“Everyone thinks slavery was abolished. No. It was just transformed.”
For many years, people had no idea of what happened to Theresa Flores.
In fact, if they had, they wouldn’t have had a word for it.
When Flores was 15, she was a regular, all-American high school girl, living in Michigan. One fateful evening after school, she was drugged, raped, and photographed by a classmate. This young man blackmailed Flores with the photographs, using them, as well as threats against her and her family, as fuel to force her into an increasingly nightmarish cycle of traumatic servitude. For two years, Flores was bound into involuntary prostitution. She suffered repeated harrowing violence by night, while hiding the abuse from her friends and family by day. Her trafficker worked within a network of other young people and adults, exploiting women and girls for profit. Only when Flores’s father took a job far away and her family moved, was she able to finally escape.
Flores was able to find the strength to continue on, go to college, and begin a career in social work. All while quietly carrying the secret pain of the still un-named ordeal she survived. At a social work conference, looking for information with the intention of helping to relate to the refugees and immigrants on her caseload, Flores was presented with the concept and definition of human trafficking. Never was a set of words so powerful as when it gave a name to the horrors Flores had faced, and let her know that she was not alone. With this revelation came a heavy sense of responsibility. Flores immediately came forward and offered to lend her voice to help others by testifying before congress, speaking at conferences, and educating everyone from politicians to the public.
Her tireless efforts only grew when she discovered the lack of knowledge of this crisis. During one such trip, she found herself in Detroit, having sworn she would never return to Michigan. Catapulted back to the darkest time in her life, she searched for a way to connect with the lost women and girls that she knew were out there. How could she reach them in their bleakest moments?
And then it came to her. The hotels. The bathrooms. The only time the trafficked women are alone. Flores began the SOAP initiative (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution). To those tiny bars of hotel soap, Flores and her army of volunteers affix labels that are emblazoned with the phone number to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. A tiny light in the darkness. After eight years, SOAP has distributed over a million bars with potentially life saving resources printed on them.
Affixed in their situations by drug addiction, coercion, and abuse; trafficked people are stripped of all agency. Whether they are held for manual labor or sex, they are used for a profit by their traffickers. Make no mistake, this is slavery in the modern day. Like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth before her—Flores lends her experiences and indefatigable spirit to lift others out of servitude.
This is a modern issue, a women’s issue, a human rights issue. Flores and other abolitionists are still very necessary, and still very hard at work.
A huge part of your work involves repeatedly reliving and retelling this traumatic experience you had as a kid. What effect does it have on you? And also, what effect does it have on your story, and the way you view it?
[I do] take a physical and emotional hit every time I do it. But it’s something I’ve chosen to do, so it’s my responsibility, because I’ve said yes. Because there are so many others that can’t do it, because they haven’t found their voice. I’ve gotten my voice back. I’ve gotten good counseling, I’ve gotten degrees. I’m healed enough that I can do this. I think that’s what makes an activist. When you’re very passionate about something, you push beyond the emotional damage to try to make this world a better place.
How do you deal with disbelief?
There’s disbelief of my story that I have to deal with sometimes. There’s disbelief that this happens in the United States. It can be so negative and so hard, that you can understand why there’s not a lot of survivors that are speaking out. Like with the #metoo movement, you see a lot of women coming forward, and the number one thing I read on Facebook is ‘Well, why did she wait 40 years?’ You see this with rape culture, where people tend to not believe you because you waited so long. It’s like ‘Do you understand what it’s like to go through something like that?’ When one person says ‘me too,’ it gives the rest of us permission to find our voice again. It empowers us.
How do you think people like Roy Moore and Donald Trump affect the lives of regular people, even though they are removed by class and by distance? Do you think there’s a connection to this type of behavior, and what happens to the women that you work with?
It’s not politics, or political affiliation, or what religious affiliation you have. I think it has to do with these are men. And that’s the bottom line. We’re tolerating men doing this. When women get together and say “We’re not gonna tolerate this anymore,” that’s when we find our power, and that’s when we take it back. Human trafficking is a women’s rights issue. We have to start arresting the men, and seeing the women as victims, and not criminals. Politically, this has been made socially acceptable. Even though it’s illegal, until we as a society say it is socially unacceptable to sell another person, we’re not going to change anything. And that takes men and women to do.
Do you think that the opioid crisis overlaps with human trafficking?
If you have a drug problem in your community—you have a human trafficking problem. It goes hand-in-hand. If you have a trafficking problem, you have a drug problem. One way it goes is the trafficker, or the pimp, whatever you want to call him, will have the woman, and get her addicted to drugs to be able to control her. He’ll say “Go out and do this, make me this amount of money, and when you come back, I’ll give you more drugs.” After a while, he kicks her to the curb because she becomes too addicted. And then you see her on the streets, and she’s a druggie, and she’ll turn tricks to be able to get the money to do the drugs. But people don’t look and see “How did she get there?” “What happened to her in the beginning to be in that spot?” Because nobody wants to be in that spot.
Does this affect a lot of immigrants?
It does. There was the egg farm bust. [In Marion, where people from Central America were being used for labor.] Salvation Army and Human Trafficking Task Force were involved in those. There was a big one with a massage parlor with locations in Powell and Worthington. There were 19 Asian women being trafficked. So now you have 19 women that don’t speak English. Where are you going to put them? What are you going to do? There’s a lot of planning that takes place, even beforehand. And then getting them the services. A rescue is pretty intense.
Once you get these women, can you then follow the chain back and get the person who is selling them?
That’s what the police are mostly concerned with, getting the trafficker, getting the guy at the top. So they can potentially stop it from happening to other girls. We’re concerned with the victim, getting her whole again. And then you’ve got the middle ground. Who are the people that are buying her? What if we went for that middle person? Cause no one is going for that middle person. If we made a major statement saying “We’re gonna catch you if you’re buying somebody,” it would really stop the demand. And that’s my passion. If we started to go for the middle dog, then we could really stop it. You have to convince law enforcement officers, and you have to convince prosecuting attorneys. It’s tough to convince them to go for the John.
What’s problematic about events like The Super Bowl and The Arnold?
SOAP is centered around large events. Any time there is an event with a lot of people coming to a town—it doesn’t have to be for sports—human trafficking will quadruple. The reason we know that is because of backpage.com. I would go on [the site] a week before an event, the week during, and a week after, and count up the number of ads of women for sale. It was always quadruple. Even for things like a concert, even for things like The Columbus Marathon. When you say The Super Bowl has more trafficking, it’s not saying The Super Bowl, or the Columbus Marathon is bad, it’s just that this is what organically happens. Same with the Detroit Auto Show. It’s a two-week event and a million people come to Detroit for that. Mostly men, and a lot from other countries, where this is legal. So we see a huge spike. There’s usually 800 girls for sale during the Detroit Auto Show per night.
Besides large events, what role does Columbus’s geography play in human trafficking?
Any time you’re on an interstate where other interstates cross—any time you have lots of universities or casinos or truck stops. Geography affects how many risk factors you’ve got. If you have any of those in a geographical area, you’re going to have more trafficking. Minnesota is a huge trafficking state, and no one would ever think of it. But you have a lot of truckers going through there. Most people wouldn’t think Ohio…
What was the in-between time like for you? Thinking back to when you were able to get away. Before you went into social work, got degrees, and were able to put a name to trafficking, and start your work.
There was a lot of years in between there. Gosh, it’s harder for me to think about those in-between years than what I do now, which is so hard. I want to say it was being a zombie. Never knowing the word of what happened to me, what it was called. That was hard. Because it wasn’t “rape,” it was more than one guy, it was more than one time. I got into a very domestically violent marriage, because I didn’t feel worthy of anything else. I never thought anybody else would ask me to marry them. I thought “This is the best I’m ever gonna get,” so I married someone I shouldn’t have, and couldn’t get out for many, many years. Luckily, I got three great children out of it. That’s why I went into social work. I wanted to help somebody, even though nobody helped me. It starts with the smallest little ripple.
What does shame mean to human trafficking?
If you asked a hundred survivors, what’s their number one emotion that they have felt, it would be either shame or guilt. Which is really sad. Especially when they didn’t do this to themselves, it always started off with someone doing it to them. It’s associated with the word prostitute. I don’t ever consider myself having been a prostitute, but if you look at the definition, it’s like ‘I guess I was.’ It’s hard because survivors tend to internalize it. ‘I should’ve done this, I should’ve done that.’ Similar to rape victims. That’s a hard thing to overcome. To me, the negative word is shame, but the positive word is worthiness. You need to make a survivor feel worthy, and when you do, that shame will go away.
Fittingly, January is national human trafficking awareness month. Those wishing to assist the cause can attend the next SOAP outreach in Columbus, 2.17 at the Martin De Porres Center. For more, visit soapproject.org. If you see someone who looks like they need help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.