Sex trafficking is a growing problem in many American cities and New York City is no exception to the lamentable trend.
In late June, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office announced the arrest of four men accused of forcing a young woman into prostitution, starting at the age of 13. The victim came forward after allegedly enduring years of forced prostitution when she confided in one of her professors at John Jay College.
Those arrests brought domestic sex trafficking back into the spotlight. Sex trafficking has become such a problem in New York City that the Brooklyn District Attorney started a special unit last summer to prosecute those who exploit women and children.
“When we think about trafficking, we have a tendency to think about girls and women brought in from overseas from Thailand from the Ukraine, we don’t really think about that label applying to American girls,” said Rachel Lloyd, founder of the group GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services).
“Young women from our own country, from our own city are trafficked. I was in Times Square doing outreach last week I met some young women who were out there, in the ‘life,’” Lloyd added.
Lloyd, a survivor of sex trafficking herself, talks about the sex trade in America in her new memoir, “Girls Like Us.”
In her 14 years as an advocate and counselor for sex trafficking victims, she has seen much about this underground world.
“We work with girls 12 to24,” said Lloyd. “It’s tough to see girls being bought, even after all my years of advocacy. I see adult men, who are very comfortable approaching these young girls. They are not really worried about the consequences because there are no real consequences for the buyers. But there are a lot of consequences for the girls and the women.”
Lloyd and her team, many of whom are sex trafficking survivors, do outreach in the field or at her Harlem office. Last year they helped 328 girls. The youngest girl was just 11 years old.
A woman identified only as Sheila is now 24, but she said that she was pulled into the world of commercial sexual exploitation when she was just 15.
“I thought he was a regular guy,” Sheila said of the person who got her involved in the trade. “And came to find out he was a pimp and he took the opportunity to play on my needs.”
Sheila, who used to live in the Bronx, was sent to live in a group home by child protective services because her parents were drug abusers.
Alone and vulnerable, she met a man who promised her a better life. But that life was one of prostitution.
Sheila says he forced her into selling her body. Her pimp drove her to different places in New York City, including Queens Plaza, near the Queensboro Bridge and Times Square, to find Johns.
“Once I got into the life, he totally changed,” said Sheila. “He was very abusive, very controlling, he isolated me from everyone, I couldn’t talk to anyone, nobody it was all about him.”
Sheila was not able to leave on her own until she was 19. Now she works at GEMS and counsels young women and girls who face the same predicament that she did, years ago.
According to the state, in 2007 there were 2,652 commercially sexually exploited children reported. More than 2,200 of them were from New York City.
According to Lloyd, many of those girls were in the foster system at some point in their lives. But even girls with families have been pulled into this world and picked up in the most unlikely places.
“We’ve had girls picked up right outside where they lived, walking to school, on a train, on a subway,” said Lloyd. “Not in a bad place, just regular places where young people are coming and going and hanging out and pimps are savvy to where young people are going to be.”
Lloyd helped push for a safe harbor law that protects young people from being prosecuted for an act of prostitution to which they cannot legally consent.
New York State passed the law in 2008 and Georgia became the most recent state to pass similar legislation.