Rachel Lloyd founded Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS) in 1999. It started off as a one-woman kitchen table project that grew into a national organization, which now provides services to commercially sexually exploited and domestically trafficked youth in the U.S. A victim of trafficking herself, Lloyd was invited to the United Nations to share her story in hopes of helping to end commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. Lloyd stressed the importance of addressing the demand for trafficked humans, especially in the case of sexual exploitation.
Lloyd: I think that there are multiple ways that you can address demand. I think one of the primary ways is that we need to start educating our boys, who then grow up into men, about what purchasing sex from another human being does to that human being, and we need to stop normalizing it and socializing our boys and men to think that this is normal and socially acceptable. And so there is a lot that we could do around that. And then we need to have real policies in place that, not saying that prosecution is always the answer, but I mean right now we know that the women and the girls are the ones who are predominantly prosecuted. That should not be the case. When the men who are buying and selling them tend to get off scot-free and then the victim in the triangle is the one who ends up going to jail consistently in this country and in many other countries that is really problematic and we need to make sure that men who choose to buy sex are aware that there are real penalties.
Moore: Why do you think that the approach so far has not been victim or survivor centered?
Lloyd: Honestly, within the UN?
Moore: Within the UN or the United States, wherever you have the most knowledgebase.
Lloyd: I think that within the UN that there have definitely been discussions about this, but I think some of the voices that tend to get invited to the table maybe have a different perspective, particularly if we are talking about sexual exploitation in the sex industry and so it tends to be folks who are pro-sex work and I think there is a real discomfort about talking about the damage and the harm. That this isn’t empowering and whilst everyone has a right to do what they want to do with their own body this isn’t about peoples rights being validated, it’s about people’s rights being violated. It’s about oppression and exploitation and so I think that there is discomfort around that and I think that it is critical to have voices be in the midst of those discussions. My office is, I don’t know 100 blocks from here, I have like I said 279 girls and young women who are American citizens who have all been trafficked. I haven’t been invited to the UN in 10 years, you know. So I think that is problematic. I think overall we need to begin to change our whole perspective about who victims and who survivors are. That you know we do have intelligence and credibility we have something to add to the discussion. And so I think beginning to A, recognize that people are victims first. If I see the woman on the street, or the child on the street corner or on Craigslist or whatever, as a prostitute as a fallen person, as bad as dirty etc. why would I want them at the table, but if I begin to recognize wow that is somebody who was victimized, that was done to them, they are a human being with lots of things to add to the conversation that begins to shift the dynamic a little bit.
Moore: And so there is this debate between what is the line between a trafficked victim and a prostitute, do you make a differentiation between the two?
Lloyd: I would never say that there is no one in the sex industry obviously who isn’t there by choice. I think, however, that the critical discussion needs to be that this issue is about lack of choices. Even if you are not under the control of a trafficker, generally people don’t grow up wanting to be in the sex industry. You may feel that this is your only option and that is the reality for many women and girls around the world. That poverty and economic security and all the things that women and girls are obviously lacking, there is real gender inequity around, forces them into the sex industry. Whether you you’ve got an adult or a person putting a gun to your head and forcing you, you may be forced by circumstances and so I think that that needs to be part of the larger discussion. My take on this is that if are an adult, number one, if you have economic security already, you have a really great education, you haven’t been sexually abused given that we know 80 to 90% of women and girls in the sex industry were sexually abused, and obviously the damage that that does. If you’re starting out on a level playing field and you choose to be in the sex industry than that’s one thing, but given that that is not generally how that works and those voices don’t tend to be representative of the millions of women and girls around the world for whom this really isn’t about choice.