“Very Young Girls” Looks at Sexual Trafficking in NYC

With the economy in a major downward spiral, not-for-profit organizations are being hit in a major way. I recently received an e-mail from Rachel Lloyd, the Director and Founder of Gems Girls. She stated, “I am writing this from my desk at 2 a.m.”

She went on to share the following:

“Tonight we received a crisis phone call. A young woman, Stacey, was desperately trying to escape her pimp and had no one to turn to and nowhere to go. Stacey was recruited when she was 15 years old, and is now 21. Throughout her six years as a domestic trafficking victim, Stacey has experienced daily violence and abuse and tonight was simply tired. Tired of being scared, tired of being abused, tired of being sold. Several weeks ago, Stacey saw our film on Showtime, Very Young Girls, which helped her realize that there was a way out. Tonight, she came to GEMS with only the clothes on her back and asked us to help her.”

Very Young Girls is a documentary about Lloyd’s organization, which works to get teenage girls off the street and out of the life of prostitution. Currently being featured through March 1st on Showtime On Demand, it was a matter of luck that Stacey saw the film.

The average age of girls getting pulled into prostitution is thirteen. Lloyd knows the score, having been there herself.

I first met Lloyd at an event in downtown Manhattan. She spoke to those gathered about her experiences and her mission. The presentation showcased her dynamism, energy, and commitment to saving the lives of those that others have deemed marginal. Throughout the documentary, you follow her as she offers hope, help, and love to struggling teens, along with a strong dose of realism. Sometimes she is successful, other times…she isn’t.

Several story threads make up the narrative. In a chilling sequence, we see a videotape made by two young men who filmed their exploits as rising pimps, with hopes of snaring a reality show. The streets of New York City have never looked bleaker.

In another segment, the camera accompanies Lloyd as she travels to Florida, to help a girl break away from the pimp she has followed south. Through a cinema vérité format, you experience the ambivalent forces consuming the girl about which direction she should take. In the closing credits, you learn what choice she has made.

GEMS stands for Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, but also references through its acronym, the intrinsic worth of each individual girl that has been impacted by sexual servitude. Existing as the sole New York state non-profit that is working with domestically trafficked and sexually exploited girls and young women, it was founded by Lloyd in 1999. They target the 12-21 year age demographic. The organization states its task as helping victims of sexual exploitation “to exit the commercial sex industry and develop to their full potential. They provide counseling, job training, crisis housing, and health to 250 clients. Their outreach has touched over 1500 people. Not bad, considering that a study in 2007 concluded that New York City had more than 2000 sexually exploited children under the age of 18.

Lloyd is an untiring warrior. Now armed with a Master’s degree in Applied Urban Anthropology, she has been on the cutting edge of the fight for legislation recognizing the inequities of a justice system that treats girls as “adult criminals.” On September 26, 2008, Gov. David A. Paterson signed the Safe Harbor for Exploited Youth Act. It will take effect in April 2010. Child prostitutes will then be recognized as victims, not perpetrators. A conviction as a “juvenile delinquent” will be traded for services, including counseling and shelter.

Very Young Girls has been a catalyst to bringing visibility to what Lloyd succinctly describes as “kids bought and sold by adults.” I spoke to the film’s director, David Schisgall, by telephone about the current exposure for the movie on Showtime. “Our goal,” he told me, “was to change the master narrative about prostitution in our country.” Not an easy task when Pretty Woman and the Academy Award winning song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” are prominent in the popular cultural consciousness.

Schisgall, reflecting on the power of Very Young Girls, talked about being the “butterfly that creates the tornado.” He noted, “I feel like the film is really making a difference, at the micro level and the macro level.”

This article originally appeared on  the cultureID website

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