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, “The 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?
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.
But in the spirit of finding a solution, we should all feel empowered to wrestle constructively with this issue. Let’s hear more from young women of color who have been exploited. Let’s hear some opposing views to Lloyd’s program model. Let’s have an honest discussion about the potential harm that faith-based approaches do to individual women in an effort to “save.” We can be both engaged and critical. In fact, we must be.