Rachel Lloyd is the founder and CEO of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, an organization that works with survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking.
Brown Political Review: What do you think are the motivations and causes of commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking?
Rachel Lloyd: Both globally and domestically, I think much of it comes down to poverty. The issue in the United States overwhelmingly impacts low-income kids, primarily kids of color who’ve been in the child welfare system or juvenile justice system and have a history of sexual abuse. We live in a culture that has sexualized youth in many ways. In our culture, gender-based violence is a part of daily life. It’s an epidemic. But I think it’s a disservice to just paint this as bad guys looking to buy little girls. We need to place it in the context of many very vulnerable young people whom we have failed to protect and support and for whom we don’t provide options. And these are the consequences.
BPR: Public officials often cite the Super Bowl as one of largest events of human trafficking in the United States, but you’ve criticized this point of view. Why?
RL: You’ve got to be pretty dense now, as a pimp, to bring a bunch of underage girls right into a city where the Super Bowl is being held. And there are plenty of other conventions and events that are far more low-key and off the radar. You can always make money in the sex industry…With conventions like the Democratic National Convention, or anytime that you have a lot of adult men, particularly transient males that come in with money and liquor, you’re probably going to find an uptick [in trafficking]. But I think the danger in focusing [on one single event] is that we fail to look at what’s happening in every other city on every other night of the year.
BPR: Your organization successfully lobbied for New York to become the first state to pass a law protecting victims of trafficking rather than prosecuting them. What were some of the obstacles you faced?
RL: There was a lack of awareness that [trafficking] was even happening, and a real apathy towards those it was affecting. If we were seeing this happen to upper-class white girls from upstate New York, we would have a different political and social response. So even just getting people to care took a minute. Actually, it took us four and a half years. Everybody was against it in the beginning because of the idea that certain types of young people are inherently criminal. And we see that phenomenon in multiple ways in our politics and our media. I’m incredibly proud of all the young women who were part of those advocacy efforts. Ultimately, people’s humanity began to connect to what they were saying, and we passed the bill.
BPR: The media tends to focus on stories of young girls trafficked abroad as opposed to women within US cities. Why is this the case?
RL: I think we do a good job of pointing a finger everywhere else and at poverty in other countries. When you talk about what’s happening in this country, however, it means you have to accept that some of your decisions have created a culture in which [trafficking and sexual exploitation] can happen. There potentially may be men in your life who are doing the buying. We don’t want to set up a hierarchy of victims, but I think doing so is in some ways hypocritical. The media enjoys stories that are salacious or titillating, ones that they can fit into a very quick segment with flashy graphics and dramatic background footage. I think speaking with complexity about this issue is challenging for people.
BPR: Some women would say that working in the sex industry is actually a statement of female empowerment. How do you view this perspective?
RL: If that is true for you, individually, then that’s a hard position to argue against. That still doesn’t negate the fact that, generally, the sex industry preys on economically disadvantaged children and adult women who are incredibly vulnerable and who have extreme histories of prior sexual abuse and childhood trauma. So while your position may be such that you decided to go into the sex industry, you need to at least be able to recognize that this is just not true for the overwhelming majority of individuals.
BPR: How do you think American political rhetoric is changing around issues of consent? Does this influence your movement?
RL: For every moment where I think, “Okay, we’re coming along on this issue,” there’s a crazy lawmaker who says something insane about rape victims. When [Girls Educational and Mentoring Services] used to go up to the Albany State House, we would walk through the halls and it was all white men in suits. The girls obviously noticed, and it became a lesson in civic participation. Let’s talk about who has power and why they have power. Until we see a bigger shift in who is representing the voices of women, we’re going to be hard pressed to see real progress. And I think that, even around issues of consent and sexual violence, the media still wants good victims. We like victims in neat little boxes.
BPR: How do you see the anti-trafficking movement fitting into other national movements focused on women’s rights? Specifically, how does college sexual assault activism fit with what you do?
RL: It is a different experience requiring a different response, but we’re still talking about a culture where men don’t feel like women have rights over their own bodies. “She’s asking for it” is taken to the nth degree in the sex industry. However, I think there still exists judgment — even within the women’s rights movement — about women in the sex industry. I remember that, years ago, at a sexual violence conference, I realized that my points were being met with a kind of hostility. The notion of, “If we throw a bunch of sex workers in the mix, nobody will take us seriously,” was made clear. Often on campuses, victims are shamed and are not supposed to make a fuss about sexual assault. Now imagine a girl in the sex industry reporting a rape and trying to be taken seriously. I know many women, who, having grown up in a paternalistic, misogynistic society, have internalized sexism of their own.