BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Sex workers tend to start early — dreadfully early. Sometimes even pre-teen early. But 13- and 14-year-olds are in no position to make decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives, and exploiters, who prefer to refer to themselves as “boyfriends,” are usually more than willing to help girls make that premature and ill-advised career choice.

Sometimes those girls end up on the street: The Blade, they call it, in Bakersfield as well as in other cities. The Blade, in Bakersfield, is Union Avenue between 1st and 11th streets, west over to V Street. It’s a tough way to do business, loitering on sidewalks and reporting back to a handler lurking in a car on a sidestreet.

Which is why some exploiters – pimps, sugar daddies, whatever – use a two-pronged approach.

One, according to Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer, is the street. Two, she said, is social media.

“In the old days, when I first started in the early 1980s, it was undercover operations on Union Avenue,” she said. “Prostitute stings and john stings. But now that prostitution has moved online, most of it anyway, we have to take a very different approach. And our focus is on the traffickers and on the predators who exploit children.” 

Including, most often, minor teens.

“Especially the girls that are in high school — those are big targets for traffickers,” said Janae Knallay, sex trafficking specialist in the Kern County District Attorney’s office. 

“Oftentimes they run away from their homes and are picked up almost immediately by the traffickers,” Knallay said. “And once they’re picked up by the traffickers, it’s the grooming process, the manipulation process begins by the trafficker, which leads to eventual coercion by the victim — so much to the point where I don’t think I’ve ever seen a self-reported H-T victim, like going to the police and saying, ‘Hey, I’m a victim.’”

The modern trafficker’s tools? Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook — free, easily accessible social media websites.

“Another trend we’re seeing,” Knallay said, “is that traffickers are luring young males via online video games.”

The DA’s office typically prosecutes people after a crime has been committed and, in most cases, the damage inflicted. 

But how does society, how do families, prevent sex crimes from happening in the first place? By being families. If girls don’t get loving guidance at home, they look for it elsewhere. Pimps plucked from the street often explain it like this.

“‘They didn’t have a father so they pay me to be their father.’ And so traffickers know the vulnerability of these victims, and that’s how they exploit them,” Knallay said.

Arrests for pimping and pandering have jumped in the last year to more than 40 countywide in 2023, a substantial increase from just three years ago when the pandemic flushed the streets clean. In addition, the DA has convicted more than dozen individuals for sex trafficking this year. Now Zimmer is taking her message straight to the kids, preparing a series of student body assemblies at middle schools in the Bakersfield City School District.

Schools are important in this fight, these prosecutors say, but it starts with families.

The number one way people can minimize human trafficking? Pay attention to the kids. Family dinners are a good start.