News & Politics

Escaping the Sex Trafficking Industry

A Q+A with a former sex worker, who weaves her own painful story of being lured into "the life," with the stories of the girls and women that she now helps.

The trafficking of girls and women has become a hot topic in the last year. In December, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, co-authors of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, teamed up with Oprah Winfrey to launch the topic into public consciousness. Actress Demi Moore testified on the topic in front of Congress last year, after being shocked into action while watching an MSNBC special on the sex trade in Cambodia. The Clinton Global Initiative has marked the trafficking of girls and women as a special focus. 

It’s critical that so many privileged Americans and power brokers are becoming aware of this issue, but it’s unfortunate that the public conversation about this issue is still largely missing the voices of the girls and women who have experienced sex trafficking and exploiting, themselves, speaking on their own terms, about their own experiences. 

Until now.

A new memoir, Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls are Not For Sale, an Activist Finds her Calling and Heals Herself, will be published this week by Harper Collins. In it, survivor  Rachel Lloyd tells her own painful story of being lured into “the life,” as she calls it, from an early start modeling to prostitution and surviving violence and pain at the hands of those who bought and sold her. Lloyd interweaves this story with the stories of the girls and women that she now helps through her acclaimed New York-based nonprofit Girls Education and Mentoring Service (GEMS). It is a groundbreaking memoir, not only because it paints a vivid picture of domestic trafficking, but because it is beautifully-written—sure to be shelved alongside the other great social issue autobiographies of our time, like First They Killed My Father and A Long Way Gone. 

Here’s Rachel on Girls Like Us, “the life,” and liberation, in her own words:

Why did you write Girls Like Us

I wrote this book to try to change public perception of this issue, and of girls and women in the commercial sex industry. I've also wanted to write a book since I was about three years old!

In Girls Like Us, you write, “Girls weren’t drug addicted, they were love addicted, and that, I’ll learn, is far harder to treat.” Why do you think so many girls and women are so, as you put it, “love addicted?” Are boys and men “love-addicted” too? 

I think I'll get fried for saying this, but I think that we're biologically wired to be nurturers and that can get distorted. Girls and women are so relationally-oriented. I also think a huge part is how we're socialized growing up to see our value and worth as being tied into a relationship and how our culture teaches us a distorted sense of romantic love—can't live without you, can't breathe without you, I'll die without you. As teenage girls we believe that level of emotional intensity and dramatics equates with real love. We're also taught that if we date lots of people, then we're sluts, so at an early age we put all our eggs into one basket, so to speak, and concentrate on 'the one'.  

I think boys and men are socialized very differently and are trained not to show their emotions in the same way, to date lots of people, not just one exclusively, and are rewarded for many other things in our culture outside of maintaining a relationship.  

You write about the huge correlation between girls who have been in the foster care system and sexual exploitation and trafficking. With the wisdom of all of your experience, do you see some kind of alternative to or possibility for redemption of the foster care system? Why is it so hazardous for girls?

I think there's always the possibility of redemption. Even in New York City, we've seen some major improvements from the way the system was 20 years ago. There's still a lot to do—we know that training workers and parents, reducing caseload size, developing therapeutic foster care, strengthening kinship care, and putting more emphasis into preventive care are all solutions. 

Unfortunately, if a child is in a situation where removal from the home becomes neccessary, there's already been trauma. Putting a traumatized child into a 'system,’ not a home, with strangers is creating a perfect storm for further trauma.     

As a teenage girl, you jumped at the chance to model because, as you write, you would do “anything that will make me feel less invisible.” It occurred to me that so much of your current work is about really and truly seeing the girls that you help. When was the first time, in your journey, that you felt really and truly seen?

That's a really hard question. Probably the time I write about in the book at the conference in Canada [at which Lloyd spoke publicly to other survivors]. I was honest and open with people about my experiences, and because they were survivors, they heard me and saw me and, best of all, accepted me. 

While your story is similar to other victims of exploitation and trafficking in some regards, you were an anomaly in that you had a loving mother for the early years of your life. You write, “those formative years helped lay a foundation and a memory of nurturing that would be instrumental in my own recovery process.” It seems like you’re suggesting that learning to be nurtured is a bit like riding a bike, where you can “jump back on” later if you’ve had the experience in the past, even if it was long ago. Is this right?

I don’t know that you always can get back to that, but it's incredibly hard to develop it later in life if you missed out totally. The studies of feral children show us that without even a little nurturing and love very early in life, there are certain developmental milestones that are totally missed. I'm very lucky to have had the early experiences that I had. 

You write about the infuriating glorification of “the pimp” in our culture, adding that, though the typical image that Americans have in their minds is that of an African American man, it is actually far afield of the reality of who profits off of sex exploitation. Can you set us straight? Who is buying and selling girls and women in America?

Men are buying them. Every age, race, socio-economic background of men are 'johns.’ It's a little more complicated who's doing the selling. The truth is that the average street pimp selling American girls is often a man of color, however, Mexican pimps are selling Mexican girls, Russian men are selling Russian girls etc. Those who profit off the sex industry overall are not the ones who are standing out on the street. They're the owners of massage parlors, escort agencies, strip clubs, and brothels. 

What internal and external factors allowed you to finally leave your exploiter/abuser?

Its a long, involved story but the short version is that it happened in stages and that there was definitely a higher power at work in orchestrating events. He had to leave the country at one point and that gave me a window of freedom that I wouldn't have otherwise had. At the same time, I started going to church and something happened inside me, a conversion experience, that made me want something better for my life and believe that it was actually possible.   

There are some people who work in feminist activism who believe that the conversation about protecting trafficked girls and women sometimes erases female agency. What are your thoughts about that? Do you feel supported by feminists that you encounter?

There are so many different types of feminists that I can say that I feel incredibly supported by some and totally marginalized and scorned by others. The question about agency is really one I try to address in the book and one that deserves more discussion. For me it comes down to whether involvement in the sex industry is about choice or lack of choices. For millions of women and girls globally, it's about lack of choices. Just because you make a 'choice' to work in a brothel rather than let your kids starve, or dance in a club rather than stay in an abusive home, doesn't make it an empowered choice. 

You also write about the euphoria that follows finally leaving, and the difficult period that often follows that euphoria. What does Girls Empowerment Mentoring Services (GEMS), your organization, do to help girls weather the period after the euphoria?

Relationships are the key. Girls connect to the relationships that they build at GEMS, with staff and with each other more than any of the programming we offer. We also prepare girls that that period is coming, that's its totally normal. That’s why its so critical to have survivors on staff, because you need to know it's going to be okay from someone who has made it through already. 

You write, “I realized that it was owning what I’d been through, not hiding it, that had opened the door to real healing for me.” It has also opened the door for real learning for those lucky enough to read Girls Like Us. What is one thing that you hope readers take away from your story, and one action you hope they take after turning the last page?

I hope they can take away just a tiny bit of the love that I have for the girls and women we serve. If people begin to see 'girls like us' as girls like them, we could truly make changes on this issue. I hope, too, that people are encouraged that even if you've been through a lot of pain, you can overcome and heal. It doesn’t have to define you. 

The one action I hope people take, in addition to logging on to the GEMS site and making a donation, is to commit to spending time with a young person in their lives and become a mentor, a supporter, a person of safety. If every girl in the U.S. had one positive, supportive, consistent adult, her life could look very different. 

Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher, and speaker living in Brooklyn. Her latest books include, Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and CLICK: When We Knew We Were Feminists. She is an editor at and a Senior Correspondent at The American Prospect. Read more about her work at
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