Monday, January 11, 2010

The Slave Across the Street

When people in the US think of sex slavery and sex trafficking, the first image is likely to be of a young woman in another country, perhaps in Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia. Even people who are aware of trafficking in the US are most likely to picture a sex trafficking victim as someone who matches the traditional signs of being "at risk": a runaway, someone who was abused at home, or someone from an impoverished background. Theresa Flores defies all of these stereotypes.

In The Slave Across the Street, Flores' new book published to coincide with National Global Human Trafficking Awareness Day, she recounts her experiences of sex slavery as a teenager living in suburbia in the Midwest. Flores came from an affluent background that valued education and hard work. Her family moved around frequently to allow her father to advance in his career. Because of the frequent moves, Flores lacked a strong support network when her family moved to Michigan.

When she was 16, she was sexually assaulted by a classmate. The assault was an initiation into the world of sex trafficking. For nearly two years, Flores' classmates used threats and violence to control her as a sex slave. Though she had friends, a long distance boyfriend, and continued to attend school and extracurricular activities, no one ever noticed the red flags or changes in her behavior. Eventually, her family moved, which helped her to escape the situation. Truly, though, it was her own incredible strength that allowed her to survive. In her book, she notes that physically leaving the situation was only one small piece on her journey to healing and true escape.

Flores went on to attend college, and is now a licensed social worker with a master's degree in counseling education. Flores recently founded Gracehaven House, a group home for girls under the age of 18 who are victims and survivors of commercial sexual exploitation. In addition to recounting her experiences, The Slave Across the Street also includes information about domestic minor sex trafficking/commercial sexual exploitation of children (DMST/CSEC), and information for parents, educators, and others who work with youth on recognizing sex trafficking and working to prevent slavery and support victims.

I first met Flores at an anti-trafficking conference in Missouri two years ago. I remain completely awed and inspired by her and her work. As a survivor, Flores has dedicated her life to helping other survivors through sharing her story, raising awareness, challenging stereotypes and complacency, and providing direct support to other survivors. I recently spoke with her about her new book and her perspective on sex trafficking and the anti-trafficking movement.

When I asked her about what needs to be done to ending sex trafficking, particularly CSEC, Flores stated that she believes that US laws are inadequate and misdirected. She pointed out that people who buy sex are not penalized, while prostitutes face arrest, even if the commercial sex involved a minor or someone who was coerced. She would advocate for a model like Sweden's, where the purchase of sex is illegal, thus targeting the demand side of commercial sex.

Flores also noted the extreme need for increased services for survivors, pointing out that there are only 39 beds in the country for DMST/CSEC survivors, though the FBI estimates that 100,000 American children are victims each year and 300,000 are at risk. According to Flores, people wishing to support survivors should advocate for increased services as well as increased awareness. One of the challenges she has faced in telling her story has been the victim-blaming attitudes and comments she has encountered from people. She argues that challenging victim blaming as well as cultural attitudes that glamorize pimps are vital for supporting survivors.

I also asked her about who motivates her to stay involved in anti-trafficking work and what keeps her going despite these challenges. She said, "I do this to save girls who are going through [what I went through]. I want to give hope to other survivors. You can heal from this, there's another life out there. I tell survivors 'that part of your life, when you went through that, is one small part of you, it's not who you are, it's not all of you.' I survived because I was bound and determined to not let them win the rest of my life. I was going to take over my life from that moment on so that they couldn't win."

Flores said that if there is one thing that people take away from her book, she hopes it is that sex trafficking can happen to anyone, and it is happening in the US. As we commemorate National Global Human Trafficking Awareness Day, I hope that her message of awareness, strength, and hope reaches survivors and advocates so that we can end slavery and exploitation.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:27 AM

    Thank you for what your doing!