Imagine, if you need to imagine, growing up in a home with an alcoholic mother, one who swallows pills while you’re right in the room. Rather than ask for help, she encourages your young, teenage self, to go out clubbing, so she, unbeknownst to you, can commit suicide. This is the world in which Rachel Lloyd, author of Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale grows up. Girls Like Us is the best book I’ve read in a quite some time. It’s around 250 pages, but the reading goes quickly, at least if you’re like me, and not sickness nor homework can make you put the book down!
For those of you for whom the name “Rachel Lloyd” does not ring a bell, Lloyd is the founder of the organization GEMS. GEMS assists girls and young women in getting out of “the life,” a term commonly used to refer to time spent in the sex industry. While most of the book focuses on the individual stories, struggles, successes, and relapses, of girls in GEMS, what makes the book so powerful is that Lloyd interweaves her own tale of sexual exploitation and trafficking to make her points clearer. While arguing against the glamorization of pimping, she also explains that girls stay with their pimps for a reason. Indeed, Lloyd asks: why it is that the feminist movement no longer blames women for staying with batterers but still sees women as making a choice to stay with a pimp? She also points out that pimps provide girls with things they desire, including, yes, material things such as food, clothing, and shelter, but also a feeling of home. She describes girls who are found by pimps in the very first hour they get off the train after running away from an abusive family situation. Pimps do not have to provide adolescents and pre-adolescents with much for them to feel cared for. Indeed, one GEMS participant describes going to a “fancy restaurant” for dinner; Lloyd later finds out the restaurant is Red Lobster, a popular chain restaurant in parts of the U.S. This analogy will make sense to anyone who has been in an abusive relationship. Not everything is bad all the time. But eventually there becomes a point where the cons outweigh whatever benefits one is getting from the relationship.
Another concept Lloyd discusses in a brilliant way is that of “choice.” After leaving a mother that could not take care of her, Lloyd ends up spending all day in a German city, desperately attempting to find a job. As she is not old enough legally to work and can only speak a word or two of German, she gets turned down from absolutely every place she looks for work. Without money and desperate for food, she sees a sign that says, Girls, Girls, Girls. This is how Lloyd makes the “choice” to work in a strip club—originally, only until she can earn enough money to go back to her mother–but ends up meeting her pimp, JP, there (75).
Lloyd writes, “For a long time I’ve felt guilty about the way I entered the sex industry.” She has been told straight out that since she was older than most of the girls she works with (seventeen) “obviously you made a choice” (77). This kind of judgment is exactly what survivors fear from telling people outside the life. This is not even to mention how harshly women judge themselves for their choices. Thus, Lloyd tells the young women of GEMS that they need to forgive themselves in order to alleviate their profound sense of shame. Lloyd says to them, “Whatever you thought you had to do to survive or stay alive, it’s okay” (77). She notes that it’s easier to see the girls’ lack of choices as such when looking at them from an outsiders perspective; when looking at one’s own life, it’s easier to say, “why didn’t I do X, Y, or Z?”
Lloyd’s book focuses on underage girls, even though Lloyd herself fights for abolition for all women and prostituted persons. She wonders why there are people–and I have encountered them myself–who think it’s perfectly fine for a 16-year-old to make the “choice” to enter the sex industry, when most parents are wary to give their car keys to a child that age (80)! Even if an adult woman does “choose” to enter the sex industry, there is no way she can know what she is getting herself into, or how she will never quite fit into the square world again. Always, there will be a wall, thin as glass, between her and the outside world.
For example, when Lloyd began working at the strip club, she had no idea this would eventually lead her to JP, who attempts to kill her on several occasions. With a knife at her throat, Lloyd must repeat that she loves JP and will not be unloyal. This begins at 3:14 a.m. and she must continue repeating the words, knife at throat, until 8:30 in the morning (151).
Lloyd describes another near-death experience, when a man she is seeing, Mike, drives her to a ditch in an attempt to murder her. However, she begs him to believe her when she says there is no one else she is seeing, and he “relents”–by making her take her shoes and socks off and run after the car for well over an hour. Lloyd’s feet are covered in blood by the time this exercise is over. Once back on the road with Mike, she runs out of the car and escapes to the police station. The police bring in Mike, but he makes up a story that she likes rough sex, which the male cops believe (122). Notably, there is a woman officer at the station who does believe Lloyd, but this cop is not able to convince the others to arrest Mike. Nor is she able to make Mike give back all of Lloyd’s money which he stole, claiming it is his.
Although Lloyd leaves out many of the details of her time in the life, these stories by themselves are obviously incredibly disturbing. What kind of person could just say “prostitution should be decriminalized” after reading this book? And yet, Lloyd has faced criticism from the left, apparently for being too religious. I find this extremely odd, because Lloyd rarely discusses religion, and certainly doesn’t preach it to her readers. If one actually reads her book, they will see she finds people who care about her in the church community. Thus, making connections at church is one tool she uses on the road to healing and eventually moving forward with her feminist and progressive, passions.
I worry those who read this review will believe it is another incredibly depressing book about sex trafficking. But despite the horrors Lloyd so eloquently articulates, she is not only a survivor, but a thriver. She starts GEMS out of an act of desperation–you’ll have to read the book to find out all the details–but she now is able to provide the kind of support she would have wanted to receive to female youth in NYC.
Oh, and Lloyd writes in her Acknowledgements: Thanks to my mother for supporting me in telling my story. I love you so much and always, and I’m so glad we have the beautiful relationship that we now have. I’m proud of you and thankful you’re my mom. Truly.
It’s nice to know that some relationships can be mended.
- Take Back the Bronx Statement on the Death of Lloyd Morgan
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- Letter from Mike Africa of MOVE
- Review: “Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women” by Victoria Law [#Feminist Friday]
- ‘Shit White Girls Say…to Black Girls’: When Satire Meets Reality [#Feminist Friday]