Statistics and news reports show it’s a dangerous world. Each year brings more and more stories of how girls everywhere are bought, sold, and traded with little thought to their personhood. But even though I understand that sad reality on a cognitive level, Girls Like Us, a gripping memoir by Rachel Lloyd, made me truly, deeply understand it for the first time in the pit of my stomach. With tears in my eyes.
Never before has a book made me feel so ill at ease, so angry. Yet learning about Lloyd, her history and the work she does every day, also filled me with joy and hope that someone out there truly is fighting for justice. Rachel Lloyd is the Founder and President of GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), and Girls Like Us is her story.
Lloyd tells of her own childhood filled with abuse and alcoholism and her encounters with violence, murder, drugs and suicide attempts. And she takes us to the New York City headquarters of GEMS, as 12, 13, and 14 year old girls entangled in “the life” are brought to her for help in the middle of the night. Girls hardened beyond their years, victims of sex trafficking in the Land of the Free, who have nobody fighting for them.
Lloyd sees herself in these young women. And she shows just how much work still remains to protect them.
One-word chapter titles give a taste of what lies ahead. In “Learning” “Risk” and “Family,” she explains what kind of children are most at risk. She outlines the factors that lead to their choices and often knowing involvement in the sex industry. In “Recruitment” “Pimps” “Johns” and “Victims” – she reveals a full and terrifying picture of the dirty, bloodstained realities of “the life.”
With each chapter, my heart got a little heavier. By the time I reached the “Cops” chapter, I couldn’t decide whether to weep or scream with each new page (over the course of the book, I did both).
Lloyd is gracious in her empathy and understanding, but she is also not afraid to call out deficiencies, hypocrisies, and discrimination embedded in society.
This is the real heart of the book. How government and law enforcement around the world, but particularly in the United States, fail victims every day. How victims are sent to prisons instead of safe houses. How abusers are believed, instead of the bleeding, sick abused. How victimised young white women are fought for and mourned, but 14-year-old women of color are treated like hardened criminals who deserve everything that’s happened to them.
Girls Like Us is without a doubt the most brutal book I have ever read; it made me want to do something drastic. And I know, it’s 2016. Everyone is a champion for social justice. Everyone is reading and writing about children caught in sex trafficking. This isn’t the newest or flashiest book about the subject.
But it was incredibly personal for me. I think of my little nephews, just seven and eight years old. I want to help them grow up to be men who listen to these kinds of stories, who read books like this one. I want them to be men who refuse to buy children for sex.
Thinking about their future, thinking about the future of the girls in this book, makes me want to be a better aunt, a better role model, a better teacher and friend. It reminds me to believe survivors. It reminds me to help, encourage, feed, and listen.
Reading Girls Like Us didn’t give me all the answers for how to do those things. I still don’t know the perfect ingredients for building a better world. But it definitely made me renew my promise to never stop trying.