The Horrors of Modern Day Slavery

A snapshot of a scene in Break the Chain by Laura Swanson
A snapshot of a scene in Break the Chain by Laura Swanson; photo courtesy of Michigan Radio

Personal autonomy, the ethical principle of a person’s right to control their own body, has been a guiding principle in the United States since the abolition of slavery. For millions of people across the world, however, their personal autonomy has been stolen from them in the most violent and dehumanizing way. Trafficked as laborers and sex slaves, these people are forced into a world where their misery is the profit and pleasure of others.

Human trafficking is a global issue, and the United States is not exempt from its influence. The state of Michigan, in fact, currently ranks second in the nation as far as human trafficking, owed primarily to its border with Canada. Human trafficking is not limited to exploited women being smuggled across borders, however, for it encompasses all individuals coerced into forced labor and sexual services.

As the crime of human trafficking is by its very nature hidden from the public eye, many may have the impression that it is relatively rare.

The fact is, however, that the monthly incidents of human trafficking among young women in the United States regularly surpasses the annual number of women under 24 killed in car accidents, and greatly surpasses the number that commit suicide. Car safety and mental health are recognized issues, but human trafficking is often perceived as a distant problem, something that happens to other people in other places.

This reality of human trafficking in the US was lived by Birmingham native Theresa Flores. While a sophomore in high school, Flores was groomed by a boy at her school, which is to say that he established an emotional connection with her in order to make her more susceptible to abuse. This classmate and his cousins then drugged and raped her, which they followed by blackmailing her with the threat of releasing pictures they had taken of her rape. When speaking with Patricia Montemurri of the Detroit Free Press, Flores said, “They would take me to homes all over Birmingham, Rochester Hills and Farmington areas to different men.” These men would then rape and torture her, sometimes on a nightly basis. This regular abuse didn’t end until Theresa’s family moved out of state, her parents unaware of what was going on.

In discussing the lack of awareness of this issue, Flores told MLive’s Terri Finch Hamilton, “It happens here, to white, middle-class teens who live in the suburbs. It’s easy to think that because you live in a nice neighborhood, you’re safe. Well, you’re not. We’ve let our guard down.”

In response to her ordeal, Flores founded Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution, or S.O.A.P.. This organization engages in a variety of activities to both fight human trafficking and help its victims. Perhaps their most visible campaign is their distribution of bars of soap to local motels, especially during high profile events like the North American International Auto Show. Such events see surges in human trafficking, as the influx of visitors creates a demand for girls, and Michigan’s international border provides a means for smuggling them into the country. These bars of soap are encased in a special wrapper upon which the contact information for a human trafficking hotline is written. These soaps are placed in the bathrooms of less reputable motels in the hopes that victims of human trafficking may see them and have a chance at breaking free.

Another woman in Michigan working to fight human trafficking is filmmaker and MSU alumna, Laura Swanson. In her upcoming documentary Break the Chain, Swanson seeks to increase awareness of this issue in Michigan and to dispel myths that people may have regarding trafficking. Break the Chain presents the stories of survivors, as well as interviews with researchers, lawmakers, legal experts, law enforcement officers, and artists. Further, Swanson seeks to establish a connection between viewers and this topic so that the necessary changes in laws can be made to better protect and help the victims of trafficking.

As recently as 2014, Michigan has expanded laws regarding human trafficking. In signing this collection of legislation, Governor Rick Snyder said, “It is unacceptable that a dangerous and appalling practice like human trafficking continues to be a prevalent problem across our state and nation.” One piece of this legislation, Senate Bill 584, created the Human Trafficking Commission for the state of Michigan, as well as made human trafficking punishable by life in prison. Other pieces expanded a victim’s ability to recoup damages from their abusers, allowing them to receive restitution not only for explicit damages like medical expenses, but also the time stolen from them.

While women and children make up the majority of individuals suffering from human trafficking, men are also numbered among the victims. In December of 2015, Hungarian national Andras Janos Vass was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his role in a human trafficking ring that operated in Miami and New York. His victims were young men lured to the United States and then held prisoner and subjected to rape and starvation. Some victims endured these conditions for more than a year before officials finally dismantled the ring. More than 150 years ago, the United States committed itself to the principle that no person can own another. This idea has grown and expanded within our legal system, and stands as a pillar of society. Though this principle remains the law of the land, the disturbing truth is that modern day slavery remains a pernicious presence within American society that demands our awareness and our action.

Note: If you have information about a human trafficking situation, or are in need of help, please call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888.