By Cynthia Lam, 18, Staff WriterOriginally Published: January 11, 2012Revised: September 5, 2012
We’ve all heard stories about children forced into prostitution or pornography, which is called the “commercial sexual exploitation of children” (CSEC). Maybe you heard on a talk show or in the news about the dangerous world of sex trafficking—where young people are illegally traded for sexual exploitation. But what most people don’t realize is that this is not just something that happens in “exotic” countries. It happens right here in the U.S.—on our own streets, in our neighborhoods, to our own young women and children.
Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), which was founded in 1988 by Executive Director Rachel Lloyd, is a national nonprofit organization that raises awareness about domestic trafficking and provides services to help young women, ages 12 to 24, leave the commercial sex industry and start new lives.
It happens right here in the U.S.—on our own streets, in our neighborhoods, to our own young women and children.
Valuable, Important and Beautiful
GEMS Clinical Director Julie Laurence explains why Rachel Lloyd chose the name GEMS: “She chose the acronym GEMS because she wanted to be sure the girls we serve know that they are valuable, important and beautiful.”
Julie became interested in CSEC after meeting a 13-year-old girl who had been jailed for a year after being arrested for prostitution. Julie was really disturbed by this. “How could a 12-year-old be arrested for prostitution when she could not even legally consent to sex in New York State?” says Julie.
GEMS serves 320 girls every year by providing shelter, clothing, food, psychological counseling, educational support, group workshops, court advocacy and crisis intervention. This New York City-based organization creates a nurturing environment where survivors of commercial sexual exploitation can set life goals and begin to reach them.
“Our campaigns focus on spreading awareness about the issues of commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking, challenging stereotypes about victims of CSEC and encouraging people to get involved and take action to change this issue. The more people know about our work, the more girls and young women will have access to services,” explains Julie.
When I ask Julie what she wants our readers to know, she says, “I want people to understand that commercial sexual exploitation can happen to anyone, that we are all affected by it and that we must protect and provide viable opportunities for all families and children.”
Taken Advantage of and Manipulated
GEMS Outreach Worker Tysheena, who was exploited at the age of 15 by her then-boyfriend, knows what it is like to live through the horrors of the sex industry. She recalls running away from home and encountering prostitution for the very first time.
“As we walked, it was women in the street with no clothes on and some wearing nothing. I was so amazed. I had never seen anything like this…. Two weeks later, I was in Atlantic City, and he was no longer my boyfriend who I adored, he was my pimp who I feared.”
Eventually, Tysheena was referred to GEMS for help. “I was very angry at first, because I didn’t want to be here. I was still heavily and deeply involved with my pimp, and at the time I couldn’t see myself without him,” she recalls.
With the support of GEMS, Tysheena has gradually recovered. She has a steady job and has completed two semesters of college. “I am now able to educate other people about this issue. I know that it was not my fault and that I was a child with no choice. And I was taken advantage of and manipulated,” says Tysheena.
“We are human like any other young girl or woman walking the street. This doesn’t just happen to a certain type of girl, and I am not any different than you because I am a victim,” says Tysheena. “I was just a lost little girl looking for love with very few choices. When you have no choices you have no options. I want to let every young woman out there know that if you are a victim of CSEC you are not alone. GEMS can fill that empty void.”
Call GEMS at 1-212-926-8089 or the Safe Horizon Anti-Trafficking Program at 1-718-943-8631, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or after hours at 1-800-621-HOPE (4673), if you or someone you know is a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. Visit GEMS-girls.org if you want to help end commercial sexual exploitation.
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