What image comes to mind when you hear the words “sex trafficking?” Foreign women and girls being kidnapped and sold across third world countries? Eastern European women being drugged and shuttled into seedy brothels? Though these women’s experiences are the most familiar to most people, there’s a huge population of commercially sexually exploited girls living in the United States who often earn people’s scorn rather than assistance due to the label society tends to place on them: teenage prostitutes.
As Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) founder Rachel Lloyd so eloquently shows, the “teen prostitute” label is an unhelpful misnomer that hides the violent realities the girls experience daily. Commercially sexually exploited girls (the term preferred by experts and organizations including Amnesty International) often face sexual assault, physical violence, and extreme psychological manipulation. Although any girl can become a victim, most victims are people of color who come from low-income families and have already encountered–if not experienced–various forms of violence and emotional abuse in their young lives; girls who fit this profile are specifically targeted by pimps because of their vulnerability.
Much of what Lloyd writes about in this book comes from first-hand experience. Her own entrance into the world of commercial sexual exploitation began when she was thirteen years old, when she ran away from a broken home. The book’s chapters are split up to reflect the process of how girls are recruited into “the life,” and the experiences they face once they are trapped. As Lloyd recounts her painful experiences, readers can clearly see the cycle that the girls fall into; Lloyd’s experiences mirror this process almost exactly.
There’s a lot that can be discussed in this book. Each chapter is loaded with eye-opening information that took turns making me want to cry and making me want to rage against the machine. One of the things I appreciated most about Lloyd’s analysis was her focus on race and socioeconomics, and how all of it plays into harmful stereotypes. This excerpt on the profile of pimps was one of my favorites:
As there are damaging racial stereotypes that have begun to be linked with pimping, it’s critical to note that anyone who makes money off the commercial sexual exploitation of someone else is pimping them, be they a parent, a pornographer, or a member of an organized crime syndicate. Pimps can be male, female, or transgendered and come in all ages, races, and ethnicities…In a culture that has already done a good job at demonizing low-income, young men of color, and that has increasingly conflated pimps with black men, it’s important not to play into these stereotypes.
Really, the whole chapter on pimps and the glorification of pimps in popular culture was fantastic (a few years ago, I was definitely one of the people grumbling on my couch when “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” won an Oscar for Best Song).
Lloyd’s analysis of pop culture in general is spot on. One of the things she discusses at length is the cycle of violence the girls tend to grow up in, and how normalized domestic violence is. She points to Chris Brown’s attack on Rhianna in one of her examples:
[I]nstead of the incident provoking a thoughtful national dialogue, it showed how entrenched attitudes still are about where the responsibility for violence lies. I was horrified by the response on many of the message boards, blogs, and even by some of the celebrities who initially tried to downplay Chris Brown’s culpability. Message after message not believing her, blaming her, excusing Brown’s actions along the lines of “she must’ve done something to deserve it.” … Clearly, then, it’s not just girls who’ve experience trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation who believe that violence is normal.
Coincidentally, I was reading this book right around the time of the 2012 Grammy’s, when Chris Brown performed not once, but twice. His female fans’ reactions on Twitter went viral as they announced horrifying things like, “he can beat me up all night if he wants.” Brown’s reaction to “the haters” was equally disgusting. The incident was glorification of domestic violence at its finest.
Another important issue Lloyd raises is how the girls are victims of exploitation and multiple forms of abuse, but in the eyes of the law, they tend to be viewed as criminals, and they are often arrested and imprisoned with adults. Some progress is being made on the issue — especially in New York — but there’s still a lot of work to be done at the local, state, and federal level.
Sobering though the book may be, it’s also filled with stories of personal triumph. The girls at GEMS have experienced horrors few people could ever dream of, and they still stigmatized by much of society, but many are able to get the help they need to break away. I’m in total awe of Lloyd’s journey and of the work she continues to do at GEMS. If I could put this book into every single person’s hands, I would. It’s that important.
Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not For Sale was originally released by Harper Books on April 5, 2011. It was released on paperback on February 28, 2012 by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.
Want a chance to win this book? Harper Perennial is providing a paperback copy for a Women’s History Month giveaway!
To enter, fill out this form by midnight on Friday, March 16, 2012. Contest is open to U.S. residents only.