Human trafficking happens across the United States. This survivor says she knows how to end it.
For sex trafficking being the second leading crime worldwide, the topic seldom makes headlines or is featured on the nightly news.
In recent years, human trafficking rates have surged in Wisconsin. It’s a problem we don’t always see or hear about, but one that is prevalent and has a lasting impact on individuals, families and communities.
88Nine’s Nate Imig sat down with Theresa Flores, an advocate, author and survivor of sex trafficking to talk about education, prevention and intervention.
< The following may be triggering or upsetting to some readers. >
Their conversation defines the scope and cycle of human trafficking, and highlights current U.S. laws helping, Flores says, to maintain the cycle. They also discuss policies that have helped other countries drastically reduce sex trafficking.
Listen to or read the full interview below and find out more information about how communities can help keep kids and teens safe. Learn about her grassroots organization Project S.O.A.P., plus Milwaukee-based organizations helping local victims and survivors.
Nate spoke with Flores on Mar. 20, 2019.
Theresa was blackmailed into prostitution as a teenager by men who had explicit photos of her. She was sold nightly at motels and houses around her family’s home in Detroit. She miraculously escaped her traffickers when her father transferred jobs, she was able to get out.
“Most do not get out of this, a sex trafficking victim has a 40 percent higher chance of death than anybody else. Usually by murder from the perpetrator or the pimp, drug overdose, or suicide. ” Theresa says “I don’t know of a single survivor that got to escape like that. I think god had something big planned for me for sure.”
Since then, Theresa has dedicated her life to fighting the epidemic.
“When I learned what had happened to me was called human trafficking and that I wasn't the only one - that there are hundreds of thousands of ‘Theresa’s’ out there, I couldn’t keep silent anymore.”
Flores shares her story at events across the country and has written extensively about her experiences, including in her own book "The Slave Across the Street." She also founded an organization called The S.O.A.P. Project, which stands for ‘Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution.’ The S.O.A.P. Project labels and distributes bars of soap with the sex trafficking hotline number on them to hotels and motels across 23 U.S. cities. Theresa says that in her experience, some of her darkest moments happened while she was alone in hotel bathrooms, between clients.
As of this year, the organization has distributed more than a million bars of soap nationwide.
The current state
Human trafficking is the second leading crime worldwide. The demand for sex for sale quadruples before any big sporting or entertainment event in a city.
DoSomething.org, a national website helping young people take social or political action, provides the following national statistics:
- Between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year.
- Trafficking primarily involves exploitation which comes in many forms, including forcing victims into prostitution, subjecting victims to slavery or involuntary servitude and compelling victims to commit sex acts for the purpose of creating pornography.
- The average age a teen enters the sex trade in the U.S. is 12 to 14-year-old. Many victims are runaway girls who were sexually abused as children.
- Human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking). It reportedly generates a profit of $32 billion every year. Of that number, $15.5 billion is made in industrialized countries.
How to get involved
- Exploit No More - Milwaukee organization focused on awareness, advocacy and aftercare
- School Sisters of Saint Francis - Milwaukee organization offering victim counseling and community resources
- "Sex Trafficking Report" - Medical College of Wisconsin
- The S.O.A.P. Project - learn about hosting an outreach and aiding the cause
- "The Slave Across the Street" by Theresa Flores
- Fight The New Drug
(interview has been edited for clarity)
Nate Imig: What is The S.O.A.P. Project and how did it start?
Theresa Flores: The SOAP Project stands for ‘Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution’ and I started it nine years ago, as awareness was just beginning on human-trafficking in the United States, because I wanted to have an action plan. We created a soap label with the National Human Trafficking Hotline number on it and we label the bars of soap and take them to hotels and and motels around big sporting events because we know the demand for sex for sale quadruples before any big event, so that’s how it was created.
Any hotel/motel no matter how nice or how skanky has to have a bar of soap by Board of Health regulations, and any girl being forced to do this will go to the bathroom to wash up after every man. From my personal experience, I knew that, so that’s why it had to be the bar of soap because it is really one of the only things she will see while she’s being trafficked. We now have S.O.A.P. chapters in cities across 23 states and my goal is to have a chapter in every state by the year 2020.
Nate Imig: What are you doing while you’re in Wisconsin?
Theresa Flores: I had a speaking engagement, over a hundred people attended to hear my story and hear from local people doing the groundwork here - the counselors, lawyers, priests, things like that. We’re planting the seeds for doing a big S.O.A.P. outreach here this coming June because the city will be hosting the Ryder Cup, and then next year the Democratic convention, and Summerfest - things like that. Those kinds of events draw human trafficking to your city, it is happening in every zipcode in every county here already, but it’s going to quadruple when you get a lot more people coming into town.
Nate Imig: How do you define human trafficking?
Theresa Flores: It is the recruitment, the harboring, the transporting of an individual using force, fraud, or coercion for commercial sex or forced labor.
Basically if you blackmail, manipulate, or threaten somebody into commercial sex or forced labor it’s human trafficking. We mistakenly call it prostitution but we have to understand that the majority of the women prostituting are actually being prostituted. Somebody is over them - somebody is taking their money, making them do this and if they are under eighteen it's automatically human trafficking. There's no such thing as child prostitution or teen prostitutes. If they're under eighteen, technically by federal definition, they're a human trafficking victim.
Nate Imig: It sounds like there is a lot of victim blaming and victim shaming, and people forgetting about the network of people forcing them to do this.
Theresa Flores: Oh my gosh yeah. That's probably the hardest thing we have to fight against. People saying “well she was smiling” or “she asked me if I wanted to do it” - you know? We've got a friend that loves to go to strip clubs, saying the dancers there are just making enough money to go to college or whatever… and yet you have to remember what's going on inside and the backside of it. People do blame us, “well you should have told somebody, you could have gotten out of it if you wanted to” and that’s why we don’t even know the numbers of victims, because the shaming prevents people from coming forward.
Nate Imig: Without being able to quantify exact numbers, how do you begin that conversation? How do you talk about the scale of this in this area?
Theresa Flores: The National Human Trafficking Hotline run by Polaris Project in D.C. has done a lot of work to try and figure out the magnitude of this problem. When they get calls they ask the person where they’re calling from and it could be a tip of something somebody has seen, it could be a victim, or a parent wanting information. They use this information along with the number of arrests that were made, and the number of prosecutions in their area to develop an algorithm of how big of a problem it is in each state. And I know from what I've heard, Wisconsin is in the top probably, eight states in the country for human trafficking.
Nate Imig: It's so shocking. Do you face denial, people not believing it’s such a big problem?
Theresa Flores: The public is only just starting to hear about it. It’s the second leading crime in the United states and it’s not on the nightly news. I think seeing it on the news more would help people realize how big of a problem it is. It’s hard to talk about, it's a depressing subject. But I feel like it’s an opportunity to enlighten someone on the issue. A lot of people think that human trafficking is only something that happens overseas - they don’t think of it as a parent selling their child, or a boyfriend convincing his girlfriend to run away and go work in the strip clubs. They just don’t understand the magnitude of it.
Nate Imig: Can you explain the cycle - how this starts and some of the conditions that make for this to happen?
Theresa Flores: That’s a great question. Vulnerability is the first thing. And it's important to know that any kid can be vulnerable. Every kid is vulnerable. I was a rich kid and had two parents and I wasn't molested, didn't do drugs... I was a good kid yet was still vulnerable and that's why I got trafficked. In families where the parents do drugs, one of the parents is incarcerated or it is a single parent family, that’s automatically going to make the child at risk. It comes down to “are they being supervised?” Are a kid’s parents monitoring their cellphones and online access?
These pimps, these traffickers know and are looking for vulnerable kids. Maybe they notice a girl walking around the mall by herself late at night because she doesn’t want to be home.
He sees her and starts being nice to her, he’ll tell her everything she wants to hear and starts to show her caring - buying her things, maybe her family isn’t well off, buying her new jeans, a new cell phone. We used to call this courting, but it’s actually grooming. The only difference between the two is that you have a mal-intent afterwards. They might start partying with them, getting them to do drugs and then get them to go to a party and never take them home. Or blackmail them with photos, which is what my situation was. A lot of times there's blackmail involved, threatening to tell their parents, things like that.
Nate Imig: It just seems so evil, it is so evil.
Theresa Flores: But these guys are making a lot of money off of this. This is a big business. The average pimp makes $300,000 a year doing this and so they have no conscience about it. To them it’s just property.
But then let's turn the tables - who are the ones buying them? If we didn’t have a buyer then we wouldn’t have this problem. I think what we need to talk about is these men who are purchasing young women and children for this. I mean, if we stop that then we can actually cure this problem.
Nate Imig: Where are they going to make this happen?
Theresa Flores: It used to be mainly on Craigslist, then “Backpage” (we were successful in getting that taken down), but now there are a lot of other different sites men are going on to make a “date” they call it. It’s different than driving down the street looking for somebody, that’s not really not what we see very much.
I mean how many guys do you know that have gotten arrested for picking up a prostitute? It doesn't happen very often.
So it’s a whole process of educating law enforcement, prosecuting attorneys, judges, the community that “hey, if you're going to buy somebody online you're going to get caught” because you can't buy people in our country. It’s a whole re-education of the way we used to think of prostitution.
Nate Imig: I noticed as I was sitting here just lost for words, you used that opportunity to pivot to - the problem is that we are prosecuting and shaming the victim. It just shows another systematic male-dominated thing where it’s disenfranchising victim women.
Theresa Flores: Exactly, it's a great way to put it. There's people that will say “boys will be boys” talking about this as “the oldest profession in the world” and it’s like no - this is the oldest oppression because we haven’t successfully stopped it.
Other countries have stopped it - by making it legal for her to sell herself, because it’s her body - but making it illegal to buy another person. And that is the way these other countries, like Sweden for example, have successfully done a major harm reduction about human trafficking.
Nate Imig: Can you clarify that a little bit, because right now in the U.S. it’ illegal to do both, right?
Theresa Flores: Right now it's illegal to do both, right. It's a misdemeanor if you get caught selling yourself or buying somebody, but obviously the perpetrators are not out there getting arrested every night. But if she's out there continually getting arrested, over three misdemeanors is now a felony. Now she can't get a job and she can't get an apartment - yet nothing has happened to him.
There's different talk about legalizing prostitution as a whole, or also decriminalizing prostitution but the majority of us in this fight, in this movement believe that legalization of it would be a horrible thing to happen. I mean look at Amsterdam now, I mean, these the countries that have decided to do that realize it was a bad decision because the pimps have free market and can’t be arrested.
But if we decriminalize it, meaning we're not going to treat her as a criminal, but we say it's illegal to buy, then we can actually stop this completely.
Nate Imig: So it takes away the penalty for the woman while keeping the penalty for the man.
Theresa Flores: It's supply and demand, if nobody is demanding it then the supply is going to have to go down. If he knows he is going to get arrested for this, then it’s no longer a job for her, nobody is able to sell her.
It’s hard though, who’s going to be the first state to do that? It’s hard to be the first one, but it’s something legislators need to take a hard look at.
Nate Imig: To shame and oppress women, it’s a systemic problem. So what’s next? Awareness is obviously the first phase, but what else can we do to combat this?
Theresa Flores: Helping us do our S.O.A.P. outreaches. We need manpower. We need people to help label the bars of soap and donate to purchase the supplies. We now use makeup remover wipes as well to give to the high-end hotels, those are kind of costly, but all the hotels take the makeup remover wipes. We do a lot of printing of posters of kids missing from this area, so it takes a lot of manpower to pull off an outreach.
We're going to be doing an outreach this June and continuing all across Milwaukee, down to Elkhorn up to Green Bay.
People can help with the soap, they can talk to their friends and have this conversation. There are movies and documentaries people can watch, or invite a local speaker or organization to their school or place of work. There are a lot of things people can do to fight this.
Nate Imig: What are some things parents should be keeping an eye on for their kids to make sure they're doing all they can do?
Theresa Flores: I'll just give you an example of what my parents could have done. I was blackmailed with photos and the traffickers would call my room in the middle of the night and say “you need to come now” and I would sneak out of my house and I would meet the car and be taken to homes all around the area and be sold to men. I would sneak back inside around four in the morning and go to sleep.
So obviously my grades dropped but my parents and teachers just assumed it was me having a hard time adjusting to moving to a new area. Nobody asked that one extra question. I got sick and had migraines and stomach aches because of the stress and nobody said “is there something going on?” I was falling asleep during class but everyone assumed it was normal teenage hormones. Everybody just assumed. So parents just need to up their anti.
It started off with the photos, like “we're gonna show these to everybody” and increased to “we're going to kill your brothers, we're going to kill your family.” They would follow me and my little brothers when we walked to school every day and I was the oldest with three younger brothers so they held that over my head.
When you’re a kid, you believe threats very easily. Especially when you're being crushed at night by these people - you believe anything they say.
Nate Imig: How did you get out?
Theresa Flores: Most do not get out of this. A trafficking victim has a 40 percent higher chance of death than anybody else - usually by murder of her by the perpetrator, murder by the pimp, drug overdose, or suicide. For me it was a miracle, really by the grace of god. My dad actually got transferred a thousand miles away and I didn't tell a single friend to that I was leaving and I was able to crouch on the floor of my van and leave. And that doesn’t happen. I don't know of a single survivor that got to escape like that. So I think that god had something big planned for me for sure.
Nate Imig: You did tell your parents at some point though?
Theresa Flores: About five years later after I graduated college I sat them down and told them a tiny little bit about what had happened and they were shocked, they had no idea that this was happening. My dad was angry and my mom was stunned into silence but nothing happened. They didn't call the police and even though we lived in a different state, they could have called the police and reported and we could have prosecuted them. But they were the kind of parents that were like “you know, you have a nice life, you know, bad things happen but just go on with your life.”
And I did that for awhile. But when I learned what had happened to me human trafficking and that I wasn't the only one, that there's hundreds of thousands of Theresa’s out there I realized I couldn’t keep silent anymore.
I told them I was going on the today show and writing a book and they didn’t like that, they thought it might embarrass the family. But this is why this is continuing, we need to have those hard conversations. My relationship with my parents now is good. I mean, it is difficult to talk to them about this, but they're very proud of me, of what I've accomplished and the books I’ve written, but it’s still a difficult conversation to have.
Nate Imig: And how old were you during this time?
Theresa Flores: During the demographics of fifteen to seventeen years of age, all of my sophomore and junior year of high school. I have friends that I'm reconnecting with from back then and they're like “wow you we wish she would have told us” but it's so difficult for a trafficking victim to talk about it because they don't have the words, they're being threatened. It’s something that happens in so many different ways, there's so many different kinds of victims stories but there's always the commonality of being threatened that something is going to happen.
Yeah I mean I could clearly see when I made a turn from the whole ‘trafficking victim, strip club, drug use and prostitution’ route. I think it was in part because of my family values, because I still had hope. It’s when you lose hope that you go down that road. And these girls and women do self-medicate, they do turn to drugs, because they have PTSD and they’re not getting counseling.
A lot of these girls ran away, they didn’t finish high school, it’s hard to get a job, so all they really have is the street and that pimp - and they don’t know there are other options.
Nate Imig: A lot of times we view sex crimes in an unfair way as a society, like it’s too taboo to talk about. How do you think we’re viewing this issues overall as a society?
Theresa Flores: Well, it’s a moral issue and it's hard to dictate somebody's morals. We generally know what’s good and bad but we need to start seeing this as a social issue. People think “oh, it’s okay to buy a woman because she was offering, she was asking” but he needs to take a step back and ask “why is she doing this, is somebody making her do this?”
Because who in their right mind would want to have sex with twenty men a night? That’s what happens and you don’t know how nice or how evil this guy will be. A lot of men try to get their fetishes or fixes, they’re into role play or pornography and it’s extremely violent to these women.
If you were to ask her and she was able to tell you the truth, she would say she didn’t want to do it, that he was making her do it, or she didn’t have another option. As a society what we need to do is take the rose-colored glasses off, take a step back, and see it for what it really is.