The horror the victims suffer is almost too much to contemplate.
And yet, we can't combat the abomination that is human trafficking unless we first acknowledge that it exists.
That's why Oscar-winning actress and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador Mira Sorvino came to Bakersfield, to deliver the Kegley Institute of Ethics 31st Annual Charles W. Kegley Memorial Lecture, held Tuesday night at Cal State Bakersfield's Doré Theatre.
Not only did Sorvino seek to raise public awareness of human trafficking, she said she hoped her efforts would be joined by hundreds in the audience, "so that you yourself can do something effective to stop slavery in our time."
Her lecture, titled "The Global Fight Against Human Trafficking: A Voice for Victims of Modern Day Slavery," was hosted by the institute and the Kern County Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
According to Sorvino, who has traveled the world on behalf of the UN, lobbied Congress on human trafficking and testified before the U.S. Senate on atrocities occurring around the world, the trafficking of human beings claims some 40 million victims and generates obscene annual profits, making it one of the most lucrative criminal enterprises in history.
One young woman Sorvino interviewed estimated she was raped 43,000 times between the ages of 12 and 16. All so someone else could profit.
Another woman's child was held hostage, compelling the young mother to submit to her own slavery in order to save her daughter.
And while sex trafficking is the largest component, slave labor is widespread and insidious, Sorvino said. In fields, in factories, in restaurants.
"Everything we buy, everything we use," she said, may be touched by slave labor. Your favorite sport shoes, that T-shirt you love, the bathtub you bathe in, may have a component of labor trafficking.
"We are actually all involved in the maintenance of the slave labor system," she said.
"You know here in Bakersfield there is human trafficking."
It's everywhere, she said. And it violates the most basic human rights.
"What we have here is a failure of empathy," she told the audience.
Before introducing Sorvino, Christopher Meyers, the institute's director, admitted he has resisted the topic of human trafficking because of its unrelenting darkness. It's "depressing," he said.
But, no more.
“By some accounts, there are more people in bondage today than at any point in history," he said. "This is obviously a profound moral tragedy, one that impacts Kern County in significant ways."
Despite its inherent evil, despite the suffering, there is hope, Sorvino insisted. She found it in the courage and determination and beauty of the survivors.
Their stories prove, she said, "there is nothing the human spirit cannot prevail against.
"Never make assumptions. Always fight for those souls locked in darkness."