Creating a survivor-led national reform movement to change policy and public attitudes around the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
A past victim herself, Rachel Lloyd is fighting the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) by empowering young women to play a role in the larger national movement to end the trafficking of girls in the US. Using a survivor-led model as a new force and a new face for combating sexual exploitation, her Girls Education and Mentoring Service (GEMS) provides intensive support services, promotes the voices and experiences of CSEC victims, and challenges the social stereotypes that make possible the widespread exploitation of American children and youth. At the forefront of the movement to end CSEC in the US, GEMS has already trained thousands in New York State and is now expanded its trainings to Louisiana, Massachusetts, Texas and Colorado.
Rachel is bringing a new and authentic voice to the human trafficking issue---that of the survivors themselves. Not only does this grow the movement, but also the girls themselves, as they take on a significant role in shaping public awareness by speaking to legislative groups, in communities, and to each other, recovering a sense of self-respect in the process and learning life skills that will allow them to move into self-supporting adulthood. Rachel is not only holistically addressing specific trauma in these young lives, but also providing a way for their strength, resilience and capabilities to be used to eliminate the very trap that ensnared them, by engaging them in survivor leadership and in communicating their message to critical players on the national stage.
The UN estimates that 300,000 children and adolescents are the victims of domestic trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation in the United States every year, and the current approach in the US to providing these children the support they need is failing. Initially, families and education programs fail to recognize warning signs of exploitation. Then society quickly stigmatizes them as a prostitute. When a girl runs away or is incarcerated, social service providers blame the victim. Funders fail to recognize the need for resources for this population. Law enforcement, the most prevalent system addressing commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), incarcerates a sexually exploited youth rather than referring her to effective services. And finally, legislators largely overlook the problem. This chain of misplaced and ineffective responses perpetuates the criminalization of youth while failing to address racism, poverty and gender-based violence intrinsic to the CSEC trap for young, low income girls.
Regardless of their age, CSEC victims are still primarily viewed as juvenile delinquents who have chosen to enter the sex industry. The current response to under aged prostituted girls is arrest and detainment, but if a 35 year-old pimp puts a 13 year-old girl on the street and a 50 year old man pays the pimp to have sex with her, it is not reasonable that the person targeted in that triangle by law enforcement is the child, especially given the fact that most girls are exploited for the first time between the age of 12-15. Criminalizing exploited youth, America’s most predominant response to CSEC victims, is also regressive in that it fails to facilitate the girls’ struggle to realize her own inherent self-worth and after having been traumatized and manipulated by adult pimps, the girls learn again with the law enforcement system to distrust society and social programs for help. Arresting and detaining CSEC victims increases their feeling that they are inherently bad, and often the girls will return to their pimps after being released. This cyclical trauma can be enough to prevent a girl from ever speaking out or escaping.
Existing social services available for CSEC victims also fall short of solving systemic problems as they are primarily crisis-oriented and focus on meeting immediate needs as opposed to long-term development. Often these organizations still perceive and portray victims as perpetual victims. The attitude that girls coming out of CSEC are irreparably damaged is only marginally different from the messages from the girls’ pimps, their buyers, and their communities. Given this context, sexually exploited young women are rarely viewed as potential or current leaders and these young women are not only absent from the public debate surrounding them, but actively denigrated and seen as complicit in their abuse.
On a local level, Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS) provides intervention services, such as In addition to crisis intervention, housing, protection and services. In addition, GEMS also provides at-risk girls with skills, tools and opportunities to become empowered and give voice to their experiences, which when amplified, are a powerful force in braking the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Rachel created GEMS as a platform for prevention, intervention and youth development programming, but it also reaches beyond victims to a broader audience through critical outreach and public education, policy advocacy and public awareness campaigning with its trauma-informed model. Rachel has also developed trainings, presentations and consulting to community groups, youth serving organizations and key institutions across the country to connect crisis services to foster care programs, law enforcement, education systems and advocacy groups. Rachel identifies service providers as a vital component of supporting victims and at-risk youth, but seeking only to change this area, she believes, ultimately minimizes the impact that youth leaders and activists can have upon programs, policies, perceptions and systems.
In addition to the localized work of GEMS with victims of CSEC, Rachel is realizing important successes nation-wide through two primary approaches. The first is a national media campaign to shift perception, anchored by a 50-minute documentary called “Very Young Girls,” released in 2008 and featuring non-sensationalized accounts of the experience of childhood sexual exploitation from the perspective of the girls and young women themselves. This piece, crafted largely by GEMS participants, has showed in 8 film festivals, aired internationally on Showtime and On Demand for months, and will be distributed via Netflix in July. As such, it has reached well over 100,000 viewers, and countless more through major media reviews, and thus exemplifies the kind of leadership that survivors can take in changing American attitudes toward CSEC. GEMS also uses more traditional formats of the visual arts and creative expression as public advocacy and education tools, in addition to these innovative survivor-produced and survivor-informed media.
In another of GEMS’ sweeping media campaigns, “Girls Are Not For Sale”, Rachel has lead a strategy to mobilize 100,000 Americans to join the movement against domestic child sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation in America. Rachel rallied a group of staff, board, volunteers and consultants to utilize the film in cultivating an online community of 100,000 subscriber-donors to leverage the “Very Yong Girls” film, as well as celebrity supporters, corporate/media partners and other donors. She also established the Council of Daughters, a national coalition of women actively working to bring GEMS to their local communities and to spark a national conversation about the role of American men in both the rise of sex trafficking and the movement against it. Each element of this campaign is strategically designed to support the tenets of GEMS’ mission, to empower survivors to provide leadership in the movement against CSEC and to address the multiple interrelated issues that affect children and youth.
He second major prong in Rachel’s strategy is legislation. She designed a significant piece of legislation called the “Safe Harbors Act,” which passed in 2008 in New York State and serves as a model legislation for adoption by other states. The Act requires that children found in the industry be treated as victims, not as criminals, by law enforcement agencies and by courts. The passing of this state law foreshadows a sea change in perception that Rachel hopes to see spread across the country, as people who buy sex learn how their actions may devastate minors, law enforcement agencies and the courts assume the role of protector not assailant to the girls, and survivors find a voice that is strong, united, and ultimately healing.
It’s important to note that Rachel also sees GEMS and its constituents as important political advocates, and she worked side by side with them in lobbying for and passing this unprecedented bill. As survivors of CSEC hear their own voices building roads for other at-risk young women and making tangible impact, the wounds that most of society considered irreversible begin to heal.
These national campaigns have evolved upon the foundation of Rachel’s impact in New York State, where she began her work. Having come to be at the forefront of the movement to end CSEC in the United States, GEMS has garnered national recognition for its work and is seen as a leading resource. Rachel designs customized trainings for organizations and institutions looking to provide their staff with the knowledge and tools to understand and address CSEC. Maintaining the core mission of Rachel’s initial program, these trainings are designed to bring a human face to the issue and to challenge and address the stereotypes of victims, to train youth workers in creative, effective, gender-specific programming, and to assist service providers and professionals who come into contact with at-risk youth in identifying signs of exploitation and train them to intervene and assist girls and young women in their healing and recovery. Past and present clients include the New York State Office of Children and Family Services and The Massachusetts Department of Social Services. Having already trained thousands regionally, GEMS has now expanded its trainings to Louisiana, Massachusetts, Texas and Colorado, where programs have changed perceptions, enhanced knowledge and developed new skills in the participants.
When Rachel was a child she fought for the underdog, which in many cases was herself. Driven by a strong sense of moral justice, Rachel navigated the world as a mixed race child of a single mother in England, and while the family struggled financially, Rachel was able to attend private schools on scholarship. During her time at private school she was faced with strong racial prejudices and felt like an outcast, battling both the administration and her peers for the kind of treatment that she knew she deserved. Rachel was different in other ways, aside from her mixed-race background. She was among the few young people who knew it was important to challenge the authorities and the status quo where they seemed unjust. The same unique qualities that got her in trouble as a child have become integral to her power as a social activist, leading thinker and political advocate later in life.
Rachel dropped out of school when she was 13 years old and looked for work to support herself and her alcoholic mother. Rachel went through restaurant and factory work before finding herself working “in the life” on the streets. There, she experienced the social injustices and degradation of commercial sexual exploitation and the struggle for survival. She sought escape in drugs and alcohol, but when those were not enough, Rachel found the strength to leave London. She moved to Germany when she was 17 in an effort to change her life, only to end up back on the streets. After traumatizing experiences with a pimp, Rachel found refuge in a church where she later lived, worked and began her process of recovery.
On her own, with a tenacity that would continue to define Rachel’s personality, she emigrated to the United States and six months after her arrival, she was selected to attend the first international summit of sexually exploited youth. With a group of survivors, she drafted the summit’s declaration and agenda for action, which she later presented at the United Nations and which was ratified by 120 countries. This experience transformed her as Rachel saw the power of youth survivors in action. Less than a year later she founded GEMS on her kitchen table. During the startup phases of her organization, Rachel went back to school, first completing her GED, then a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and finally a Master’s degree in urban anthropology. As she had found the strength to transcend the boundaries of those neighborhoods that held her in captivity in London and Germany, she found a vehicle for lasting change in both others’ lives and in the changed system that is now taking root in the United States.
Rachel’s passion and drive to stop the sexual exploitation of children comes from her own intimate knowledge of the problem. Her strategy grew from her own experience as a youth-survivor and leader, and her own growth continues to build roads for the empowerment of thousands of child survivors. “In these girls I see so much untapped potential hidden beneath layers of abuse and pain,” Rachel says. She devotes years to building a relationship with various girls who are in danger of returning to CSEC, and she will devote her lifetime to changing the system that makes CSEC possible.