Sociological Ruminations

A blog about books (both non-fiction and fiction) that address forms of social inequality associated with race, gender, class, or mental health.

Girls Like Us by Rachel Lloyd

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.  “Oh afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires.  I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all of your walls of precious stones.”  Isaiah 54: 10 – 12

Anti-sex trafficking activist Rachel Lloyd published a book this year called Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds Her Calling and Heals Herself.  Lloyd is the founder of GEMS, an organization in New York City that provides services to victims of domestic minor sex trafficking.  She chose the name GEMS from the passage (above) in Isaiah.  Some girls receive services from GEMS voluntarily, whereas others are court mandated to do so.  For me, the book was one of those rare finds where, upon completion, I felt that I would miss the author when I put her book down.  Lloyd interweaves testimony about her own adolescence and victimization with stories about her work with girls at GEMS.  She demonstrates that the sex industry is not about choices; it is about lack of choices.  She also discusses reframing the issue of domestic minor sex trafficking by altering the language we use.  For example, as opposed to the phrase “teen prostitutes,” the phrase “commercial sexually exploited youth” depicts reality.  Under the law, a minor cannot consent to sex.  To charge a minor with selling sex (instead of treating her like a victim) is absurd, particularly when the adolescent often has an exploiter (pimp) who coerced her into selling her body.  Altering language is key to altering public perception.  The term “teen prostitutes” implies a level of choice that is absent.  The girls that Lloyd works with did not “choose” a life of prostitution; they were trained by their exploiters (pimps) to accept such a life as normal.  No one chooses to be beaten, raped, sold, and bought.

Lloyd was raised in England where she grew up with what she calls a father-shaped hole in her heart.  She also had an alcoholic mother whose husband abused both Lloyd and her mother:

“Our home is a battleground with me desperately trying to referee, standing on chairs and shouting at them to stop fighting, yelling at him to leave her alone, realizing that no one is listening, spending more and more time outside the house.  Nobody notices.  I feel invisible to everyone but the boys who are beginning to pay attention to me.  My ideas about boys and sexuality are already distorted.  By the time I take an overdose at thirteen, he’s gone, she’s a raging alcoholic, I’m no longer going to school, our home is up for foreclosure, and I’ve begun to try to take on the adult role of providing both financial and emotional support for my mother” (p. 32).

In her style of blending her own story with stories about the girls she works with, Lloyd says: “Your mother is the one who is ‘supposed’ to love you and protect you, no matter what.  For many sexually exploited girls, this relationship has been the one that has caused the most pain and left the deepest scars” (p. 59).  She also discusses the notion that violence is generational: “Some mothers have heard the same words – whore, slut, you’ll never be anything, you’re a piece of shit – repeated from grandmother to mother to daughter” (p. 63).  She illustrates the relationship between childhood sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation when she says that sexually abused children grow up believing that their worth is based on their sexuality and that they have no right to physical boundaries.  According to the book, between 70 and 90 percent of commercially exploited youth and adult women in the sex industry were sexually abused prior to their recruitment.

As an adolescent, Lloyd purchased a one-way ticket to Germany where she was essentially trapped and without money when she realized that she wanted to go home.  After seeking legitimate employment in Germany, she responded to an opening for a dancer.  She accepted the job and subsequently realized that the dancers in this club were prostitutes.  After engaging in prostitution and suffering through an abusive relationship that involved kidnapping, torture, and beatings, she tried to commit suicide.  When the rope broke and she fell to the ground (rather than dying of strangulation), she was overcome by a sense of God’s love for her, and she began attending a non-denominational Christian Church where she experienced growth, healing, and love.  She also observed male pastors who demonstrated what a decent husband and father can look like: “My pastor, and some of the other men in the church, have modeled for me what a ‘real’ man acts like, and I’ve been shocked and relieved that none of the men, at least the married ones, has ever even come close to stepping across any of my blurry boundaries” (p. 225).  Before leaving Germany in order to accept a job in the United States, she says:

“I don’t want to leave the comfort of Victory Christian Fellowship, the place where I’ve experienced the kind of peace and overwhelming love that I’ve never felt anywhere else and where I’ve begun to believe that perhaps God really does love me.  It’s been through the compassion of many of the people at church that I’ve seen that love put into action, as I’ve been given clothing, a job, a place to live, and hours and hours of patient counseling and support” (p. 225).

For me, one of the most striking aspects of the book is that Lloyd’s depiction of police stands in sharp contrast to Somebody’s Daughter, which is another sex trafficking book published this year.  Whereas the journalist who wrote Somebody’s Daughter focuses his intensive observations on the groundbreaking work of a handful of detectives and FBI agents who care deeply about sex trafficking victims, Lloyd presents New York City beat cops who sometimes re-victimize sex trafficking victims.  Many of the victims that she has worked with have been sexually assaulted by members of the NYPD.  Both Girls Like Us and Somebody’s Daughter offer similar illustrations of how rare it is for law enforcement to treat sex trafficking victims with dignity and respect.  Many police are either apathetic or show outright disdain.  In fact, Lloyd mentions that “it’s well known in law enforcement circles that cops throughout the country have used the moniker NHI (no humans involved) to describe cases involving homeless people, addicts, drug dealers, and rapes and murders involving women and girls in the sex industry” (p. 147).  When she mentioned this at a police training conference on the West Coast, a police officer approached her later and said that picking up sexually exploited girls is referred to as the “trash run.”

One of the most useful aspects of the book is Lloyd’s comprehensive depiction of the recruitment methods that exploiters (pimps) utilize when victimizing adolescent girls.  She says that there are “just a few minor variations on the same theme – vulnerable meets predatory; abused child meets billion-dollar sex industry” (p. 72).  Many girls are runaways who come from families so dysfunctional that no one reports them missing.  This is a key consideration for the exploiter (pimp) because there will be no Amber alert for these girls as they are being sold as sex slaves.  The brown or black skin that many of the girls possess also means that they are unlikely to be depicted in the national media because they are not the white all-American cheerleader whose story would captivate our society.  For example, Lloyd points out a news story that I (as a former Milwaukee resident) remember well.  In the summer of 2002, a little girl named Alexis Patterson was missing.  She was black and came from an impoverished Milwaukee neighborhood.  After following local news coverage all summer, I never heard Patterson’s name mentioned again after I moved to California that same summer.  I never knew whether she was ever found.  Lloyd points out that virtually no one outside of Milwaukee has heard of this missing little girl who was never found, yet we have all heard of Elizabeth Smart, a white girl from an intact family who was abducted the exact same summer.  Race may be one of several factors that explains this.  Lloyd says that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel criticized the national media for its bias and lack of coverage of the Patterson case, and the paper noted: “A Nexis search of major newspapers and magazines shows 67 stories about Patterson, almost all of them by the Associated Press and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  In the last week, there have been more than 400 stories about Smart” (p. 141).  One of the consequences of media bias is that it impacts public perception, and it also impacts which cases are prioritized by law enforcement and how law enforcement resources are allocated.

The notion that only certain types of victims are acceptable victims is just one of many examples of how Lloyd illustrates that we as a culture are responsible for the crime of sex trafficking.  Although the criminological theories that I studied in graduate school (strain theory, biosocial theory, etc.), seek to explain an offender’s behavior, they cannot offer comprehensive explanations regarding this particular crime because our society is partly to blame for allowing adolescent and pre-teen girls to be sexualized and for looking the other way when hip hop culture makes “pimping” seem cool.  Pimping involves gang raping a girl in order to wear her down.  Contrary to what Snoop Dogg might say, pimping is not cool.  Sex trafficking exists because our culture has a high tolerance level for the sexual exploitation of women and girls.  More importantly, it exists because U.S. prostitution laws, enacted before women could vote, have always targeted the supply side of the supply-demand equation.  Targeting the supply side of the equation means that adolescent victims are often arrested for prostitution while their buyers go free.  Both Girls Like Us and Somebody’s Daughter point out that buyers (Johns) are rarely penalized, whereas prostitutes are typically arrested.  Does it make sense to arrest a fifteen year old girl while her forty year old buyer goes free?  As Lloyd points out, some police officers indicate that they do not want to embarrass the buyer by charging him with solicitation of a prostitute.  In addition, sometimes buyers are the police.  Similarly, Somebody’s Daughter discusses a sting conducted in Missouri in which a Navy recruiter showed up (in his Navy uniform) to purchase sex with a girl who undercover cops told him was eleven years old.  The Navy recruiter threw in extra money so that he would not have to wear a condom.  Girls Like Us and Somebody’s Daughter are just two examples of research that criticizes the U.S. for its inherently sexist prostitution laws which target women while allowing their buyers to go free.  Both books mention that in Sweden, selling one’s body is legal; however buying sex is illegal.  This is Sweden’s way of combating gender inequality.

U.S. laws began to change when the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, enacted in 2000, made it a felony to engage in “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.”  Use of the word obtain gives law enforcement the ability to go after buyers (Johns).  Many states have passed similar legislation.  The buyers arrested along with the Navy recruiter in the Missouri sting each received a sentence that ranged from 10 to 15 years.  In addition, Texas and Georgia each sentence sex traffickers to a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years.  Nevertheless, harsh sentences will not solve the problem.  Relying on courts and law enforcement to solve our problems relieves us from having to address the deeper, underlying issues that create crime.  The attitude with which men and boy’s view female sexuality needs to change.

Girls Like Us also provides comprehensive information regarding why it can be so difficult for some girls to sever the relationship with their exploiter/pimp.  When discussing trauma bonds, Lloyd says the media sympathized with Elizabeth Smart’s apparent bond with her victimizer.  Smart had the opportunity to leave but did not.  The media and the public sympathized.  However, our culture does not recognize that same trauma bond in sexually exploited girls who cannot leave their exploiter despite apparent opportunities to do so.  Lloyd also explains that in recovery, carefully constructed denial is easier for some girls rather than to admit that their exploiter manipulated them, particularly when so many exploiters pretend to be the girl’s “boyfriend.”

Despite the book’s heavy nature, there is also quite a bit of humor present.  For example, Lloyd describes a moment when two young girls she was working with told her that she seemed “too empowered to tan.”  She also describes being among the lobbyists invited to meet George W. Bush after the passage of New York’s Safe Harbor Act.  During the exciting opportunity to meet the President, she and a friend kept giving one another a “can-you-fucking-believe-this” face.  On a more serious note, Lloyd depicts the work that her organization did in order to lobby for the ultimate passage of New York’s Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, which is the nation’s first state law designed to treat sex trafficking victims as victims rather than as offenders who are arrested for prostitution.  A crucial issue in the book is the decision of police to arrest victims and treat them as delinquents rather than crime victims.  However, exploited youth should be treated as victims, particularly so they can receive victim services.  Many of the stories interwoven throughout the book illustrate that as victims unlearn the perceptions that their trafficker trained them to acquire, they need to be in a program specifically geared toward commercially sexually exploited youth.  GEMS is one of only a few organizations in the country that provides these services.

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