So, I'm pretty sure I was solicited for prostitution earlier this week.
Which, as it turns out, is highly opportune timing as January is human trafficking awareness month.
There’s even a locally produced documentary opening at the Fox Theater Thursday called “The Trafficked Life — Rescued, Restored and Redeemed” that delves into the ugly world of forced prostitution in Bakersfield.
Human trafficking involves more than just prostitution but the two are closely linked. More often than many folks realize.
But first, here's why I’m “pretty sure” I was mistaken for a pro.
There I was Monday morning at 4th and Union waiting for a cab after dropping my car off at the repair shop when this dude pulls up next to me and says something about being on his way to the bank.
Me: “Excuse me?” (Taking a half step toward the car thinking he needed directions.)
Dude: “This isn't what you think. Really, this is not what you think!”
Me: “Okaaaay.” (Half a step back away from the car.)
Dude: “I was driving down the road and saw you and thought you were cute. I wondered if you’d like to have a glass of wine or something.”
Me: “No. No thanks.” (Or something…? Pshhh.)
Dude: “OK. Soooo, are you single, or what?”
Me: “No. Nope. Not single. I’m taken.” (Was that truly a deal breaker for this guy?)
Dude: “Oh, OK. Well, good luck with that then. Bye.”
And off he drove.
Several things may go through a person's mind after such an encounter.
For me, standing there in my mom jeans and three sweaters wrapped up to my eyeballs with my work badge prominently dangling from my neck, it was: What about this outfit screams "HOOKER" at passing cars?
Secondarily, I wondered, if this guy is so comfortable making his pitch at 9:30 a.m. on a Monday to someone who clearly isn’t in the business (I swear, I practically looked Amish), how big a problem do we have here?
That’s according to Detective Dustin Contreras, who focuses on human trafficking for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, and Phil Gazely, head of the Kern Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
Arrest numbers, especially in the city, bear that out.
In 2013, the Bakersfield Police Department made 537 prostitution arrests, in 2014 it was 633, in 2015 that dropped to 389.
In the county the numbers were 74 in 2013, 55 in 2014 and 49 in 2015.
It’s hard to know how many of those arrested for prostitution were also being trafficked because victims are typically too afraid to come forward.
Like domestic violence, victims often fear their abusers so much they refuse to testify or even seek help, Contreras said.
Contreras became the sheriff’s human trafficking detective in 2012 around the same time voters increased penalties for trafficking under Proposition 35.
Since then, he said, he’s helped work about 60 human trafficking cases, none of which has so far resulted in a human trafficking conviction, though many have resulted in convictions on other charges.
“The cases either get filed for pimping or, for the most part, we lose the victims,” Contreras said. “They simply disappear. They’re very much like domestic violence cases.”
Pimping, by the way, differs from human trafficking in that pimps are considered to be in cahoots with prostitutes who are consenting to the activity. For someone to be guilty of human trafficking, there has to be an element of force (except with minors, who can’t give consent).
I only found a single Kern County conviction for human trafficking.
That was in August of 2013. In that case, Jerome Ryan Henderson tried to convince a 13-year-old girl to go to Sacramento to turn tricks. She reported him to the BPD and he’s now serving a 32-year sentence.
One conviction may not seem like much headway, but there are other areas of success.
Gazely said that the coalition identified 130 people in 2015 who were victims of human trafficking. A majority, 117, were U.S. citizens and 44 were minors.
Seven of the victims were trafficked in labor (forced to work without wages in hotels, agriculture, restaurants, janitorial, etc.).
The rest, 123, were trafficked in the sex trade.
Finding that many people is a vast improvement over past years and reflects a huge amount of goodwill within the community since the the coalition was formed three years ago, Gazely said.
Greater awareness and understanding of trafficking has also changed attitudes in law enforcement, agreed Contreras.
“In the past, it was overlooked,” Contreras said of how cops viewed prostitutes.
The thinking was that if a hooker was raped or robbed, well, that was just part of the life they chose.
Better training and a more victim-centric approach have changed that.
“Successfully working these cases is about how you treat the victim and collaborate with other agencies,” Contreras said.
Now, laws even prohibit the past record of a human trafficking victim from counting against them.
Though Kern’s conviction rate on human trafficking hasn’t been dramatic, Contreras said he’s seeing the word get out among pimps to tread carefully.
“They’re catching on to how seriously courts are taking it and warning their homies to be careful.”
Too bad word hasn’t gotten to “Johns” cruising Union Avenue looking to share a morning glass of wine. (Glass of wine, indeed!)