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Confronting the Commercial Sex Industry

by Jim Melchiorre    

The founder of a mentoring service for girls emerging from the commercial sex industry says society ignores such human trafficking because of the socio-economic status of its victims. 

“I think it’s because who is overwhelmingly impacted by the commercial sex industry are marginalized young people, low-income kids of color, homeless kids, LGBT kids,” Rachel Lloyd said.  

Lloyd, who founded GEMS, Girls Empowerment & Mentoring Services, fifteen years ago, spoke at a panel on human trafficking, with a focus on the commercial sex industry, Sunday at Trinity Wall Street. The discussion followed a performance of Angel’s Bone, an opera staged at Trinity as part of the Prototype Festival, the annual festival of visionary opera-theatre and music-theatre works by pioneering artists from New York and around the world. Dr. Julian Wachner, Trinity’s Director of Music and the Arts, served as conductor of Angel’s Bone.

Another panelist, Shelia Simpkins McClain recalled her earlier life, trapped in prostitution, after a childhood in what she called a “dysfunctional family.”

“I don’t think there’s any child, I don’t think our dream was to be a prostitute,” McClain said. “Once you fall into it, it’s really hard to get out.”

McClain told of escaping the commercial sex industry in Nashville through a Magdalene residential community, a program founded by the Rev. Becca Stevens, a Nashville Episcopal priest.  

Since coming to the Magdalene program, McClain says she has overcome addiction, earned her Bachelor’s degree, married, become a mother, and bought a home.

“I’ve been able to get my life together,” she said.

A new Magdalene community has begun in St. Louis, with the Dean of Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral, the Very Rev. Mike Kinman, serving as chair of the Board of Directors. A 2013 Wildcard Grant from Trinity Wall Street partially funds the program.

Kinman believes the commercial sex industry thrives because of powerful economic and cultural forces.

“Turn on the TV, watch a movie, look at some advertising,” Kinman said to the audience at Trinity. “There isn’t a woman on the planet who doesn’t know what it means to be objectified.”

Kinman told the audience at Trinity that men must take greater responsibility for alleviating human trafficking in the commercial sex industry.

“It’s a men’s problem.  You take away the demand and there’s no problem,” Kinman said. “It’s men talking to men, men talking to boys, not just ‘don’t buy sex’ but discussions of gender equity.”

The panel included the composer of Angel’s Bone, Du Yun, and librettist Royce Vavrek.  Du Yun’s music, and  Vavrek’s libretto, tell the story of a suburban couple whose discovery of two visiting angels fuels a dream of getting rich by forcing the angels into prostitution.

“Awareness, I think that’s what we did today,” Vavrek said. “I hope we all go home and do a lot more work.”

Churches can be part of that work, but several panelists advised congregations to proceed carefully. McClain talked of the anger she felt toward God in her younger days and warned that many young people in the commercial sex industry share that emotion. Lloyd said that congregations need to know that GEMS doesn’t “really rescue, we empower” and she encourages people to volunteer at Big Brothers and Big Sisters agencies as a way to reach vulnerable children before the traffickers do.

Lloyd is also a survivor of trafficking in the commercial sex industry and she recalled the first days of GEMS, when she was only twenty-three years old.  

“The first couple of years it was girls staying on my couch and wearing my clothes—it was grass roots,” Lloyd remembered.

“Last semester we had twenty-eight girls in college, which is freaking awesome.”


Video of the Angel’s Bone performance is available here. For a video of the panel discussion click here.


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