KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Personal items that belonged to people who were victims of sex trafficking are on display at University of Missouri-Kansas City.
These items include a dress a young woman was wearing when she was trafficked from Mexico City to Las Vegas. One table shows a little girl's sandals that were at a brothel in Asia where girls as young as 6 years old were being sold for sex. There is a coffee cup from a cafe in Europe that has been used as a front for a trafficking organization targeting young women.
Each piece is part of The Apathy Effect exhibit, which aims to show people sex trafficking and exploitation in a real way.
"We want people to understand the reality of human trafficking, what it looks like, what it is, what it isn't," said September Trible with the Stop Trafficking Project. "Breaking the myths and bringing the reality so that people can have empathy and have an impact in our community."
And the reality is that trafficking happens locally and nationally every day. In November, more than 20 people were arrested in a human trafficking sting in Independence.
Statewide, 123 traffickers have been identified in Missouri alone, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
UMKC criminology professor Alison Phillips said that human trafficking in a place like Kansas City “comes down to illicit massage businesses.”
“A lot of it is also masquerading as prostitution,” Phillips said, “and we have some really very old myths that perpetuate that perception that women want that.”
The Apathy Effect exhibit is put on by iEmpathize, an organization based out of Denver that travels across the U.S. spreading awareness. Its goal is to show people how they might be inadvertently playing a role in trafficking and who the victims are.
Jay Johnson, associate provost of academic operations at Northwest Missouri State University, visited the exhibit and works on his own campus to create curriculum about sex trafficking.
"I have a 4-year-old daughter, and it makes me think, ‘OK, well those could be her shoes. Those could be her towels. That could be her cup,’” Johnson said. “So many things that just speaks to how personal this can become.”
The core of trafficking is exploitation. Traffickers use force, fraud and coercion to trap vulnerable people – mostly young people – into a dangerous cycle.
Phillips said when people click on a website to watch underage children engage in sex acts, visit an illicit massage parlor or buy an escort they are breaking the law.
"You are setting all this stuff in motion because you're offering a financial reward," Phillips said. "The reason why traffickers go out and they force victims and they construct these deceptive schemes to lure people in is because there's money being offered for it."
A surge of people in one area, such as the Super Bowl on Sunday, can bring a high demand for purchased sex.
"It is the exploitation of vulnerability,” Trible said. “So, how did that person end up there? Back up to that question. And if it's a child, there can be no consent, whether given or implied, that is not the reality.”
The Apathy Effect exhibit runs from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. through Friday, Jan. 31, at Pierson Auditorium on the UMKC campus.