Selling sex for money is an issue all communities face, but in San Joaquin County a newly formed task force is trying a different approach to at least one aspect of prostitution — human trafficking.
Wilson Way in Stockton is notoriously known for its high crime and homelessness.
It’s a street many people will drive on, but not many choose to stop, especially when night falls.
But for some who wait near the glow of neon lights of motels, the lure of selling sex comes with many dangers, and sometimes, without a choice.
“It’s not easy, and it’s, like, a really risky lifestyle,” a woman who asked to remain anonymous told FOX40, “Really risky, like, you’re always nervous, always scared, like, your customers … people out here getting raped,” she said.
The woman would not show her face on camera, but she walked Wilson Way looking for clients. She opened up about her life, but chose her words carefully. And when FOX40 asked what her first time was like, she responded with, “Ugh … I don’t know, it’s difficult.”
Every question was met with fear, caution and restraint.
She looked over her shoulder with each answer.
“I just … I met someone,” she said when our reporter asked her how she became a prostitute. She wouldn’t explain who that “someone” was.
“They don’t have control of their lives,” said Joelle Gomez, the CEO of the Women’s Center in Stockton.
Gomez explained that “someones” are often known as “Romeo pimps” –men, and sometimes teen boys, who target vulnerable girls and women in places like malls and even online.
“That Romeo pimp becomes a person who’s going to control them and put them into prostitution,” she said.
Romeo pimps start off romantic and loving then brainwash and isolate their victims — some of which are not even in high school.
The woman we spoke with claimed she was 21 years old. She appeared much younger.
“That vulnerable 12-year-old girl is going to be easily persuaded by somebody who might be calling themselves their friend, their boyfriend,” Gomez said.
Gomez is also one of the leading forces in the San Joaquin County Human Trafficking Task Force — a coalition formed in 2014 that is composed of law enforcement and nonprofit groups that address the ongoing problem.
“No one is for sale. No one is alone in this. There is help,” Gomez said.
They’ve been reaching out to possible victims with billboards and offer them a way out.
“Shelter, food, medical attention, legal assistance, job readiness, possibly education,” Gomez said.
FOX40 joined the Stockton Police Department one weekday afternoon for an operation they call a “John Mission.”
At least 20 men tried to solicit sex from undercover officers, but the goal is to find human trafficking victims.
“One is to send the message that we are out here, we are looking for underage girls and/or adult girls that are involved in human trafficking. Our main objective is to get the girls off the street,” said Det. Wesley Grinder, an undercover officer with the Stockton Police Department’s VICE unit.
Back on Wilson Way, the young woman FOX40 met admitted she’s only been selling her body for two weeks. Already, she’s dreaming of a better, brighter future.
“Is this the life that I want? No, not forever,” she said.
The Task Force is trying to lock down government funding so they can hire a human trafficking specialist. This person would work with victims who need shelter, food, legal help and other resources.
The task force is offering their services to victims through their helpline at (209) 948-1911.