When most people hear the words “human trafficking,” it stirs up images of the cluttered streets of Third World countries. But in suburbs and cities across the United States, trafficking and sexual exploitation is also happening to American citizens living everyday lives.
Theresa Flores, a survivor of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, spoke at Northern on March 11 in the Whitman Commons. Flores, a licensed social worker and author, was 15 years old and living in an upper-middle class suburb of Detroit when she unwillingly became involved in a large, criminal trafficking ring.
The speech was sponsored by the Promoters for Non-Violent Peace Resolution. English Graduate Assistant Ben Wielechowski, who founded the organization, said Flores was brought to Northern to spread awareness of human trafficking, a topic that is rarely discussed.
“Most important is the idea of how unknown human trafficking is all over the world. The awareness is so narrow right now,” Wielechowski said. “Recently the media has began touching on it more, with movies like ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ and ‘Trade,’. we’re all aware of it in the Third World slums, but Theresa was in a suburb.”
During the speech, Flores shared her story with the crowd. She said that it all began when her family moved to Birmingham, Mich., and after accepting a ride home from a boy she went to school with, he invited her to his home where he drugged and raped her.
“I was a virgin, and I was Catholic . My parents had had many discussions with me and wanted me to stay a virgin until I was married . it was something I really wanted too . it was tragic to have that ripped away from me,” Flores said.
She later found that while the boy raped her, male family members had taken pictures. If she didn’t do what they said, they would show the pictures to her friends and family.
Not wanting to experience shame, she was bound to the life of a sex slave and trafficked to other men to gain the pictures back.
This continued until she was 17 years old when her family moved again, and she was free.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about human trafficking is that prostitution is not (an example of human trafficking, but) . we see prostitutes on the street and we don’t think of them as victims because we think they choose to do it,” Flores said.
She added that the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 – 14 and that runaways are more vulnerable to domestic sex trading, but it can happen to anyone.
These victims are often hard to cure because they develop somewhat of a bond with their “pimp” and are often treated more like criminals than victims.
Flores said that slavery is not dead today, and there are 27 million slaves in the world today – more than ever before.
“You have to get angry . we think we are exempt from this, that it doesn’t happen here,” Flores said. “Slavery did not die . I know, because I was one of them.”
David Wagner, a sophomore secondary education major and member of Promoters for Non-Violent Peace Resolution, said that Flores was a prime candidate for spreading awareness about this issue.
“She’s lived it . and she’s a local citizen,” he said. “It’s something we can really conceptualize in today’s society, but with her we get to put a face to it.”
He added that the only way for people to start spreading awareness is to look outside the “box” of American society.
“There are so many injustices happening throughout the world, we need to open our eyes . not only because we’re Americans and kind of seen as the “top dog,” but because we should just care.
At the end of the speech, Flores urged students to go and tell two other people who had not attended the speech about what they learned during the presentation.
She always offered ways to help, like writing to your local state representative or only buying Free Trade items.