Male Allies: Call-To-Action

Written by: Rachel Lloyd, Founder & CEO

I know I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say many more times in the months to come, but it really is hard to believe that 20 years has passed since I founded GEMS. I was a 23 year old survivor of commercial sexual exploitation who had only just gotten my GED and was a recent immigrant to the US at a time when the accepted response to girls – children – who were bought and sold by adults was to lock them up. The idea that they deserved to be treated as victims or had any future or hope for their lives was unfathomable to most. Even to my friends and family back home, the idea of GEMS, an organization specifically designed to empower commercially sexually exploited and domestically trafficked girls and young women and to change the way society saw and treated them (us), seemed like a long shot at best. Lots of people were kind enough to offer me their opinions in those early days – suffice to say the prevailing message wasn’t exactly “go for it!” Looking back, it’s not hard to see why however. I was up against incredible odds, I was an incredibly imperfect messenger, there was no funding or resources, the public perceptions about girls and women in the commercial sex industry were so deeply rooted and the policies and laws that caused them so much harm were entrenched into systems held up by racism, sexism and classism. The status quo was, well, the status quo. Until one day it wasn’t.

There is still so much work to do, so much to fight for, so many girls and young women still struggling. But the differences in how we as a nation, and particularly in New York State, are now starting to talk about and even address trafficking and exploitation can’t be overstated. Not only does 2018 mark GEMS 20th Anniversary, a huge accomplishment in itself, but it’s also the 10 year anniversary of the Safe Harbor for Exploited Youth Act, the ground-breaking bill that we co-wrote and that passed because of the fearless advocacy of GEMS’ youth survivors. The bill passed and the shift from criminal to victim began only because courageous girls and young women spoke out and said “Listen to what happened to me. Then do something.” Hearing those testimonies was often uncomfortable and painful, for those who had – often unthinkingly – upheld the status quo for a long time. It would’ve been easier for many people, especially those who weren’t directly involved in legislation, systems or institutions, to simply ignore the painful stories. But, enough people challenged their own prior beliefs and began to act. The cumulative effect meant that, not only did New York State make history by being the first state to pass legislation that protected instead of punished commercially sexually exploited youth, but over a dozen states have now passed Safe Harbor bills and we’ve seen a huge increase in awareness and understanding of domestic trafficking. It hasn’t been easy and the work continues, but survivors’ voices and the engagement of allies created real change.

Today, we’re in a much larger, more public and wide-ranging conversation that can also be hard to hear. One that deeply and intrinsically challenges the status quo – one that would often be easier to ignore. And one that requires the true, active participation of allies – especially male allies. It’s a culture of toxic masculinity and gender discrimination that tells boys and men that they have the right to purchase another human being. It’s the same culture and belief system that is now being exposed through the “Me Too” and “Times Up” conversations and the wide ranging stories that we’re hearing of behavior that runs the gamut from unequitable to illegal. Trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation may sit at the far end of the spectrum but it’s all fueled by the same core beliefs and a lack of equal value given to women and girls and their humanity. It may have “always been that way,” but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

As survivors and allies we create real, lasting change. Even if the process is messy and slow and complex. And it will be. We’re up against incredible odds. We are all incredibly imperfect messengers. Beliefs about women and girls’ worth, ideas about what it means to be a man, even what it means to be a boy, are so deeply rooted in our economies, politics, laws, religions, cultures, families and relationships. Not to go all gender studies on you but…the patriarchy is entrenched into every facet of our lives and bolstered by racism and classism, supported by violence and power. That may sound like something you’d hear on Twitter, but its truth. It’s not comfortable to hear phrases like patriarchy, white privilege, male privilege, gender-based violence, sexual assault, rape culture, sex trafficking, misogyny, racism, oppression, gender inequity. But we have to call it what it is. We have to air it out in the light of day because silence and denial and normalizing this toxicity have harmed us. Normalizing this toxicity has put a sex buyer in the White House. Most girls and women fortunately can’t say “Me Too” about the specific experience of trafficking, but almost all have been hurt, diminished, devalued by the same ideas and values that allow trafficking, sexual exploitation and violence against women and girls to be part of our global history and current reality.

The status quo has been the status quo since, well, forever. Until one day it won’t be.

One day, children will grow up in a world that doesn’t define their value based on gender and where misogyny, discrimination and gender based violence are the exception in women’s experiences, not the rule. Right now, we’re a long way off from that world, but we still have to envision it in order to keep fighting for it and to recognize the importance of this moment we’re in right now. We can begin to question not just what the world or society needs to do to create a safer, more equitable place, but what we can each do. Societies change because individuals change. And change is active not passive. Simply not engaging in violence or bad behavior isn’t enough. Meaning well isn’t enough. Changing our belief systems, our words, and our actions is required. Knowing when to listen – and right now a lot of listening needs to happen – and when to speak up when it really counts. We all have the opportunities, every day, to stand and then keep standing on the right side of history, to stand alongside victims and survivors of trafficking; to stand alongside women and girls. We should all be allies, in actions big and small and in both our public and our private roles. That’s the only way we’ll not only wind up on the right side of history but actually make history and create a world that gives equal worth and value to everyone’s humanity.

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Thursday, July 19th, 2018, 4:15 pm
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