Want to make a difference on the issue of sex trafficking? Take everything you saw in the movie Taken and throw it away.
In preparation for her main event — the 2017 Bonnie Jean Kelly & Joan Kelly Distinguished Scholar in Residence Lecture — Rachel Lloyd spent two days on campus beforehand, engaging with and educating the St. Kate's community. In addition to several talks with a variety of classes, events included a luncheon with social work majors and a screening of her documentary, Very Young Girls.
And although many who were able to benefit directly from her expertise were social work students, her message is far-reaching and applicable to all, regardless of discipline.
Lloyd first began her battle against the sex trafficking industry armed with a borrowed computer, a couch on which trafficking survivors could crash, and a closet full of her own clothes for them to borrow — clothes, she adds, that she often didn't get back. Oh, and she had one more thing: her determination.
A survivor of sex trafficking herself, Lloyd is the indisputable proof of the change that one individual can bring about. Hindered by sensationalist imagery like chains and duct tape, the sex trafficking has been popularized as a problem blighting countries on the other side of the globe, and, more than that, as a highly visible and easily recognizable crime.
The reality is far less Liam Neeson-esque and much more chilling.
"That idea of girls being kidnapped and needing a dramatic rescue is not what commercial sex trafficking looks like," Lloyd says. "It looks like homeless and runaway youth, youth who have been in the child welfare system. It looks like overwhelmingly and disproportionately like girls and young women of color who have been marginalized on a variety of levels."
Lloyd founded Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) in 1998, when she was only 23. Over 19 years, she developed it from an enterprise that operated from her kitchen table to a national service provider supporting 450 trafficked girls and young women a year.
In other words, if she can't convince you that one person can make a difference, no one can.
Rachel Lloyd speaks with students at the Kelly Scholar student luncheon. Photo by Michelle Mullowney '17
More than meets the eye
During the two days that Lloyd spent at St. Kate's as the 2017 Kelly Scholar, two staggering pieces of information loomed from the dust she kicked up around campus: the proximity of commercial sex trafficking, and the global interconnectedness of the issue.
Contributing factors such as the misleading "rescue" stereotype, for example, and the decrease of visibility in commercial trafficking due to the internet, lull us into a false sense of security — but if we have to see it to believe it, we're not looking in the right places.
"Stop using the little white blonde girl with duct tape over her mouth and chained to a bed as your stereotypical trafficking victim," Lloyd said during the Kelly Lecture. "We miss the woman in the cubicle next to us who wears sweaters all summer."
Frequently, she explains, victims of sex trafficking find themselves caught because of reasons far more difficult to parse out. Complicated relationships with their trafficker, lack of resources to help them climb out of poverty, apprehension to involve police force in what could become a volatile situation — it all contributes, and it all perpetuates the insidious nature of the commercial sex trafficking industry.
What can we do to help, then, especially those of us who aren't social workers? "Participate in this thing we call a democratic and just society," says Lloyd.
After all, sex trafficking is intertwined with about a million other social justice issues. Direct your efforts toward affordable housing, work for legislation that reaches out to at-risk youth, help drum up funding for nonprofit programs that help — if there are multitudes of factors that contribute to sex trafficking, then there are multitudes of opportunities to work toward progress.
"Right now, I think what's super critical is folks thinking about the pull factors that make young people so vulnerable in the first place, and focusing efforts on that prevention piece early on. That's not as 'sexy' or 'cool,' in some ways, but this work can't be about rescue. It has to be about empowerment; it has to be about providing resources early on and recognizing the resiliency of girls and women who are doing what they need to survive."
— Rachel Lloyd