In the spirit of Women’s History Month, a day of activism in protest of human trafficking took place Tuesday — though perhaps not in the conventional sense.
From noon until 2:00 p.m., groups of girls could be seen sitting on mattresses along Pedestrian Walkway, holding signs displaying statistics about sex trafficking in the U.S. and wearing torn clothing.
While also intended to spread awareness of continued sexual exploitation within the U.S., the demonstration primarily served as publication for their event in the UC Auditorium on Tuesday night, entitled “America’s Dirty Little Secret,” which gives the story of keynote speaker and human trafficking survivor Theresa Flores.
Demonstration participant Ariel Hughes, a junior in political science, acknowledged that her time on Pedestrian wasn’t easy, but that the mattresses were more effective than traditional forms of advertising.
“I enjoyed it, but it was kind of difficult when people would pass by and they would stare at me,” Hughes said. “But I know that feeling is so miniscule compared to what people who are trafficked feel like. I hope people noticed and they show up.”
Flores, a noted author and victim advocate, spoke of her experiences in the suburbs of Detroit. At fifteen years old, she was drugged, raped and blackmailed into participating in a ring of criminal activity and commercial sex, only escaping after two years of coercion. As she put it, sex trafficking “is an epidemic that is not being shown on the nightly news.”
Now, as a happily married social worker with two daughters, Flores has healed through finding a purpose for her story. Through sharing her experiences with the public, Flores hopes to garner not awareness of modern-day slavery, but also harsher punishments for perpetrators and support for her growing social movement.
“The laws need to change locally,” Flores said. “They need to be going after the demand. And we need to be educating from middle school up on how to view women.”
Her formal campaign, S.O.A.P. (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) Outreach, attempts to address prostitution by providing education and aid for motel owners in “high risk” areas, clientele and victims alike.
The means by which Flores achieves this goal explains the unique name of the campaign.
“We label small bars of hotel soap with the National Human Trafficking hotline,” Flores said. “Groups give them to motels, and that is how we reach these places.”
The Women’s Coordinating Council, one of the seven Central Programs Committees on campus, sponsored the keynote lecture Tuesday night. After the event, council chairperson Katherine Henry explained the need to draw attention to this subject.
“I was talking to people about it and they were like, ‘oh that doesn’t really happen in Tennessee, it happens overseas, like in the movie 'Taken,'” Henry said. “When really it’s happening obviously next door. So I think it was really important to bring it because it’s a local issue it’s a national and I don’t think people realize that.”
Further information on Theresa Flores’ books, organization and testimony can be found at http://www.traffickfree.com. The Women’s Coordinating Council can also be liked on Facebook and followed on Twitter at @_WCC_. Future programming is also posted through their Student Activities website, at http://activities.utk.edu/cpc/wcc/.