Seeing the Whole Picture: Loss of Innocents

Commercial sexual exploitation of women happens in the United States—and it looks the same here as it does in other countries
“Sex slavery” sounds like something that happens in Thailand, but it’s also in the U.S. Rachel Lloyd, the founder of GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), discusses the need to change mindsets, that helping isn’t simply about “rescue” and why being exploited doesn’t define someone.

“If you look at the commonalities between international trafficking and domestic trafficking, there’s the commonality that the girls who are trafficked are [often] low-income, young women of color. They are frequently victims of prior violence and sexual abuse, grown up in poverty, and then [they] are controlled through forced violence, promises of a better life. The same tactics used by international traffickers are the same tactics [traffickers in the United States] use.”

Making a dent in commercial sexual exploitation means changing mindsets

“We have to change the culture that says it’s OK to buy sex from women. The demand reduction is critical. There’s always legislation pending that would be helpful, but there’s a lot of legislation and laws on the books that just don’t get enforced. Then, we have to change our culture and the sexualization of young women and girls of color. We need to make sure young people who are growing up don’t feel like this has to be an option for them.

We’ve definitely seen a shift in the last 10 years. We’re beginning to see more focus on arresting the men who are selling girls, and less on the girls themselves as criminals, more as victims. And that’s really what needs to happen, is shifting that perspective of girls in the sex industry as criminals. You can pretty much see a story a week now about some pimp or trafficker who has been indicted, [or] arrested—which is a big change from even three years ago.”

It’s not just about “rescuing” girls

“You can bust into a hotel room and snatch a girl out, but [then] you have [to have] psychological support, economical support, unconditional love and non-judgment, programs that involve survivors at every level so women are around people who have been through what they’ve been through too. We don’t use words like ‘rescue’ or ‘rehabilitation.’ ‘Rehabilitation’ makes it sound like you need to be brought back—like the problem is with you, and you need to be fixed in order to re-enter society. Society, quite frankly, is a screwed up one. We have to be able to look at empowering victims and supporting victims—they need long-term support.”

Advocating in court and offering an alternative to jail is critical

“[GEMS’] family court program addresses girls 15 and under. The Safe Harbor Act, which we fought very hard for, made New York State the first state to stop prosecuting underage girls for an act of prostitution they couldn’t even legally consent to.

And then [we have] the Alternative to Incarceration Program in New York State. We’re one of the few states that still incarcerates 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, so we serve 16 up to 24, and that’s young women who have generally been arrested for an act of prostitution, and they’re not covered under Safe Harbor all the time because of the age issues. Those girls are mandated to GEMS instead of going to Rikers Island jail. So if they were going to face 30 days in jail, they’ll get 30 days in our program. It’s not [like], ‘In 30 days we’re going to figure out a way to fix you,’ it’s really about, ‘We’re going to make sure we address your health needs, your practical needs, and give you a sense that if you get to that point where exit seems possible, that you have options, you have practical resources that will make that exiting process seem possible.’ ”

There are so many stereotypes women in this situation have to face

“That [they] are loose, that they’re enjoying it, that this is something that’s fun or glamorous. It’s just a misnomer that men have a right to buy sex. This is an issue that is just kind of shrouded with myths and stereotypes and misconceptions. Getting educated about the issue and hearing the stories of real women helps people change their misconceptions.”

Being exploited is something that happens to someone—not who they are

“It’s about learning and educating yourself first, so you understand the complexities of the issue. Recognizing these stories are not that uncommon, and realizing you may have something in common with these girls who have been exploited; this is not some strange population of people, these are girls like us. I think beginning to change your language and not calling these girls ‘prostitutes,’ but [realizing that] being sexually exploited or trafficked is something that happens to them, not who they are. When we learn about an issue, we have a responsibility to do something about it, to change our behavior. There was a time where smoking was considered very glamorous; it was in every movie. We don’t look at smoking like that anymore. We’ve changed how we look at lots of issues, so it’s possible to do that with this issue.”

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