To say that the energy and passion with which GEMS founder Rachel Lloyd spoke about the glamorization of the commercial sex industry was inspiring would be putting it mildly. Rachel Lloyd, winner of the Reebok Human Rights Award, started GEMS (Girls Educational Mentoring Service) in 1998 as a one-woman outreach effort. As a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation herself, Lloyd felt compelled to act and started the organization in order to reach out to other young survivors. GEMS has since become the largest organization in the country that reaches out directly to American victims of child sex trafficking, empowering girls and young women ages 12-24 who have, according to the GEMS website, “experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking to exit the sex industry and develop to their full potential.”
Pat Mitchell and Rachel Lloyd began the conversation by giving the audience context for the issue. Commercial sex trafficking is a $32 billion industry worldwide and an estimated 800,000 young women are trafficked worldwide, Mitchell told the crowd. And, believe it or not, New York City is one of three key cities where commercial sex trafficking occurs. In discussing vulnerabilities that may lead to a young woman being sexually exploited, Lloyd pointed to components such as a lack of supportive family structures, including previous sexual abuse and poverty, yet raised a somewhat less often cited component: sexualization in the media.
Lloyd pointed to the impact of pervasive images in the media that glamorize commercial sexual exploitation and which stereotype women and girls in the commercial sex industry as great – and greatly underestimated – contributors to the perpetuation of the industry. The film Pretty Woman, which established the idea of the “happy hooker” was one problematic example Lloyd pointed to, as well as the Academy Award winning song “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” which glamorized, and essentially rewarded, pimp culture. The reality of the commercial sex industry, Lloyd explained, is far more violent. Lloyd relayed some stories of the young women she works with, which ranged from survived kidnappings to rape to one particularly horrifying story of a young woman who was forcibly tattooed with a graphic, violent image of a naked woman – essentially, she was branded by her pimp.
But what can we do to stop this exploitation? An essential first step, according to Lloyd, is to start conversations about this industry, to expose the truth. Girls and women are taught not to trust other women, are taught not to open up to them, but such safe, women-centered spaces are key, said Lloyd. Furthermore, to change this culture, we need to talk to those who perpetuate it – we need to talk with everybody from men who harass women on the streets to the writers of shows like Law & Order SVU – as Lloyd did – to educate them and to essentially infiltrate popular culture in order to change the images of the commercial sex trade that they present to the public.
The bottom line, said Lloyd, is that you can’t “save” anybody. What you can do, however, is to empower these young women to move past exploitation. “Girls are resilient,” she affirmed. “You just need to give them an open door.”