As a teen, Theresa Flores lived a nightmare. Now she‚??s on a mission to cast light on a topic rarely talked about in the United States: sexual trafficking.
Shortly after Theresa Flores appeared on the "Today" show in February to promote her memoir, The Sacred Bath: An American Teen's Story of Modern Day Slavery, viewers began posting comments on NBC's website. They weren't flattering, but Flores couldn't stop reading them.
There are holes in her story.
That's not slavery.
That's rape, not trafficking.
Part of her wanted to stop, to rip every copy of her book off the shelves and hide. But more of her wanted to fight back, to make sure her daughters and her doubters understood that her story was true, that human trafficking really is slavery and that it really did happen to her-before she was an outspoken advocate for truth and change in Central Ohio.
At 15, Flores was pretty and blond. She sang in the youth choir at church and ran track at school. Her family was wealthy. They lived in idyllic Midwestern towns. Her high school memories should be filled with sleepovers and dances and boy-friends.
But what made Flores typical and beautiful also made her vulnerable, and what should have been the classic American childhood became a prison of torture and pain.
Because her father was an executive at General Electric, Flores spent most of her childhood bouncing from city to city, living in big, country houses, far from the grit of downtown. By the time they settled in suburban Detroit, it was the early 1980s, she was 15 and, admittedly, a bit naïve, sheltered by her family's money, prestige and attention.
She attended a private school that was diverse both in ethnicity and religion, though the boundaries between them weren't broken, or even fuzzy. When Flores told her friends about the crush she had on an older, Arab classmate, they immediately admonished her and she acquiesced-for a while. But when the boy offered her a ride home one afternoon after school, she agreed to climb into his new Trans Am.
Only he didn't take her home.
Instead, he pulled up in front of the biggest home Flores had ever seen and invited her inside. She hesitated. The bells of warning chimed in her head: Her parents wouldn't approve of this; her friends wouldn't like it. But her girlish sense of wonder and adventure won. She jumped out of the car and followed him inside.
What happened in that house on that afternoon changed Flores. It began a nightmare for which she had no name and from which she seemingly had no escape.
He raped her.
He dropped drugs into her soft drink and waited until she blacked out and had sex with her.
And she couldn't tell anyone. She was raised by an Irish Catholic mother and a WASP father who believed in purity and abstinence. Until that moment, she had been a virgin, waiting for marriage. She thought they'd be devastated, humiliated by her story and disappointed in her. But just in case she got bold, just in case she realized that her parents' anger wouldn't have been reserved for her, her attacker showed her his insurance.
His cousins had taken pictures that afternoon and they wanted her to earn them back. If she didn't, they threatened, they would show the photos to her father, her father's boss, her priest and her classmates. It was a possibility Flores couldn't bear. So she agreed to their heinous demands. She would sneak out of her room late at night when the boys summoned her on her private telephone line, and have sex with whoever had paid for her.
Over two years, it added up to hundreds of men. They didn't care who she was, how old she was or what she looked like. Most nights, she left her house still in her pajamas, sometimes without shoes, and groggily crept across her backyard to the waiting Trans Am.
I own you.
That's what the boys with the illicit photographs told her. And they did. When she babysat for neighbors, the boys parked their cars just down the street and waited. When she worked her part-time job at Burger King, they sat in booths and stared at her. They drugged her and hit her. On the worst night, they took her to a seedy motel in a particularly rough section of Detroit, invited two dozen men and sold her to the highest bidder, who raped her until she passed out.
When it was over and Flores woke, the boys were gone. They'd left her alone, naked and bleeding, in the motel room. She found her pajamas and stumbled down to the motel's 24-hour diner.
In two years of abuse, no one had ever noticed Flores's pain or, if they had, they ignored it. But a waitress in that diner recognized Flores for just what she was: a scared, broken girl who shouldn't be wandering the city alone. The waitress handed Flores a dime and told her to call her parents. She couldn't. The shame overwhelmed her. The waitress called the police instead.
When the cop pulled up in front of the Flores house and roused her parents, she got just the reception she had expected. Her parents were furious, assuming she'd sneaked out with her friends. They didn't know-couldn't even guess-what had happened. But the cop did. He pulled Flores aside, handed her his card and said, "I need your help, but it's very dangerous." For the first time in nearly two years, Flores laughed. The cop obviously had little understanding of her hell.
The next afternoon, the Flores dog went missing. Flores and her siblings searched until dinner without luck. That night, when her phone rang, she didn't answer it. She felt emboldened by the police attention and tired of her imprisonment. It rang again. This time, she picked it up. There was no voice on the other end, only a bark and a gunshot.
She threw the cop's business card into the garbage can and sobbed.
When Flores stops talking, there is silence, then whispers from the audience-No!-and questions mumbled through horror-How did she get out? Flores leans over the lectern. "I'll answer anything," she says.
It's May 6, several months after the "Today" show appearance. Flores is the featured speaker in Susan Cooper's Women's Studies class at Ohio State's Delaware Center in Lewis Center. In her early 40s, she is still pretty and blond, still scarred by her experience. But she is no longer scared. The boys can't touch her now.
When she was 17, her father was transferred one more time. She didn't tell anyone, afraid that if the boys found out, they would kidnap her. They didn't, and by the time anyone realized she was gone, she was living-safely-thousands of miles away.
She was free of them, but not free of it.
Telling her story didn't help. Counselors weren't trained to deal with her. Friends' reactions, though sympathetic, made her uncomfortable. It wasn't until she earned her degree in social work that she began to accept what had happened to her, and to realize that she wasn't the only one. This experience-being coerced into sex so others could benefit financially-had a name and it had other survivors. Now, Flores wants to make sure it has no other victims. Her experience and her education-she has a master's degree in counseling education from the University of Dayton-has made her a sought-after speaker and expert for a cause that has few voices. She travels internationally, telling her story to parents and teenagers who, she hopes, will be able to accept and pass along her message: This problem is real.
The numbers are startling. They glow behind Flores on a projection screen. More than 300,000 teens are at risk of being sexually trafficked in this country, she tells her audience. Working with other experts in the field-including Jeffrey Barrows, a gynecologist who has done research on trafficking for the government and written articles on the warning signs for medical journals-Flores estimates Ohio is the fifth most vulnerable state. Ironically, the very things that make it attractive put it at risk: interstate systems that allow people to get in and out of the area quickly, universities, a growing immigrant population and proximity to other large cities.
Flores is almost scientific when she discusses the possibilities. Runaways are the most vulnerable to sexual trafficking. Ohio has more than 5,000 runaways. The National Runaway Switchboard reported more than 780 calls from the 614 area code in 2007. According to Barrows's research, 10 to 15 percent of them were likely sexually exploited. That's up to 117 girls in Columbus's backyard.
"But you don't hear about it on the nightly news," Flores says. "Nobody's working hard enough for this. In our minds we see prostitution as a choice. We don't want to believe that anyone isn't free. We want to think that everyone has an option."
But too many of these girls don't. They are being threatened or coerced into a sexual prison and don't see an escape. Though they're not valued, they are valuable. And as long as there is a demand for it, traffickers will go to great lengths to provide it. "You can make more money on a human being than you can on drugs," Flores says.
Ignorance puts children in danger. Flores believes this. As long as parents say, "Not here, not my kid," it could be here and it could be their kid. Wealth, good grades, athleticism and talent don't make a child immune. Most girls are led into forced prostitution by older boyfriends, family members or abductors and shamed into remaining there. Parents need to talk about the possibilities with their children, recognize the signs (controlling boyfriends, depression, suicidal tendencies and sexting) and be able to ask these questions of their own children or someone else's: "Are you afraid?" and "Can I help you?"
The waitress was the only person ever to ask Flores. But, along with Barrows, Flores has put herself in a position to ask others. They are in the process of building Gracehaven, a Dublin-based organization and safe home where underage victims of commercial sexual exploitation can hope and heal. Flores will act as a counselor and confidante when the center is complete (they are still raising money for the venture). She plans to show them what she realized too late: that they aren't the only ones and that there is an escape. The wounds will heal, but the scars are forever.
Even today, when asked to name her abusers, Flores refuses. She won't put herself, or her children, at further risk. "I'm a single mom," she says. "I have children. I wouldn't be alive if I named them."
April Johnston is a former associate editor for Columbus Monthly.
This story appeared in the July 2009 issue of Columbus Monthly.