When we hear about human trafficking in India or Cambodia, our hearts melt. The victim has sometimes been kidnapped and imprisoned, even caged, in a way that conjures our images of slavery.
But in the United States we see girls all the time who have been trafficked and our hearts harden. The problem is that these girls arent locked in cages. Rather, theyre often runaways out on the street wearing short skirts or busting out of low-cut tops, and many Americans perceive them not as trafficking victims but as miscreants who have chosen their way of life. So even when theyre 14 years old, we often arrest and prosecute them even as the trafficker goes free.
In fact, human trafficking is more similar in America and Cambodia than we would like to admit. Teenage girls on American streets may appear to be selling sex voluntarily, but theyre often utterly controlled by violent pimps who take every penny they earn.
From johns to judges, Americans often suffer from a profound misunderstanding of how teenage prostitution actually works and fail to appreciate that its one of our countrys biggest human rights problems. Fortunately, a terrific new book called Girls Like Us, by Rachel Lloyd, herself a trafficking survivor, illuminates the complexities of the sex industry.
Lloyd is British and the product of a troubled home. As a teenager, she dropped out of school and ended up working as a stripper and prostitute, controlled by a pimp whom she loved in a very complicated way even though he beat her.
One of the most vexing questions people have is why teenage girls dont run away more often from pimps who assault them and extract all the money they earn. Lloyd struggles to answer that question about her own past and about the girls she works with today. The answers have to do with lack of self-esteem and lack of alternatives, as well as terror of the pimp and a misplaced love for him.
Jocular references to pimps in popular songs or movies are baffling. They arent business partners of teenage girls; they are modern slave drivers. And pimping attracts criminals because it is lucrative and not particularly risky as criminal behavior goes: police arrest the girls, but dont often go after the pimps. (In fairness, pimping is a tough crime to prove, partly because the star witness is often a girl with a string of prostitution arrests who leaves a poor impression on a jury.)
Eventually, Lloyd did escape her pimp after he nearly killed her, but starting over was tough, and she had trouble fitting in. When she showed up at church in a skirt she liked, four women separately came over to her pew with clothing to cover her legs.
Apparently skirts need to be longer than your jacket, she recalls. Who knew?
Then Lloyd came to the United States to begin working with troubled teenage girls and found her calling. In 1998, at the age of 23, she founded GEMS, short for Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, a program for trafficked girls that has won human rights awards and helped pass a landmark anti-trafficking law in New York State. On the side, Lloyd earned a college degree and then a masters, graduating summa cum laude.
Lloyds story is extraordinarily inspiring, as is the work she is doing. One of the girls she rescued from a pimp later graduated from high school as valedictorian. But Lloyds memoir is also important for the window it offers into trafficking in this country.
Americans often think that trafficking is about Mexican or Korean or Russian women smuggled into brothels in the United States. That happens. But in my years and years of reporting, Ive found that the biggest trafficking problem involves homegrown American runaways.
Typically, shes a 13-year-old girl of color from a troubled home who is on bad terms with her mother. Then her moms boyfriend hits on her, and she ru