There are more than 40 million victims of human trafficking around the world, according to statistics from the International Labour Organization. The group says 25 percent are children, and 75 percent are women and girls. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that enriches the perpetrators through the sexual slavery of their victims.
Criminals often prey on vulnerable groups such as immigrants or people living in poverty. But Theresa Flores' story is proof that human trafficking occurs throughout all communities and is often hidden in plain sight. Flores was 15 and living in an upper-middle class neighborhood of Detroit, Mich., with her parents and brothers. Her book, The Slave Across the Street: The True Story of How an American Teen Survived the World of Human Trafficking, describes how she lived a double life — going to school by day, but trapped in sex trafficking at night.
Today, Flores works to expose trafficking and help its victims as the founder of Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution (SOAP), an advocate for fellow survivors and a public speaker. She’ll give the keynote address at the Pewaukee Event “Sex Trafficking In OUR Communities” Tuesday evening, which will include a panel discussion with former Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, the Menomonee Falls chief of police, local advocates, therapists, and more.
Flores notes that events, conferences, and speaking engagements are incredibly important to educating the public about how common human trafficking is in every ZIP code.
"It was about 12 years ago when I went to a conference on human trafficking and realized that's what had happened to me — and I never knew that," recalls Flores. With a master's degree in counseling education and a licensed social worker, Flores decided that sharing her story publicly could potentially help other victims of trafficking and prevent other similar stories from even occurring.
"I thought this is crazy that people don’t know this, and so I wanted to share my story to show people that it’s not just people in other countries or people being locked away in a basement here — it can look like kids in the suburbs, too," she notes.
Survivors of sex trafficking typically have post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and even long-term physical complications, and they're not getting the support they need, according to Flores.
"It's still lacking in health care knowing about this, free counseling for survivors, job skills because a lot of times you can't work a nine to five — it's just not in your DNA anymore," she explains, "so it takes all of that."
While part of Flores' work involves educating first responders, hospitals, and teachers in identifying victims of human trafficking, she says that this issue can be more efficiently tackled by stopping the purchasers and disrupting the cycle of supply and demand.
"There's always going to be vulnerable women and girls out there, but if we can tighten up the demand and say, 'You know what, in our country you just can't buy another person and we're going to go after you.' If you try to do that, I think that's what it's going to take to change this," Flores says.
While laws need to be written and enforced across the country, the conversation about how women and girls are being used needs to be reframed and victim blaming needs to end.
"We really need to do a better job asking those questions, 'Well, whatever happened to those guys? Why didn’t they get in trouble?' And 'who were these men that bought you at 1 a.m. in some house and knew you were 15?' So, those are the questions we need to start asking," notes Flores.
If you suspect something isn't right, Flores says the best thing to do is speak up and reach out to offer help. "If you get a gut instinct that something just doesn't seem right, it's probably not right, and we just ask people to say something," she says. "And who cares if you're wrong, because you may have just saved that girls life being right."
Flores notes that while publicly speaking about the most darkest period of her life repeatedly is difficult, but the movement of survivors bonding together and even rising up to become leaders is very special.
"This is what my justice looks like, is by educating others, by sharing my story, by pouring into survivors now, and so that's how I determined I will give back," says Flores.
Are you being forced to do anything you do not want to do? Have you been threatened if you try to leave? Have you witnessed young girls being prostituted? If so, please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline (24/7): 1 (888) 3737-888
Editor's Note: This piece originally aired on Mar. 18, 2019.