Issue September 17, 2013

Your neighborhood sex trade

A survivor of human trafficking speaks about the unthinkable horrors she endured and her mission to save others from them

Theresa Flores was a promising 15-year-old when the guy she had a crush on offered her a ride home. Cautious but trusting, she accepted, only to be drugged, raped and blackmailed using photos of her assault. For two grueling years, while her friends and family thought she was living the typical teenage life, Flores endured nights of repeated rapes and torture in a criminal prostitution ring under the threat of her family’s safety and the guise of paying back an impossible debt to her captors.

It took her years to process what had happened to her. When most people think of human trafficking — if they think much about it at all — they think of women from third-world countries being imprisoned in seedy urban centers, or they think of runaways and drug addicts, people the heartless would say had it coming. What happened to Flores in an affluent Detroit suburb feels like an anomaly to many, but she insists it isn’t. After two decades of sharing her story, advocating for stronger human trafficking laws and engaging with other survivors, Flores says her story is all too common.

LEO spoke to the Ohio-based advocate via phone before her scheduled appearance at Bellarmine University next week.

LEO: Yours is a difficult story to wrap your head around.
Theresa Flores: It is. Everyone still thinks it happens in other places. I talk about Americans being trafficked and people think it means being taken overseas, but this is happening in every zip code across the country. It’s not a rare thing. I thought it was rare once.

LEO: It’s difficult to collect data on things like this, but what is known about the problem?
TF: We need more research in that area. We talked to women in jail for prostitution in Ohio and asked them at what age they started. We found that 77 percent of adults in there for prostitution were prostituted as children. They didn’t know how to get out of it. That shows you something.

LEO: Let’s talk about getting out. Tell me about SOAP.
TF: SOAP stands for Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution. We get volunteers to label bars of soap (with the number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline). We distribute them at hotels during sporting events. Speaking out is great, but it’s not enough. We need to help these girls in their moment of need. That’s why I created it. They all go to the bathroom. That’s usually the only time they’re alone.

LEO: You target Louisville specifically during Derby Week.
TF: Yes. We’ve done it a few years. We also did the Mid-America Trucking Show. We really wanted to raise awareness during that show. Trucks are a big risk factor when it comes to missing children. 

LEO: How successful has the SOAP campaign been?
TF: Anytime we go out, the number of calls received (by the hotline) doubles. It’s hard to know how many were rescued from that. We do know that when we hang up missing children’s posters, at just about every outreach, at least one girl has been identified. That has always been really encouraging.

LEO: What else needs to be done?
TF: We need stronger laws. I think also what needs to be done is law enforcement needs to be trained well so they can recognize the signs. Then, prosecutors need to actually prosecute. But women don’t actually want to prosecute because they’re terrified. There are still so few services for them. That’s another big issue. 

LEO: What about on an individual level?
TF: There are a lot of people in Kentucky working toward this, too. They all need donations. But, also, just start reading, start really learning about this, even something as simple as telling their friends and putting it on Facebook. They could talk to the principal at their kid’s school about how they need someone to talk to their kids about this. Also, watching what they buy. Buy local. Understand fair trade. And talk to boys about not going to strip clubs, about pornography, about things that are demeaning women and support trafficking in the United States.

LEO: Do you ever get negative feedback over SOAP or while advocating?
TF: Actually, the only negative feedback I get is around the book (“The Slave Across the Street,” her memoir). If you go onto Amazon and read the comments, there are so many that are fantastic — “Thank you for doing this,” so many sweet comments — then there are a number of them that are so negative. “She’s just doing this to get rich,” which is really funny because I am not rich. “There’s a lot of holes in her story.” It’s really interesting to see those negative comments. It shows you as a society where we are … I realize when I read those negative reviews that this is why other survivors don’t write their story, why they just go on with their lives the best they can.

LEO: Did you anticipate any of that blowback when you were writing the book?
TF: I had a boyfriend at the time that was a big-time professor at Ohio State. He said, “I can’t date you if you publish this.” That was the first time I’d ever really felt like, wow, I’m being judged for something others did to me … Later, when I went on “The Today Show,” which was my first national television show, I got back to the hotel and looked online at comments. It was 99 percent negative. It was like, you just listened to 30 minutes of my story, and now you think you know me. It’s enough to make survivors sick. For me, it just fuels my fire.

LEO: What made you step forward and share your story?
TF: I went to a conference. At the time, I didn’t know anything about (human trafficking). I went and within five minutes, I realized that was the word I’d been searching for. That was what I’d went through. I also learned there was no law in Ohio against it. I had a speaking-age daughter, and I thought, if this happened to her, I’d have no tools in my toolbox to help her, and that was not acceptable. I realized everything I’d done before — becoming a social worker, getting a master’s degree (in counseling education) — was leading up to this. I realized my calling.

LEO: Since that revelation, do you think there have been enough strides made in terms of addressing the problem?
TF: I’ve seen a lot that I’ve been proud of. Every state now has laws against it. There are people who want to build shelters. I do see a lot of strides being made, but it’s all just the tip of the iceberg. We have so much more work to do.

Theresa Flores joins Rus Funk of Mens-Work, Marissa Castellanos of Rescue and Restore, Sgt. Andre Bottoms of Louisville Metro and others for a panel discussion about sex trafficking hosted by the World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana at Bellarmine University’s Frazier Hall, 2001 Newburg Road, on Wednesday, Sept. 25, at 5 p.m. A film screening of the documentary “Not My Life” will follow.