In New York City, an estimated 2,200 children become victims of sex trafficking each year. The average age when these children enter the commercial sex industry is just 13 years old. While many Americans believe that sex trafficking involves girls and women from other countries, the reality is that many trafficking victims in the United States are young American girls. Of these girls, 80-90% come from broken homes and have experienced sexual and physical abuse. Most of them are females of color— African American, Asian, and Latina.
Regardless of whether a girl enters the sex industry willingly, any commercial sex act performed by a person under 18 years of age is considered human trafficking. According to Rachel Lloyd, the founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), the most common reason why young girls enter the commercial sex industry is not because they are desperate for money, or because they lack the intelligence to make better choices. They become sex workers because they are seeking the love, attention, and validation they never received from their families. It is common for pimps to lure girls who are on the run from broken homes and appeal to their need for love and fatherly affection. Lloyd explains that the relationship between a girl and her pimp may be the closest thing to love she has ever experienced. She may enter into the sex industry feeling that, for the first time in her life, she is important to someone and she is good at something.
Lloyd, herself a former victim of child sex trafficking, founded GEMS in New York City in 1998. Each year, GEMS serves as a shelter and resource center for approximately 350 girls and young women who are recovering from sexual exploitation. The organization offers short-term crisis care, as well as transitional housing that provides longer-term supportive care. GEMS’ philosophy is that girls should not be treated as passive victims, but capable survivors. The organization emphasizes self-empowerment by instilling in each girl the belief that her life need not be defined by past experiences. Programming is designed to incorporate the ideas and input of survivors so that they may develop a sense of agency and accountability.
With a focus on higher education, GEMS provides financial incentives for girls and young women to pursue educational opportunities and employment training. Each girl is provided with individual assistance to pursue her personal goals. GEMS’ innovative approach to empowering domestic victims of child sex trafficking has created a nationally replicable model of economic independence.
Another important component of GEMS’ programming consists of prevention and outreach initiatives that are focused on spreading awareness, changing perceptions, erasing stigma, and educating at-risk youth. Lloyd believes that the main emphasis of child sex trafficking prevention should be on ending the systemic issues that perpetuate violence against girls and young women: poverty, racism, abuse, unaffordable housing and childcare, and lack of education. Through workshops held in residential and detention centers, GEMS talks with at-risk youth about the realities, risks, and causes of commercial sexual exploitation.
In addition to its focus on education and awareness, GEMS also supports the development of anti-trafficking legislation. Lloyd believes that while laws are only a small part of the battle, they can bring much-needed attention to the issue of domestic child sex trafficking and help shift public perception about it. GEMS’ advocacy efforts were instrumental in the passage of the New York Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act of 2008. This act states that children involved in prostitution should not be considered criminals, but victims of abuse who require special services and protection. Similar Safe Harbor laws have been passed in 12 states, and more are on the horizon.
To further its efforts in decriminalizing children’s participation in commercial sex work, GEMS also offers a program that provides alternatives to incarceration. This program advocates for alternative sentencing and support mechanisms for girls and young women who are arrested for prostitution-related crimes in the New York City criminal court system.
By Laura Milton