Lady speaks of her ordeal as a victim of human trafficking
At 15, Theresa Flores was a self-described "blond, white girl" from an upper-class Detroit suburb and went out on date with a boy she knew from school. That night she was attacked and raped as the boy’s cousins took photos.
Parker Eshelman photo
Theresa Flores, who identifies herself as a survivor of domestic human trafficking, promotes awareness of the problem in the United States and elsewhere yesterday at the Stop Traffic Now conference, a two-day event at the University of Missouri.
It was the beginning of an agonizing two years for Flores. Her attackers - members of a gang - blackmailed her with the threat of revealing the photos and forced her to become a sex slave. Fearing for her life, she escaped only after her family moved from the state, taking her with them.
"You don’t think that it happens here" in the suburbs, "and until it hits you between the eyes, you don’t realize it," she said. "But it can happen to anybody."
Now 42, Flores recently began speaking out about her trauma, and she’s published a book, "The Sacred Bath," describing her life. She spoke yesterday at Stotler Lounge in Memorial Union at the University of Missouri during the Stop Traffic Now conference, a two-day event organized by MU students to raise awareness of "human trafficking" in the United States and abroad.
Flores, a Columbus, Ohio, resident, said she was 40 and a trained social worker when she first heard the phrase "human trafficking." Only then, she said, did the reality of what happened come rushing back.
"All those years, and until I heard that word, I couldn’t heal," she said. "I knew it was rape, I knew it was gang rape, but I couldn’t heal until I heard the word" human trafficking.
Flores is now raising money for a $1 million shelter near Columbus to house and rehabilitate girls who are victims of child prostitution.
Girls, she said, typically won’t ask for help or call police but need to know there’s a safe place where they can run.
"They beat you down mentally so badly, the fear gets so big that you don’t say anything," Flores said. "I was from an upper-class family, and you don’t want to ruin your family’s reputation. And we were Catholic, so being a virgin was a big thing. And to have everyone know that that wasn’t the case anymore would be devastating."
Event organizers hope that by raising public awareness they’ll put an end to the days when victims feel helpless.
"We’re finding that the problem isn’t that people don’t care, it’s that they don’t know," said Paige Hendrix, an MU student and co-founder of Stop Traffic, a year-old organization designed to stem the growth of sex trafficking locally.
Sex trafficking is a $9.5 billion industry in the nation and the second-most common type of organized crime in the United States, Flores said.
Hendrix and others said the problem isn’t going away. In July, police raided Lynn’s Massage on Range Line Street, a suspected prostitution ring. In September, police shut down A.M. Chinese Relaxation Treatment, a massage parlor at the Midway Travel Plaza on suspicion of operating as a brothel. In October, Hendrix said, a social worker alerted members of Stop Traffic about a young girl she suspected was being victimized, and the group secured a safe place for her in Hope House in Kansas City, a domestic violence shelter.
Advocates urge residents to open their eyes to the problem. "I love massages, and I love pedicures, but I’ve never gone at 3 a.m.," Flores said. "These things exist, and we just drive right by them. ... We don’t take the time to stop and do anything about it. No one took the time to help me."
About 100 college and high school students, professors and social service workers participated in the conference. Workshops included instruction on how to create a task force to rescue victims, how to identify victims and how to spread public awareness.
Many took heart that young people are eager to address a shadowy problem endemic for generations.
"Students are probably the most aware group. Students of today are great," said Tina Clarke-Sutherland, professor of women’s studies at Stephens College. "I don’t believe in Generation X at all. I think they’re our greatest hope."
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