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Girls Interrupted

November 27, 2006

As Rachel Lloyd tells it, the adolescent women in her story are no different from any other teenagers—they want to feel pretty and they want to feel good about themselves. But there is a difference. These young women are prostitutes: girls whose real story is seldom told. Lloyd’s mission is to change that. As executive director and founder of GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Service) , she focuses attention on an overlooked group of some 300,000 young women in the United States sexually exploited as prostitutes. And this week, Lloyd could win $50,000 to help make her voice—and theirs—louder. Lloyd is the star of a video, “The Making of a Girl,” which is currently the runner-up in “The Seeds of Tolerance Contest.” Sponsored by The Third Millennium Foundation, a New York City-based nonprofit, 380 applicants submitted a short video on the subject of tolerance for this competition. Margaret Cho, Edward Norton, and M. Night Shyalaman, among others, chose “The Making of a Girl” along with five other finalists that address issues of racism, homophobia, exploitation of American Indians, the prison system, and the crisis in Darfur. The six now await the verdict of viewers, who can vote for the winner on until midnight, on Saturday, December 2. In “The Making of a Girl,” Lloyd uses a second-person perspective to encourage the listener—however remote her own experience—to empathize with young women whose lives have been shattered. Between the images of a lower-income New York City neighborhood and the soft-spoken repentances of an African-American teen, Lloyd talks about “your” struggling mother, “your” absent father, and the sexual abuse that’s become normal to “you.” The technique works—perhaps because of Lloyd’s own perspective of having been a teenage prostitute herself. “As a survivor, I have been very public,” Lloyd told the Women’s Media Center. A week ago, she shared her own experience at the Violence Against Women Conference, an event organized by Leslie Wright, president of UNIFEM USA Metro New York ( “It does make a difference to take it out of the abstract,” said Lloyd. “These girls are somebody’s sister or daughter.” Video images make her message all the more affecting. “When somebody sees a very young girl, they say wow, she is a regular little girl,” said Lloyd. “I think it has a very different emotional impact; I’m a big fan of documentaries and photos for social justice.” The media component “has opened a lot doors for us in ways that statistics and written reports do not,” Lloyd said, referring to her latest collaboration on a TV documentary with Showtime, scheduled to premier next fall. She hopes that it will subvert stereotypes in a way that she thinks such documentaries as HBO’s recent “Hookers at the Point” fail to do. “You don’t want to show girls on the street in stilettos and short skirts. In this culture, as soon as you say prostitution, you think of those images. It is hard to make that switch: from thinking of a prostitute to thinking of a child.” Lloyd intends to help people make those mental switches, whether her audience is the general public, Current TV cognoscenti, or law enforcement and judicial system officials. In her speech at the VAW Conference, Lloyd alluded to media biases: “She is a sympathetic victim if she is a ten year old from Bangladesh, or the twelve year old from the Ukraine, but not the twelve year old from Bed Sty or East New York, Brooklyn,” Lloyd said, imploring the audience to make use of their humanitarian impulses closer to home. When it comes to law enforcement and the judicial system, however, Lloyd is less subtle. “Cops don’t see these girls as victims. They are seen as willing participants in their own victimization.” Lloyd said police officers generally view child prostitutes as criminals. Among the experiences evoked in “Making of a Girl” is sexual exploitation in exchange for a get-out-of-jail-free card. But certain realities make it hard to view these young women as rational actors turning tricks of their own accord. According to ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes), a Brooklyn-based nonprofit, the average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is 12 to 14 years old; and 80 to 90 percent of young women involved in prostitution were sexually abused as children. GEMS’ Alternative to Incarceration Project is designed to redress judicial system shortcomings. Part of its legal advocacy work, the project seeks to provide alternative sentencing services and support for 16 to 21-year-old women who have been sexually exploited for commercial purposes. What will GEMS do with the money if they win the contest? Lloyd has a quick answer: “Hire a full-time court case manager to support our alternative incarceration work.”