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New Sex Slavery Memoir Tells a Powerful Tale -- But Are Personal Stories the Best Way to Fight Exploitation?

The new book 'Girls Like Us' offers a vivid account of Rachel Lloyd’s journey from abused to acclaimed. Yet, there are critical parts missing from her story.

Rachel Lloyd has been hailed as an inspiration and a savior, and well-deservedly. In 2000, at the age of 23, after surviving years of violence and exploitation, Lloyd founded Girls Education & Mentoring Services (GEMS), an NGO that advocates for sexually exploited girls. Girls Like Us offers a vivid account of Lloyd’s journey from abused to acclaimed, weaving the personal with the professional for a bold look at an issue which has, for too long, been sidelined.

Yet her memoir seems to cloud, and in some ways even undermine, the issue of sexual exploitation rather than illuminate it. Lloyd seeks to clear a space for new voices, especially those of young women who have been sexually exploited and silenced. Yet with her own impressionable story and public persona, Lloyd takes up much of the air.

Lloyd’s account, which interweaves her personal experience with her professional take, is a complicated entry point. Memoirs that are also accounts of social issues must be taken with a grain of salt. Take, for example, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces or Three Cups of Tea , Greg Mortenson’s memoir of building schools for girls in Pakistan which was recently found to be partly fictional. This is an inherent danger with all memoirs dealing with heartstring-pulling social issues. We want to validate the author’s story and support an important cause. Yet as readers and as a socially conscientious public, it is our responsibility to walk the line between supportive and critical, empathetic and discerning.

Stories are never quite as simple as we want to believe, and we do ourselves, the author, and the social issue a disservice when we conflate the particular with the universal. As economist William Easterly points out , “T he way the Mortenson story fell apart just showed how much he was trying to fulfill peoples’ expectations about heroic stereotypes.” We heap all of our hopes onto a single voice, making them the emblem of an issue. It simply doesn’t work that way. We don’t need memoirists with better memories, we need readers with more discerning critiques and healthier doses of reality.

I may be a cynical New Yorker, but I tend not to trust something or someone against which no critical word has been offered. While Lloyd’s perspective on sexual exploitation and trafficking is important, it is only one. Inherent to the concept of critical thinking is that there are always nuances, conditions, and alternatives to consider. Yet perusing the many reviews of Lloyd’s book, there is nary a critical take. Not from feminist blogs, and not from hard-hitting news sites.

Sexual trafficking and exploitation is a horrible global reality, with more than one million young people – not to mention adults – estimated to be commercially sexually exploited each year. While it’s often been billed a problem elsewhere, Lloyd breaks the hard news that commercial trafficking and exploitation of American youth is not only a reality here, but a festering one. Because the majority of girls trafficked and exploited in the US tend to be young women of color, systemic neglect of the issue is compounded by pernicious racism. We have a mega-problem on our hands that deserves wide discussion, awareness, and continued action.  

In an effort to convey its insidious and far-reaching roots, Lloyd paints sexual exploitation in the US with a broad brush. But in doing so she ends up depicting an issue so enveloping that one doesn’t know where to begin. She defines pimp as “anyone who makes money off the commercial sexual exploitation […], be they a parent, a pornographer....” By these standards, is a pageant mom a pimp? Is swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker’s manager a pimp?

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