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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.

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The problem is that exploitation is difficult to define. The challenge of commonly defining and understanding terms has long plagued anti-trafficking efforts, both domestic and global. What connotes “trafficking?” When is a “choice” really a choice? When the foundation of understanding is tenuous, data become even more so. Thus the statistics we have on commercial sexual trafficking are often patchy and flawed, which is ultimately harmful to the overall project.

Lloyd’s broad brush strokes are punctuated by disturbing tidbits of her own abusive experiences. Born in the UK, she endured a neglectful upbringing rife with substance abuse and suicide attempts. Fleeing to Germany, she was sexually exploited and trapped in a string of abusive relationships before mustering the strength to leave “the life.” It is truly no small wonder that she is alive today. In Germany she joined a megachurch and was then recruited as a missionary to work with other abuse survivors in the US.

Of course Lloyd’s story is longer and more complicated than can fit into 185 pages. Yet there are critical parts left entirely out which would change the story. One juncture shrouded in mystery is how Lloyd made that impossible move out of “the life” via the road to redemption.  This is a feat most sexually exploited women, tethered by that “invisible rope,” struggle with their entire lives.

How did Lloyd go from abusive relationship to  church-going nanny, to US immigrant missionary, to NGO founder and prestigious Ashoka fellow? To most readers, the mechanics of these changes are crucial. Isn’t it at these junctures that we can zero in on effective programs, lifesaving resources, and “best practices?”

One answer found between the lines is religion. At her aha moment, Lloyd says, “This inexplicable belief in God’s love for me at a critical moment sustains me over the next few months, and ultimately over the next decade.” While in Germany, Lloyd became involved with the Victory Christian Fellowship, an evangelical Pentecostal megachurch based in the Philippines. Soon after, Lloyd was recruited as a missionary in the US, though it’s not clear whether this was through VCF. The religious component, or at least inception, of Lloyd’s work is crucial, yet only fleetingly mentioned.

Lloyd’s personal religious experiences and their affect on her recovery are her own business. But there’s a long and complex history of faith-based involvement in sexual trafficking which warrants closer examination. In a recent paper, Sarabeth Harrelson of the University of Denver writes, “anti-trafficking faith-based NGOs have focused on sex trafficking almost to exclusion of all other forms of trafficking and slavery. Some donors expect their dollars to end up in conversions and are more concerned with proselytization than service delivery.”

Faith-based groups do a tremendous amount of good, but important to consider how sexual exploitation prevention and recovery work might verge into territory where women’s other rights – be it access to safe abortion or contraceptives – are also compromised.   In fact, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which Lloyd’s group worked hard to help pass, was sponsored primarily by Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), one of the most notorious anti-women’s rights and anti-reproductive rights members of the US Congress. We should remain wary of approaches that seek to “rescue” but only to oppress individual rights in new ways.

In sum, this book is important. Its sheer existence is important, in that it re-introduces an issue that Americans have long tried to keep off the table. That Rachel Lloyd is alive today to tell her story is important. She is a living testament to the potential for recovery and positive change, and the body of work that she’s built as a result has helped hundreds of women.

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