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When people hear that teenage girls are being exploited as sex slaves in the United States, they probably think it’s something involving the poor and underprivileged. They also probably believe that if their daughter was being exploited as a sex slave, they would see signs of it and would be able to intervene.
But people who think that way would be wrong. Just ask Theresa Flores.
Flores, who appeared Friday on TODAY, doesn’t have to cite studies or statistics or third-person accounts to prove her assertion. As a 15-year-old girl from a good, upper-middle-class Catholic family, she was used as a sex slave for two years in an upscale suburb of Detroit.
And her parents didn’t have a clue what was happening.
It has been 28 years since Flores’ nightmare began. But the problem has, if anything, gotten worse as the Internet has made it easier for predators to meet girls and profit by forcing them into sexual servitude.
“People … think trafficking only happens in India and China. Just because you make $100,000 a year and live in a fancy house doesn’t mean that it won’t happen to your kids,” Flores told TODAY’s Natalie Morales in a taped interview that was done for an MSNBC special titled “Sex Slaves: The Teen Trade” that will air Sunday (10 p.m. ET).
Erica MacDonald, a federal prosecutor assigned to sex trade cases, confirmed Flores’ account.
“These are cases that we work on on a regular basis,” MacDonald told TODAY’s Amy Robach after watching Flores tell Morales of her ordeal. “These are things that are happening to our youth in our suburbs. It not just something that happens just to the poor or in the inner city. It’s something that happens to every single one of our youth.”
Flores certainly had no reason to think it would happen to her.
“I was an Irish-Catholic, middle-class girl that lived in the suburbs,” she said. “I had a nice family. I was a good kid, I didn’t party and I wasn’t loose. I was just a normal, everyday kid.”
Her father was an executive who moved every two years as he got new assignments from his company. One of the moves took her to the Detroit suburb, where, as the new girl in a big high school, she was thrilled when a boy she calls “Daniel” invited her to visit his house. He was older than she – a junior. And she was thrilled to be noticed.
“I thought he was amazing. And I jumped at the chance like any 15-year-old girl would do,” she said.
He took her to an upstairs bedroom and, she said, “one thing led to another. He kissed me and. I’d always known when to tell somebody to stop, and he didn’t. I kept pushing him and trying to get him off me. And he wouldn’t stop until it was too late.”
Flores was a faithful Catholic – a “good girl.” And the rape was devastating.
“My religion was so important to me that the shame that that carried with it was huge. There was no way I wanted my mom to know,” she said.
So she kept her secret and went back to school, where, a few days later, “Daniel” approached her and showed her pictures of the rape. The photos had been taken by his cousins, who were hiding in the room. He used the pictures to blackmail her into doing anything he demanded.
He drove her to a house where his cousins were waiting in the basement. “You’ll do what we say, whenever we say, and when we’re done, we’ll take you home,” he told her.
For the next two hours, they beat and raped her before driving her home.
“I was sore, I could hardly walk,” Flores said. “I then went to bed and got up two hours later to go to school.”
Flores felt she had no one to turn to. “Who’s going to believe me if I told them that these guys are doing this?” she asked. “The psychological torture that they put you under is nothing that an adult can even imagine. From a kid’s perspective, it’s fear and psychological torture and shame all together.”
And her parents never suspected that anything was wrong.
“They had no signs beyond the normal teenage things – like your grades dropping and being tired. I was a teenager going through hormones, so they had no idea.” Flores told Robach after watching Morales’ report. “I was very good, as all these girls are, at hiding it, because they can’t tell their parents. The shame is so huge and they have no other options, they have nobody they can really talk to, they feel.”
MacDonald said that what happened to Flores is, sadly, not uncommon.
“Human traffickers today, it’s not necessarily individuals using force or the threat of force,” she told Robach. “It’s different types of psychological manipulation: the threat of exposure, the threat, ‘I’m going to tell your parents.’ They use all types of psychological torture to hold these girls in place.”
The torture finally ended for Flores two years after it began, when her father was again transferred to a new assignment in a new city, where she finished her senior year and graduated high school. It wasn’t until she was in college that she found the courage to speak out about what had happened to her, and by then it was too late to prosecute “Daniel.”
Now the mother of three, Flores has written a book about her ordeal called “The Sacred Bath: An American Teen's Story of Modern Day Slavery.” She keeps a Web site, traffickfree.com, campaigns against sexual slavery and exploitation, and has recently helped open a home for trafficked girls in Ohio called Gracehaven House. Although there are resources for foreign women brought into the United States as sex slaves, there are very few places to which American girls can turn, she said, adding that there are just 39 beds for such girls in the entire country.
MacDonald said that when people think of sexual trafficking, they think of women and girls being transported from place to place, often from outside the country. That’s not necessarily the case, she said.
“You can traffic your next-door neighbor and that is what’s happening to many of our youth,” she said. “Victims, for whatever reason, are extremely reluctant to testify, extremely reluctant to disclose, not only to law enforcement, but to even those close around them.”
If you have been a victim of an experience like Theresa Flores, you can e-mail the makers of “Sex Slaves: The Teen Trade” at email@example.com.