The Rumpus Interview with Rachel Lloyd

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Fourteen years ago, after working as a victim’s advocate for underage girls held as adults at Riker’s Island prison, Rachel Lloyd started the Girls Education and Mentoring Service (GEMS) in New York City—a shelter and resource center for American girls recovering from commercial sexual exploitation.

Lloyd’s mission grew out of her own experience as a child in England. She didn’t just survive abuse and exploitation; she grew up, got herself to America, and took on the system, working to expose the issues that contribute to the crime while empowering girls who got out of “the life.” Her voice and the voices of the girls she works with have helped pushed the United States legal system on the right track toward advocating for minors forced into prostitution instead of criminalizing them. Lloyd talks about how laws are only a small part of the battle, about what pro-sex workers and anti-trafficking advocates both have to learn about the realities of exploitation, and about what we can do for vulnerable kids to make a real difference in their lives.

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The Rumpus: Your book, Girls Like Us, is memoir—it’s your journey from survival to advocacy—but it’s also a larger look at the crime of commercially sexually exploited children and the psychology of what makes that crime possible. When did you see this as a book? At what point did you say, “I’ve got to put this experience on paper”?

Rachel Lloyd: Honestly, I can remember—there’s a scene in the book where my pimp at the time puts on gloves and dusts the house for prints [and I realize he’s going to kill me]. I remember him smashing my head into the concrete a bunch of times, and thinking, wow, I actually saw stars; that’s like Tom & Jerry. And I remember thinking, weirdly: That’s a good line. If I live through this, I need to write this down. I need to remember this, and I need to write it. I think that was always in my head. And then over the last few years, as I’ve been doing this work and telling my story in a way that is somewhat helpful for other people, I began to think: how can I do this in a way that’s going to reach more people than just the folks who are in the room today?

Rumpus: So your story is powerful in your day-to-day work at GEMS, too. The fact that you’re a survivor is part of what drives your daily work, is that right?

Lloyd: Yeah, I think when I was first talking to a publisher about doing this book, I really did not want to do a memoir. I wanted to do a polemic, actually, because I was really worried about—I feel like I’ve fought very hard to be taken seriously outside of my story, and to be seen as an executive director and an advocate and somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about from a larger systemic perspective and psychological perspectives. It’s very easy as a survivor to get reduced to your story over and over again. So I didn’t want to write about my story; I thought I’ll do that in another book. This book, I really wanted to do a smart book that’s like polemic-y and academic.  And as I sat down to write, I thought: How did I learn about this and what was my journey? And that’s what ended up coming out. I realized I didn’t need to prove that I was smart to people. [laughs] You know what I mean? That was my own shit that I needed to work through. But it was important for me to be able to hold my own, to write the psychological aspects and the historical stuff, and the polemic-y stuff, and the political stuff.

Rumpus: How do you think your relationship to your story helps other girls relate to their own stories?

Lloyd: We work really hard with the girls around this, how to facilitate workshops without ever mentioning your story. We want them to have the skills and not just get pegged into this box of “this is all I’m good at, just reiterating my story over and over again.” With the girls, I run a weekly group. In last night’s group, I said some stuff that was particularly relevant to what a couple of the girls were talking about. But when I’m training law enforcement or when I’m doing advocacy work or whatever, I try not to bring that up all the time, because you want to be seen as a person outside of that, and as a professional. That’s what we teach the girls, that you’re a survivor but you’re more than a survivor. You don’t have to be defined by that.

Rumpus: That’s interesting, because you’ve brought a lot of the girls with you on the legislative journey, too. And that’s a piece that really amazed me reading the book and learning about what you’ve done—that it’s not just about getting out of the life or getting your shit together. That’s great, but you’re empowering these girls beyond where most women are empowered. What’s that like for them? How do the girls feel about stepping out in front of the New York Legislature? What’s that experience like and what does it give to them?

Lloyd: I think on some levels, and particularly in the early years when we were first doing it as a group and trekking up to Albany, I think there were parts that could be really scary. I think, winning Safe Harbor, while it was half the battle—legislation is critical but it’s not the only thing that makes a difference—I think it sent the message to the girls that their voices matter, that they won against a lot of opposition: the D.A.’s office, the criminal justice court and the mayor’s office. It felt at one point like the entire state was against us. Frankly we would go up to Albany and the girls were like, “Oh, it’s all white men in suits.” And I was like, “Yes, let’s talk about that, and why it looks like that, and what power looks like in this country.” It was a civic-participation lesson in action. We had some really, really interesting meetings and conversations. We were in a meeting once with about six people in the room and there was a guy—the only person he would speak to no matter who spoke was the white lawyer in the room. And the other five of us—survivors and women of color—he wouldn’t speak to anyone else in the room. So, as much as the legislative victory was great, in the larger scheme of things having a group of young women—particularly young women of color, particularly low-income young women, who’ve been totally marginalized across the board, not just as girls who’ve been in the life, but just period, right?—having them be the primary advocates on this bill, and then win!? That’s the victory, in and of itself.

Rumpus: That’s amazing, for them to recognize that as their accomplishment.

Lloyd: Last year I went down to DC with one of my young women who was 20, and who’d been part of the Safe Harbor advocacy for years. We were doing a congressional briefing, and, you know, it’s Congress and it’s a big deal and we’re in DC and we’re in the capital. And I’m like, “Are you nervous? We’re a little bit nervous, right?” And she’s like, “No, not really. I’ve been doing this since I was 14.” And I was like, geez! How awesome that it feels normal to her. You know what I mean? There are young people in this country—you know, there are privileged young people, a minority of young people—who feel like, “Oh, I can walk into halls of power and I have the right to say whatever I want.” And here’s this young woman from Brownsville who feels like, “I get to talk to legislators and congress-people!” We ended up going to the White House. We met Biden, and she talked Biden’s ear off. And Obama walked in, and she talked to Obama. She was pretty excited. That experience for her is part of what she’s grown up with now. So I think for a lot of girls—and there’s a group of girls who I think helped blaze the trail—having me along as a survivor and telling my story, and learning what bits to hold back, and how to do this, has been helpful for a lot of the girls. Now I think we’ve got a history and it’s normalized and it’s just kind of what GEMS does.

Rumpus: So you’re a model for them—a survivor who can walk forward into these groups and not have fear, or have fear and do it anyway. There are so many moments in your book that just knocked me out or made me see something through your eyes or through new eyes, or with a better understanding. You wrote about one of the moments when you were in the Oval Office signing ceremonial legislation and a lobbyist insulted you. What was that moment like? What was going on there?

Lloyd: I was so angry and so hurt and taken aback. I mean, it’s the freaking Oval Office! Right? Like, you’ve come a long way, too! We’re all in the Oval Office right now! It’s a big deal for any of us. You know, not every moment in my life am I thinking: Oh, God! Sixteen years ago I was getting smacked in the face by a pimp! I don’t measure my life like that. I enjoy the moments I have. And there has been a fair amount of years. I was just nervous, and there’s Bush, and so you’re thinking, frankly, a bunch of stuff about Bush and the Oval Office, and I’m touching the desk and then I’m like, okay, Obama’s gonna be here! It was 2008 when everyone was very, VERY excited about Obama. So there was just a lot of stuff going through my head, and for him to take it there… We were literally having a very loud whispered argument about seven feet away from the President, and pretty much everyone in the room realized something was going on. I mean, I cried the whole way home.

Rumpus: What was so amazing about it on the other hand was how it showed that you had this new understanding of your boundaries. Whereas sixteen years earlier, you perhaps didn’t know your physical or emotional boundaries, here you are in the most stressful position, and you were like: The hell you will talk to me like that. You know? And that to me was what was really amazing—that you had come that far and nobody was gonna cross that line.

Lloyd: But it hurt. It really did hurt. I mean, it didn’t hurt for weeks. I was able to talk some trash about him within twenty-four hours, and laugh about it. And it makes for a great story in the book. But with the girls, it’s been really important to be able to say and be honest about what you want. Because our leadership and our empowerment isn’t just about being in this movement. It’s whatever you want to do. If you want to be a manager of Macy’s. It’s whatever that leadership looks like for you. And whatever empowerment and economic empowerment looks like in your life. I want them to be able to succeed in whatever they want to do. And not for everybody will that be this movement or this field. And maybe for some girls it will be a certain time period and they’ll move on and do other stuff. And they’ll be a handful of girls who for them this is really what they want to do.

Rumpus: You talk about how you process the way you look back on all this. What were the most difficult parts when you were writing? Were there places that you said, I’m not even going to go there? Or did you feel like you were able to get it all out, and what was that like? How was the writing process in terms of reliving a lot of that psychologically?

Lloyd: I think the two hardest parts were really my mother, and being very thoughtful about what I wanted to put in there. I have a very good relationship with my mother now, in the last few years. And we have worked really, really hard to find healing and peace and forgiveness. I just spoke to her before I talked to you. We talk every day. That’s been a beautiful thing in my life, to have that finally. I did not want to destroy that again. There was stuff I wrote that didn’t end up going in. And I think I was really conscious about—that was probably the area I held back. Because it’s not just about me at that point. It’s about somebody who is alive, and who cares what is said. I tried to be fair and honest. So there was that part. And then the other piece was the Johns piece. That was definitely the hardest to write and the hardest to leave in. Because it’s one thing to talk about, “Oh, I was in the life. Oh, I was sexually exploited. Oh, I’m a survivor.” But what you’re not saying when you say that is, “I had sex and did sexual things with men for money.” There’s something about talking about that part of it that’s really hard. So the thought about, like, who’s going to read this; this will be out there forever. That part was hard. But to not address the demand side, to not address the buyers, would have done such a disservice to the issue, and to the girls. So that’s where you weigh out the larger responsibility to the field and the work, between what you consciously would want to have out there. It was just one of those things I had to suck up. But it’s really hard. Once you put that stuff out there, it’s out there.

Rumpus: That’s what I was thinking, too. People must think, “Oh, she published a book, she’s fine with it!” But it’s still your experience. You lived all those feelings. That’s something you still own.

Lloyd: But then, not, right? You do, and you don’t. There’s a level that you give up when you put a book, any type of memoir, out there. You’re giving up a lot of that right to say, well, this is my stuff. Now people feel like they own it, people feel like they know you in a way that they absolutely don’t. And there’s some good stuff around that. I’m not knocking that people feel like, Oh I had that experience, or something similar, and I feel connected. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s the gift part of it. But then there’s that not-so-cool, weird part of it, too.

Rumpus: Well, that you’re exposed again. It’s like a double exposure.

Lloyd: Yeah.

Rumpus: I also want to talk about one of the aspects of your book that I really connected to. I haven’t lived experiences like yours, but I feel like I recognized a lot of bad boyfriends in your book. And I also have someone very close to me who was raped as a teenager and ran away from home, and luckily didn’t get victimized further—she made her way home. But what really moved me in your book was the idea that girls who end up on the street, girls who end up victimized by a trafficker, they’re really looking for love. They want to be loved. That part of it—the psychological understanding of it, for me, really shifted. People traditionally think of girls who go through this as girls who make bad choices; they’re not very smart, or they’re getting something out of it; they’re getting money out of it. That they should take responsibility for their behavior and they should be punished. But you really illuminate why punishment is a bad idea. And that there’s something going on here where the girls don’t even know they’re victims. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Lloyd: Yeah, there was a point where I was writing and my editor said, “You have to remember, you’re not writing for your girls [at GEMS]. You’re writing for a general audience.” And I said, “That’s the thing: I’m writing for an audience predominantly of women, one in three of whom will have experienced sexual abuse or domestic violence. And if they haven’t, they know someone who has. So, I actually think this is going to translate in a way that maybe you don’t think it will right now.” And it has been incredibly gratifying to be right about that. We’re all on different places on the continuum. Just because we haven’t been exploited in the commercial sex industry doesn’t mean we haven’t been in a situation where some dude was treating us like shit, and we kept going back, or our girlfriend was going through it. We’ve all had those types of experiences, or watched women that we love, or girls that we love go through those experiences. So what’s been really gratifying is to have a lot of women email and say, I didn’t have this experience, but I could see myself in bits of this, or I could see parts of my experience, or I could see how easily given the right set of circumstances when I was 15, 16, if I had met a pimp at that point, I would have totally been in the life because that’s what I was looking for.

Writing the book, I was very, very conscious about women. Because if it’s just my story—I mean, there are other books about women being in the life or whatever. Other than memoir. There are lots of memoirs, period. Just writing a memoir about my experience frankly isn’t that illuminating to people. But I’m responsible for what I put out there about girls. My whole career has been about getting people to see our young women—who are awesome and precious and wonderful—to see them as real people, people, girls who are looking for love and ultimately how deep their desire for family is.

Rumpus: That seems enormously important: the role and responsibility of family in a child’s life.

Lloyd: We were just in group last night and one of the girls was saying, “…and that’s why I went with him. Because I thought for the first time that I was important to somebody. Somebody actually cared about me.” That’s a story we hear over and over and over again. I think people can relate to that. That need. Particularly when you’re a young person. Particularly when you’re a teenager who hasn’t experienced that from family and a support system. That idea that girls are just lazy or they want designer clothes [laughs]—all these bullshit ideas people have about girls and young women in the life, when it really comes down to some very, very basic, core needs that all of us have. That hopefully are being met in really healthy ways, or even semi-healthy ways—but for the girls we serve are being met in these incredibly distorted, fucked-up, exploitive ways. But they’re being met. That’s the thing. That’s why you stay—because it does feel like an approximation of love. Do you know what I mean? If you don’t know what love looks like, well, this shit is as close as I’ve ever gotten.

Rumpus: Right, and a sense of belonging.

Lloyd: And of being good at something. And being validated for being good at something. And having attention. And freedom, but not really freedom. All these things that are packaged in normal basic human needs, that pimps and exploiters take total advantage of, and twist into something else.

Rumpus: I was amazed, a few weeks ago, there was a profile of a woman in the New York Times, who is a 52-year-old prostitute.

Lloyd: Oh yeah, I saw that.

Rumpus: Which was a beautiful character profile. It was so respectful. I loved that. But there was a quote where she said, “I never worked for a pimp for protection.” And that really struck a strange chord with me—the idea that she would describe a pimp as someone who protects you. Because my first immersion into the trafficker mind was your book. So there is a sense that pimps are perceived as protectors, and maybe in that world they protect you to some extent, but it’s not for your own protection. What was your reaction?

Lloyd: There were a lot of people who were like, You’ve got to respond to this article! It was an individual character profile. Can I come back at her and say, “Sweetheart, honestly, I know that this is not the way that you are portraying it”? Can I, in fairness, put that out there? Absolutely not. That’s disempowering. That’s one of the challenges in the anti-trafficking movement; I see us more as a girls’ empowerment organization than an anti-trafficking organization. I think that’s one of the challenges between the pro-sex-work community and the anti-trafficking abolitionist folks, not always being able to respect people’s individual experiences.

Rumpus: We have a lot of people who are sex workers who read and contribute to our site. We have a columnist, Antonia Crane, who’s amazing, and she’s been an adult sex worker, and our editor-in-chief Stephen Elliott is a former sex worker. So I’m curious if you could talk about the difference between the idea of sex work as empowerment and ownership of your body and choice, versus trafficking, which is obviously not choice. I wonder how one thing influences the other, or if you feel like they’re more disconnected.

Lloyd: Yeah, I’m happy to talk about that, and I talked about it a little bit in the book. I think there are some real challenges in finding common ground around this. And I am very careful. Are there women for whom the experience looks empowering? Yes. Can I argue with that? No. I think that’s where we as—I’ll put myself in the abolitionist, prostitution-is-violence crowd, movement—I think that’s where we can end up doing ourselves a disservice, and shutting people down. Because if somebody gets up and says, “I’m a sex worker and this is empowering for me.” And we’re like, “NO IT’S NOT!” You can’t argue with somebody’s individual experience, can you? You can say, “Maybe that’s true for you. Here’s the vast majority of women for whom this is not true.” And I think that’s the challenge. And on the flip side, I’ve seen sex work advocates absolutely dismiss the idea that there are underage girls involved. The amount of pimps that might be involved. The amount of violence that might be involved. That’s not helping the issue either, being so intent that everybody’s empowered—hell no they’re not. The vast majority of women who talk about sex work in an empowering way are generally not low-income, women of color, women for whom this was the only option. And that’s the thing: if you’ve got other options when you get in, then you’ve got other options to leave. It doesn’t look like that. We don’t quantify this just as: it’s bad if a pimp is involved and if it’s trafficking. If I’ve got a 19-year-old girl or a 23-year-old young woman who is working in a club and she grew up in foster care, and she was abused by her family, and maybe she had a pimp for a couple of years, and now she doesn’t, and she’s been homeless, and she’s got a kid, and she can’t afford child care, and there’s no affordable housing in New York, and then—this is not empowerment. Even though she’s not being trafficked, the industry is still exploiting her. To me, that’s the reality of who ends up in the industry. The numbers. Sex work advocates can argue about numbers and we can all go back and forth on that. And I don’t think the anti-trafficking movement has always helped itself in terms of some of the numbers we’ve put out there, or the way the issue gets presented. There’s been enough studies that talk about the links between prior sexual abuse and entry into the sex industry. The amount of women who end up in the sex industry who were sexually abused prior to entry. Who grew up in domestic violence households or substance abuse households. Trauma in childhood, and then you end up in the sex industry. I mean, if 80 percent of writers were sexually abused as children, we’d be like, “Whoa! That’s a high correlation! There’s something about the writing field that is really damaging!” But we can’t say that about the sex industry? That’s problematic. The sex industry does not make its money and do well, and stay a billion dollar industry off of a bunch of adult, college-educated, empowered white middle-class women. It doesn’t. That’s not how it’s able to sustain its billion-dollar industry worldwide. It’s making its money off the backs of girls from Brownsville who were in the foster care system. And women who live in Hunt’s Point who are drug-addicted. And women in Calcutta who were sold when they were twelve. And women in the Ukraine who have absolutely no other options. That’s who’s being impacted globally. Are there a handful of women for whom this looks different? Cool, great. Let’s not argue with you. Let’s talk about the systemic issues of poverty and racism and classism and sexual abuse and family abuse and all the things that make young people and adult women—unaffordable housing and childcare and lack of education and inequity—all the shit that makes people vulnerable.

Rumpus: It can feel overwhelming to people, and it’s true. I feel like you’re hitting right at the center of it: it’s the choices you have that can protect you from exploitation. One of the things I felt right when I closed your book was: I want to do something. But I didn’t know what to do. I can give a donation. I can interview you—and I feel lucky that I have a platform where I can do that. What do you recommend when the average person says to you, “How can I even touch this? How can I even do something small to make a difference, or what if I wanted to do something big?” What do you tell people?

Lloyd: I think there are a million ways that people can get involved. People can feel very overwhelmed by the scope of the issue, and then feel like there definitely isn’t a way that they can do anything. What we’ve seen over the years, especially if you’ve seen our documentary Very Young Girls—about 4 million people have seen it, which is unbelievable—is that people just begin to have a different perspective, and share that perspective.

Whether it’s encouraging people to read the book, watch the film, talk about it, change their language about it. We have seen in the last few years—and I’m not saying that GEMS has been solely responsible for this, but I know that we’ve played a big part in watching people begin to change their language, change their perceptions. People read an article in the news now that’s like Teen Hookers! and they’re like, “Oh, I’m going to write a letter to the editor because that’s not really a helpful way of talking about girls in life and that’s not accurate.” Seeing examples of the glorification of pimp culture and people actually standing up to that. People downplay how important just awareness and conversation and dialogue and changing perception is. Any social justice movement in this country or globally—we can do legislation and we can do programs—but the big piece is really about social change. If you think about, like, drunk driving and just how different our perspective was 30, 40 years ago. And now, on New Year’s Eve, on Facebook all these people are like, don’t drink and drive! Don’t drink and drive!

Rumpus: Right, that they even care to say something.

Lloyd: And people will take people’s keys, and encourage people to get in cabs. I mean, have we ended it? No. But people see it very differently socially now. So I think we’re beginning to get there with this issue. I mean we’ve got a long way to go. I think figuring out what’s happening in your local community around women and girls is important. A lot of people come to us, like, “I want to work with a trafficked child!” Okay, well, not everybody’s going to get to do that. But it would be awesome, too, if you were figuring out where in your community there might be girls—like, prior to [harm] happening to them—that you could have an impact on them so maybe that doesn’t happen to them. Mentoring. Big Brother, Big Sister. Thinking about ways that you can be a supportive, healthy, consistent adult in the life of a young person. If we’re saying that that’s what the vast majority of what young people are looking for—which is true—then how do we offset that by providing options for consistency and love and support for young people in our communities? How do you help people begin to make connections between this and other social justice issues? If you are an anti-poverty activist or if you are involved in education reform or child welfare reform or community revitalization or whatever that looks like—how do you begin to tie this issue back in, and help people see all of this as being interconnected? This isn’t what has happened in the anti-trafficking movement in the last couple years—it’s quite frankly a sensationalized perspective of this, that it’s very much, “Bad man! Poor little girls!”

Rumpus: Right, that’s so true.

Lloyd: And that’s helpful for getting people’s attention, but not much more than that. So being able to help people see this as the heart of much larger systemic issues, and then working on those things. If you’re working on anti-poverty efforts, you’re working against the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Do you know what I mean? You don’t have to go out and rescue a trafficking victim to have an impact on young people and young women and the lives of folks who are exploited and marginalized.

Rumpus: Absolutely. It’s very encouraging.

Lloyd: Talking to men about this issue, and sharing the book with men in your life. Having conversations with men about “Have you ever bought sex?” “What are your reflections on that experience?” “What do you think that experience was like for the other person?” These are hard conversations to have, but critical. Talking to your boys and sons and young men in your life about what they’re seeing in the media in terms of women’s bodies and intimacy and masculinity and gender equity and all those things. That’s how we raise healthy young men to see women as equals and not see them as dogs to be purchased.

Rumpus: I have two sons, and my big thing was talking to my teenage son about what consent means. Just consent. And this started with another New York Times story about a really young girl in Texas who was raped. And it blew my mind that lot of young guys don’t know what it means for a girl to say yes or no. And why that’s so incredibly important. I treasure your perspective—it helps me as a parent. And your book made me feel like raising a stable family is an act of advocacy.

Lloyd: It is, right? It is, if we were all doing that, or even if you’re not a parent. If you’re finding young people who you can support and love and pour into and tell them how awesome they are every day. And for somebody who isn’t going to be as vulnerable, to just keep on showing up and doing the same thing. Healthy young people come from healthy families and healthy communities. I think if we just focus on legislation and “Let’s arrest the pimps!” it just becomes, “Oh my God! Slavery!” We lose the common sense stuff around this issue.

Rumpus: Rachel, I can’t thank you enough. You’re my superhero. I just want you to know that.

Lloyd: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Rachel Lloyd’s book, Girls Like Us, is available in hardcover and paperback.


Julie Greicius is a writer and editor based in California. Follow her on Twitter. More from this author →