Sex trade survivor tells harrowing tale
Published: March 21, 2013
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
ST. THOMAS - Social worker Theresa Flores draws on her own experience as a member of the Ohio Attorney General's human trafficking commission.
From the ages of 15 to 17, she lived a painful and horrific double life.
During the day, she was an ordinary teenager with a full load of extracurricular activities and part-time waitressing or baby-sitting jobs.
At night, Flores was a sex slave, terrified, trapped, drugged and transported to posh houses in the Detroit suburbs to have sex with strangers.
"I ran track. I sang in the church choir. I was a good girl," Flores said of her "normal" life while telling her story at the V.I. Justice Department's conference on human and sex trafficking on Wednesday.
Flores, who has been a social worker for 20 years, was raised in an Irish Catholic family who were relatively well off.
She said she was a lonely teenager, as her family moved every two years so that her father, an industrial engineer for General Electric, could take another assignment. Otherwise, she was a normal girl from a loving family, Flores said.
At 15, in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, Mich., she was tricked by a schoolmate who worked for an organized crime syndicate and whose family owned strip clubs.
Flores accepted a drugged soda from the young man, who raped her and had his cousins take pictures of her during the attack to use as blackmail.
From 1980 to 1982, the teenager believed that if she did not slip away from her parents' house and work as a prostitute for the man and his co-conspirators that she or a member of her family would be killed or that her father, her priest and her peers would see the pictures.
"He said to me, 'You are going to work for us until you earn these back,'" Flores said. "I really didn't even understand what he meant. I thought he would have me wash cars or clean their houses."
At one point, Flores was taken to a hotel room where "there were so many men packed in there to have sex with me that I could not see the furniture."
Stranded, disheveled and exhausted after the horrifying experience, Flores stumbled into a diner near the hotel, and a waitress called the police.
A police officer drove her home, but Flores still kept quiet, afraid of her parents' wrath and intimidated by her traffickers, who killed her dog and had left dead animals in her mailbox.
The abuse ended when Flores' family moved to Connecticut.
Flores did not speak of her ordeal until 2006 when she attended a conference on human trafficking as a social worker and realized that what had happened to her was, in fact, human trafficking, which she said at Wednesday's conference is the world's second most common crime.
According to federal legislation adopted 10 years ago, the buying or selling of commercial sex with a minor is automatically human trafficking, Flores said.
"There is no such thing as a teenage prostitute," Flores said. "If a minor is involved in prostitution, there is always someone else involved, someone who has coerced or influenced them and who is profiting from it."
In spite of that, many jurisdictions still arrest minors for prostitution and often they are identified as criminals.
Changing the language used to describe human trafficking is part of a paradigm shift that will help curb the activity, Flores said. A similar shift occurred with domestic violence three decades ago, when spousal abuse started to be treated by law enforcement as a crime and not simply as a private, household problem, she said.