcover here!