Rachel Lloyd is the founder and director of Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS), an organization that helps girls and young women who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking to exit the sex industry, and provides them with the skills and knowledge to move on with their lives. GEMS, which is the largest organization of its kind in the US, was the subject of the gripping documentary Very Young Girls. Lloyd founded GEMS in 1998, “on her kitchen table,” she says, and has since grown it into an essential and influential organization.
Lloyd is a former sex worker herself, and she believes that women who work or have worked in the sex industry should be on the front lines in the battle to prevent girls from being trafficked for commercial sex. In her forthcoming book Girls Like Us, Lloyd tells her own story of how she entered the sex industry, how she left and how GEMS helps other girls and women to get out and make the most of their lives.
It was a distinct honor to speak with Lloyd, a young woman who does crucial feminist and human rights work, and who I personally admire a great deal.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Rachel Lloyd.
Chloe Angyal: How did you come to found GEMs?
Rachel Lloyd: I started GEMS in 1998. I came to the States in 1997, originally working as a missionary with adult women who were coming out of the sex industry, and because of my own experiences, just felt a stronger connection to the younger women. I was 22 at the time, so it just felt like I had more in common with the 15- and 16-year-olds and the 19-year-olds. There were no services for young people in the commercial sex industry, and they were being treated like crap, frankly, through the traditional systems. And because I didn’t know what it would take to start my own nonprofit, I decided to start my own. I’m sure if I had known, it would have scared me more, but in some ways ignorance is a good thing, I guess.
So I started GEMS on my kitchen table, essentially, to provide services for girls, and also to work for real systemic change, in both legislation and in the institutions that were impacting girls. And so, thirteen years later, we’re the largest service provider in the US for domestically trafficked and exploited girls, we serve about 330 girls a year through direct services and then another 1500 through outreach and education. And we have a pretty comprehensive program addressing the holistic needs of girls: counseling, employment, education, healthcare, housing.
Girls Like Us is a book about my own experiences growing up, and then my experiences in the sex industry in Germany, and the correlation between my own experiences and what I’ve seen with the girls over the years. I think that a lot of what has made GEMS successful is my own experience and those connections. The girls feel like I’m somebody who’s been through the same things and really understands. And years ago it was just me, but at this point we’ve got lots of young women and adult women who have come through the program and can offer that peer support.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
RL: My favorite fictional heroine is Scarlett O’Hara. I remember reading that book and seeing the movie when I was younger, and the whole, “By God, I’ll never go hungry again” thing – when I was a teenager, I went through some really rough experiences. There are lots of problems with Scarlett O’Hara, but she has that determination, that will to survive, and ultimately she manages to survive some really crazy experiences. And I think that kind of chorused in my head, “By God, I’ll never go hungry again,” because I have gone hungry, and I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t go through certain experiences again.
In real life, this is going to sound corny, but I’m going to say the young women I work with. I’m continually blown away by their courage and resilience and sense of humor in the face of a lot of adversity. I watch them working at GEMS or working at Footlocker, or wherever they’re at, or raising a kid, or raising two kids, and getting on the subway every day with two small children and going to work, then going to college in the evening. These women who are just hanging in there in the face of adversity, I have a lot of respect for them.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
RL: The story about the girl being raped in Texas, and the New York Times coverage of it. Really? We’re really having this conversation at this point? It was a little mind-blowing to me, really. I think there are things that happen, on a fairly regular basis, that remind you that we think we’ve come a long way on certain issues, but clearly, we just have so far to go.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
RL: Complacency. I think we tend to believe that certain things are just a given at this point, and that we can move on to new battles. And I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think that the crisis of gender-based violence, the epidemic of gender-based violence, has taken such an incredible toll. And I think we have such a long way to go before we really make dents in it. And I think people have really thought that we’re further along than we are. And there’s a kind of boredom, as well, when you start to talk about domestic and sexual violence. There’s a fatigue, I think, and we have to push past those kind of things to get people to wake up and pay attention to the fact that it’s still happening.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
RL: A British roast dinner, Coke Zero, and Gloria Steinem.