Sometimes a book is singled out not just for its writing, but for its topic. Girls Like Us is such a book. The author, Rachel Lloyd, has turned what could have been another “terrible childhood” memoir into both a social commentary and a call to action. Her own story of commercial sexual exploitation and how she made her way out of it is interesting enough in its own right, but Lloyd makes it into so much more by weaving the stories of “girls like her” throughout her narrative.
Lloyd’s main message is a strong one: she contends that teen prostitutes are not criminals or bad girls, but victims of commercial sexual exploitation. She even goes so far as to say that children and young women are being trafficked in this country. She makes her case so well, I came away from the reading of this book with an entirely different view of prostitution.
I took a course on “Sex Work” in college a few years ago where we debated whether or not prostitution was a victimless crime, or even a crime at all. Were prostitutes and other sex workers exploited or empowered by what they did for a living? Some feminists insist that all sex work is a form of exploitation, even a rape of sorts. Others feel that we have put down sex workers far too long and that we should accord them agency to dictate their own lives.
Lloyd has come up with a different perspective and once you’ve read the book you wonder why you didn’t see it for yourself. When a person is tricked, cajoled, and even terrorized into “the life” (of prostitution) the victim is the prostitute herself. And when we’re talking about children, who have not reached the age of majority by a long shot, it’s clear that something is wrong with this picture. All too often these children are victimized not only by their pimps and their johns, but also by the system that should be protecting them: the social workers, police, lawyers and judges who see them as criminals who must be punished for their transgressions.
This book makes it clear, without heavy arguments or specialized jargon, that these girls have much more in common with the rest of us than we would like to believe. They have hopes and dreams and interests like any other children, but they’ve been deceived into thinking that “the life” is going to give them the security, both financial and emotional, that they are so desperately seeking.
When I told an acquaintance about this book, her reaction was that she just didn’t believe that police and the legal system would see these under-age prostitutes as seasoned criminals. I told her that she should read the book. She still insisted that I had to be wrong (meaning that the author had to be wrong).
Her reaction may not be unique. People are so uncomfortable with the underside of life, they would rather assume that those who inhabit it have chosen to live that way. They refuse to believe that fear and violence and self-loathing are powerful determinants. Especially for children.
Twenty years ago I read Savage Inequalities by Jonathon Kozol which was about the horrible conditions in our country’s poorest schools. Almost overnight I became painfully aware of something I would rather have not known about. There was no answer for why we would allow poor children to go wanting for even the basics of a decent life. When I read Girls Like Us, I had the same reaction. How can we look the other way when children are being destroyed daily? How can we allow such a total loss of innocence and potential?
The best part of this book is that the author offers hope, not just to the reader, but also to the young girls themselves. Because this is not just an exposé or expanded article from a socially conscious magazine. This is also a chronicle of one woman who was able to climb out of “the life” and go on to make something of herself. The really amazing thing is that she didn’t stop there. She founded an organization when she was only 23 designed to reach out to young women and children who are caught up in sexual exploitation and to help them, too, to extricate themselves from their (sometimes literal) prisons.
Lloyd doesn’t sugarcoat the process. This is no sunshiny, pie-in-the-sky approach to human redemption. Lloyd’s been there herself and has done this work long enough that she knows exactly how hard it can be. But she refuses to give up. Today she serves as the executive director of her organization, Girls Educational &Mentoring Services, otherwise known as GEMS, and devotes her time to spreading the word about its important work and the work of so many other organizations and individuals who share the same concerns and vision.
I urge you to read Girls Like Us and to visit GEMS’ website. You owe it to yourself as a concerned citizen and a human being. These young women are not “throwaways.” They deserve the chance to remake themselves and achieve their potential. But they need our awareness and our support. Reading this book is an important first step.