Rachel Lloyd knows there’s a temptation to think of sex trafficking as something that happens far away, with women being loaded into vans by men with automatic weapons.
The reality is much different — and more terrifying, she said.
“Essentially, the trafficking of children (refers to) anyone under age 18 being bought and sold for sexual purposes,” said Lloyd, an advocate for trafficked and exploited women. “Every community around the country thinks … that it couldn’t happen here. Not only could it happen, it is happening.”
Lloyd is the founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, a New York-based organization that helps empower commercially sexually exploited and domestically trafficked girls and young women. She was the keynote speaker at Tuesday’s Speaking of Women fundraiser to support the Center for Family Justice in Bridgeport.
The center provides shelter and other services to survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence, human trafficking and child abuse in Bridgeport, Easton, Fairfield, Monroe, Stratford and Trumbull.
Speaking of Women is the center’s major fundraiser and usually takes place at the Waterview in Monroe. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was done virtually for the first time, with Lloyd being interviewed by the event’s mistress of ceremonies, Anna Zap, co-host of the Anna and Raven radio show on Star 99.9 FM.
Zap briefly poked fun at the online nature of the event, asking that everyone “take their seats” while sitting in a presumably empty room in front of a camera. But the tone quickly turned serious as Zap began detailing the toll that the pandemic has taken on victims of domestic violence.
She mentioned that, because women are forced to shelter with their abusers, there has been a “second pandemic of trauma and abuse” in the state, and calls to domestic violence services statewide spiked by more than 50 percent since Connecticut issued stay-at-home orders in March.
One thing that ties together domestic violence and trafficking is that they can happen anywhere, Zap said. Those affected “can be neighbors, community members or co-workers,” she said.
That’s a fact that Lloyd knows well.
Herself a survivor of sex trafficking, Lloyd created GEMS in 1998 after noticing that victims of exploitation and trafficking — some of them girls as young as 11 — were treated as pariahs by law enforcement and other authority figures who should be helping them.
During their online discussion, Zap asked Lloyd why the women, who should be seen as victims, end up criminalized or mistreated by the system. Lloyd said one issue is that men are both typically the ones who use sex workers and usually are the ones in positions of authority.
She described a hypothetical scenario in which a male police officer responds to a man caught with an underage girl.
“Maybe the (man) is a family man, and the police identify with him,” Lloyd said.
In many ways, she said, the uphill battle to get people to take victims of sex trafficking seriously is not unlike the obstacles that survivors of domestic violence have faced in the past.
“For years, men (who abused their partners) were told to ‘walk it off,’ ” Lloyd said.
Most women used in the sex industry also are victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, which makes them more vulnerable, Lloyd said.
“Witnessing violence and being exposed to violence and having that normalized as part of life is incredibly harmful and dangerous,” she said.
Zap asked what people can do to help prevent exploitation and trafficking, and Lloyd said the best way is to reach out, both to organizations such as GEMS, or to mentoring groups such as Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“Anything you can do to build up the foundation of society, (is) going to go a long way to address trafficking down the road,” Lloyd said.