HarperCollins, 2012

Not in your neighbourhood, right?

When you think about trafficking, you think of “Thai girls in shackles”, or “Russian girls held at gunpoint by the mob”, or “illegal border crossings, fake passports, and captivity”.

You don’t think of Americans trafficking Americans; that doesn’t happen to American girls.

You don’t think about eleven-year-old girls being trafficked; that doesn’t happen to eleven-year-old girls.

Allow Rachel Lloyd to set you straight.

Not because she is the executive director of GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), although that’s a decent reason too.

But because she has lived that life. That’s what makes her story stand out. And not just to the readers of Girls Like Us, but to the girls that GEMS assists.

One of them explains: “Everyone else, the counselors and stuff, they can be nice, but they had a luv-luv life. You feel me? A luv-luv life, they read about the shit we went through in some book — that’s good ‘n’ all but you lived this shit.”

Rachel Lloyd is educating her readers about the impact of commercial sexual exploitation on girls, but she is also sharing her own life experience.

“It’s different, your life was like ours, some the same, some different but you been there, you feel me?”

Rachel Lloyd’s honest and forthright approach earns her the credibility of her listeners and readers alike.

Girls Like Us opens with an element of her experience, from the near-present. It’s late on a Friday night and Rachel Lloyd is called to a foster care agency to meet a fourteen-year-old girl who has been picked up off the streets.

The author’s writing style is energized and contains enough sensory detail to clearly sketch the scene; the reader meets Danielle right along with Rachel, experiences something of the horror and sorrow along with her when she realizes that Danielle is actually eleven-years-old, not fourteen.

Rachel Lloyd

But if even Rachel Lloyd, who founded GEMS in 1998, is surprised, the reader will likely find this shocking.

Not only do we  tend to think of this as a problem that other countries instigate and perpetuate (thinking across borders, rather than within them), but we don’t understand the complexities of the problem either.

“When we think about children who are sexually exploited in other countries, we acknowledge the socioeconomic dynamics that contribute to their exploitation — the impact of poverty, of war, of a sex industry. Yet in our own country, the focus on individual pathologies fails to frame the issue appropriately.”

This is as clinical as Rachel Lloyd’s tone gets. She goes on to explain the different ways in which we tend to focus on an individual’s situation (often blaming the victim) instead of looking at the bigger picture.

The educational elements of Girls Like Us are interspersed throughout the text, alternating with rich descriptions of case studies (though she never uses that term: for her, these are girls, not case studies),  and glimpses into her own personal experience.

She may not have had a “luv-luv life”, but when she was a young girl, her mother read her stories every night, cuddled with her, and even baked cookies sometimes; she recognizes these experiences as a kind of privilege, a luxury that most of the girls who come to GEMS did not have.

The narrative gradually assembles a collage of moments in Rachel Lloyd’s life which grow increasingly intense. Perhaps because they are her own experiences, perhaps because she has inhabited these specific moments so fully and recounted them so many times across the years: nothing in the work resonates as strongly as the scenes that she pulls from her own life, from her experience in “the life”.

And, so, it is a personal story. Her experience is “some the same, some different” but it can be taken as representative for those who are new to the subject matter and it makes it come alive for the reader.

And, from the personal, it’s possible to spiral outwards, to view the relationships of power that align and intersect. Even a reader new to the subject can trace an understanding of the socioeconomic dynamics that Rachel Lloyd outlines.

“Four hundred years after slavery, pimps and traffickers are using the same lines, the same rationale, the same tactics as their predecessors in the antebellum South. Pimps thrive in American, a country where a modern-day slave system is too often justified and ignored.”

Because as much it is about one woman’s experience, Girls Like Us is also about a systemic injustice that must be identified and redressed.

And as much as it is about what has happened, as important as it is to openly discuss these experiences and injustices, Rachel Lloyd is also writing about what she wants to see happen, about what can happen and should happen in the present-day and in the future.

What makes this work so powerful is the emphasis on the possibilities and potential ahead. Future successes are rooted in the open sharing of these girls’ experiences and in the public understanding that they did not “choose” that life and they do deserve true and vital choices.

Many of them girls experience the same kind of psychological conditions that allow Stockholm syndrome to develop, but they do not always receive the support that they need to heal.

“If an underage victim from Thailand, Ukraine, or anywhere else in the world was found at 2 a.m.  in  brothel in Queens, she was eligible for the services provided and funded by the TVPA [Trafficking Victims Protection Act]. She could be taken to a safe house, given counseling for her trauma, and treated, as she should be, as a victim.”

But, once again, there is a disparity in terms of how girls who have been commercially exploited are viewed.

“If the girl who was found at two in the morning is an American girl, especially a girl of color, she was arrested, charged with an act of prostitution, and taken to juvenile detention.”

And, even if they do receive support, the healing process can be long and frustrating (for care-givers and staff as well as for the girls).

“They’re tired and traumatized and huring and lonely and depressed and scared and to them, missing the life is as normal as breathing. Healing is a messy, complicated process that’s rarely linear.”

Rarely linear: that’s a tactful way of saying that the girls often make repeated attempts to leave “the life” before they are successful in leaving. Rachel Lloyd approaches each girl’s situation fully believing that they will leave this time, although the girls often return to it before trying to leave again. It’s hard to understand, it’s even hard to read about.

“Girls need intense amounts of support, love, and patience. Without someone around to understand and explain that their feelings are a ‘normal reaction to an abnormal situation’.”

And that’s exactly what Rachel Lloyd does. In GEMS, for the girls. And in Girls Like Us for her readers. She acknowledges and illuminates that “abnormal situation” and points the way to something better.

It’s not only worthwhile reading, it’s essential reading for those who want something better for girls.

Rachel Lloyd’s Girls Like Us:
Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale (2011)

HarperCollins – HarperPerennial, 2012 

Please check out other readers’ responses to this book, as many have emphasized different parts of the narrative than I have:

Tuesday, February 28th: Take Me Away
Wednesday, February 29th: The House of the Seven Tails
Thursday, March 1st: Jenny Loves to Read
Monday, March 5th: The Feminist Texican
Tuesday, March 6th: Book Hooked Blog
Wednesday, March 7th: Sidewalk Shoes
Monday, March 12th: Elle Lit
Tuesday, March 13th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Friday, March 23rd: Good Girl Gone Redneck
TBD: Melody & Words
TBD: Books Like Breathing