Sex Workers: Stepping Out of the Shadows: Pomona’s open secret: Prostitution unveiled

Prostitutes stand on street corners and walk down the sidewalks of Holt Avenue in Pomona all times of day, any day of the week. The sex workers are either “renegades”, prostitutes who work independently under no control or are being trafficked by their manipulative pimp “boyfriend”. / photo by Lindsey Pacela
Prostitutes stand on street corners and walk down the sidewalks of Holt Avenue in Pomona all times of day, any day of the week. The sex workers are either “renegades”, prostitutes who work independently under no control or are being trafficked by their manipulative pimp “boyfriend.” / photo by Lindsey Pacela

Sarah Van Buskirk
Editorial Director

Lindsey Pacela
Contributing Editor

*This story contains graphic information of sexual content, violence and strong language. Some names have been altered to protect their identities.

POMONA – “I once knew a girl named Essence on Figueroa, a trick shot her and murdered her right in front of me,” said Alex, a sex worker in Pomona, who asked that her full name not be used for safety reasons.

She began working in Pomona after she moved in with her cousin who lives there.

Pomona is known for a lot, such as its eclectic art galleries, moshing punk shows and multicultural cuisines. It is also known for the fishnets and stilettos that catch the eyes of most when driving down Holt Avenue also known as “The Blade.”

Alex, 26, from Houston, grew up sheltered by her father who would not allow her to get a job. Then one day when she was 15, she was walking to the store when a man pulled his car next to her and offered her $20 for oral sex. Her father’s strict conservative parenting wouldn’t allow her freedom to make money, so she felt this was her only opportunity to have some independence and earn an income.

According to the 2020 study “Entry to Sex Trade and Long-Term Vulnerabilities of Female Sex Workers Who Enter the Sex Trade Before the Age of Eighteen, 20% of the minors reported being coerced, threatened, pressured, misled, tricked, or physically forced into trading sex –  compared to 5% of those who entered at an older age group.

Alex found the fast cash alluring and continued sex work, which felt normal as sex work was common in the neighborhood where she lived. In Houston sex work is not legal but popular. Working on the streets during the day made her the most money but made it harder for her to stay consistent in school. 

After dropping out of high school her senior year in 2016, Alex traveled to Bakersfield then Los Angeles to find work in less restricted locations. 

Over the next eight years, she became a mother, while still working on the streets to pay her mortgage and care for child. Alex eventually received her GED and attempted to go to nursing school. She even tried to work at Buffalo Wild Wings, but the money wasn’t as good as sex work — which secured her nearly eight-times what her paycheck would be with a minimum wage salary. She believes she could never work a normal job again.

Alex recently relocated to Pomona seeking a safer environment compared with some of the horrors – murders, kidnappings, and sexual assault on South Figueroa Street. She witnessed a girl being kidnapped and multiple murders before deciding it was too dangerous to continue working there. She now stays with her cousin and child in Pomona.

A 2008 study by the National Library of Medicine called “Prostitute homicides,” found that women involved in street prostitution are 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered than women who are not sex workers.

Today Alex works about six hours a day four days a week on Holt Avenue, giving her more time to be with her child. She inspects each car upon entry, still uncertain of her safety during encounters. She says most of her customers are middle-aged, Hispanic males. Alex can bank $500 per person. She said she values herself more now than she did when she started sex work. Her rates vary depending on services. Oral sex is normally around $100, and the more that is asked for, the higher her rates go. Alex said she is comfortable playing out the men’s fantasies, and won’t judge them for certain kinks — she just charges accordingly.

“I don’t 100% love it but I don’t 100% hate it,” Alex said. “Guys want something and I want money.”

Two sex workers chat up a solicitor or commonly referred to as a “John” on Holt Avenue in Pomona. Some workers may stand waiting for cars to approach them or they wave and even walk up to cars with the windows rolled down to make a deal for themselves. / photo by Lindsey Pacela
Two sex workers chat up a solicitor or commonly referred to as a “John” on Holt Avenue in Pomona. Some workers may stand waiting for cars to approach them or they wave and even walk up to cars with the windows rolled down to make a deal for themselves. / photo by Lindsey Pacela

The Law

In 2021, California decriminalized prostitution via SB 357, or the “Crimes: loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense,” law. 

The solicitation of sex work remains a misdemeanor, however the sex workers on the street, who may not be working in this profession by choice, have more protection from consequences of the law. Sex workers can be stopped by police if they are obstructing the flow of traffic, if they look underage or for public indecency. 

Officers Smith and Johnson, who asked that their real names not be used because they work undercover, are part of the Pomona Police Department Investigative Services Unit. 

Smith said that before the implementation of SB 357, the sex workers on Holt Avenue used to wear casual summer clothes. To some, they would just look like casual dressers – unless they were aware of what street corner they were on. After the decriminalization law took effect, the outfits have become more revealing ​​because they can now be more open about the work they do.

“Two years ago it was shorts and a tank top, now it’s a g-string and pasties,” Smith said.

“If you can wear it to the beach, you can wear it on the street.”

It’s profitable to work on The Blade for prostitutes because it has now become a full scale business, according to the Pomona police. 

There is also marketing across social media platforms, such as Instagram and TikTok. Pimps use these sites to advertise the women under unsuspecting platforms, such as small businesses, and hashtags like #hoesonholt, #304life and #16life. The number ‘304 is code for hoe, if turned upside down; 16 is code for pimp because P is the 16th letter of the alphabet. 

Back on the street, the sex workers start on Holt Avenue, after being dropped off by their pimps, whom they refer to as “daddies” or “boyfriends.” Then, they wait for a customer – a “John” or a “trick.” The prostitutes are hypervigilant – every car that could be a potential client. 

They visually scan the cars that pull up towards them and check who’s in the car, what they are wearing and what is in the back seats. It’s never just about the single conversation with the single person in the car, because every job could be a choice between life and death.

“We’ve seen real Dexter s*** in cars before, like ropes and chloroform,” Johnson said in reference to some of the evidence they found in Johns’ cars after a sting operation.

If a John decides to go through with the offer and agrees to their price, the worker then gets in the car with them. At this point, now that a deal was made, a police officer could legally make a formal arrest of the John. If arrested, the solicitor is booked, cited and given the option of a fine of $1,000 or jail for up to six months; or they can agree to take a prostitution prevention class along with a HIV and AIDS test, in order for the case to be dismissed.

Sex workers fill the street on Clark Avenue that intersects Holt Avenue, internationally known as “The Blade” in the street prostitution lifestyle. The amount of sex workers on Holt Avenue increases as the sun sets but their light up stilettos and phone flashlights lead their way to the next street corner. / photo by Lindsey Pacela
Sex workers fill the street on Clark Avenue that intersects Holt Avenue, internationally known as “The Blade” in the street prostitution lifestyle. The amount of sex workers on Holt Avenue increases as the sun sets but their light up stilettos and phone flashlights lead their way to the next street corner. / photo by Lindsey Pacela

The Work

After the initial agreement between the prostitute and John, what happens next really comes down to what the worker is comfortable with. Some stay in the car, and may perform oral sex right there. Sometimes the John will take them to another location, like a park, dark alleyway or motel to have sex. Others may have the John take them back to their motel room they have for the night and perform whatever they’ve agreed upon. Afterwards, the money is fronted by the John, either via cash or a mobile payment service, such as Venmo or Cashapp. Then the worker gets back on the street and starts the cycle again.

Many of the prostitutes on Holt Avenue are flown in from Texas and Florida by their pimps for a few weeks at a time because of the laws in those states becoming stricter. The sex workers often don’t have a choice in the matter, and they have to move wherever their pimp says they have to go. Most get 70% and give their pimps 30% of their pay. Sometimes they are paid in other forms, like safety for their children and a home, a car and nice things, or drugs. The power dynamic here is what keeps these sex workers from working independently or as “renegades.” What’s more, these sex workers often don’t think of their pimps as pimps. These are their “boyfriends,” their “friend,” someone they know. Some are indoctrinated into these sex trafficking rings as young as high school; they can be groomed or blackmailed into doing this job via social media, officers Johnson and Smith said

According to the “Entry to Sex Trade study, 73% of women entered the sex trade to get drugs, 36% of women entered to get basic necessities such as food or housing and 17% of women entered to support their children or family.

This trafficking circle becomes more intricate, with tiers inside of it. Under the pimp is the “bottom bitch.” This woman is trusted by the pimp to help the flow of business when they’re not there. They come off as trustworthy, relatable and comforting to vulnerable people. But the stark reality is that they become their primary abusers. They beat and groom them into submission.

Pomona has a few motels that sex workers previously frequented, Smith said, such as the former Lemon Tree Inn on 1700 Gillette Road, a few blocks away from Holt Avenue. Reviews on Google explained the horrors inside the rooms: torn furniture with graffiti on them, large blood stains on the mattresses, cigarette butts and burn holes splayed everywhere, roaches crittering around, bathroom light fixtures broken as if they were bashed in.

According to one Google review there were “Bags of dope in the restroom,” 

According to another Google review “The bathtub had stains like one would expect if bodies were dissolved in it,”

The motel is now open and recently underwent renovations with new management as part of the Travelodge franchise, as of a year ago. The new Travelodge manager, Glen Dsouza said that they have no idea about the previous history of the Lemon Tree Inn and have already requested that the past Google reviews like, and on the location be taken down.

“We don’t take those people,” Dsouza said, when asked if they see prostitutes frequently occupying their rooms. 

He said that if they suspect someone of that, they refuse their business.

Some of the motels in Pomona previously offered hourly rates, but now, under a recent city ordinance, No. 34-222 of the Pomona Municipal Code Prohibiting Hourly Rentals of Hotels and Motels within City Limits, passed in October 2020, they can no longer do that. 

Project Sister, a Pomona-based family services shelter, voiced their approval and urged the passing of the ordinance in 2020.

The City

The city’s Anti-Human Trafficking group is a Pomona-based, public meeting created due to the influx of Pomona residents complaining about sex workers negatively affecting the community on the Nextdoor app, a social networking service for neighborhoods. The meeting happens every first Saturday of the month, except on holidays. Attendees included residents, Pomona police, Pomona Valley Unified School District representatives and those from Project Sister. The Pomona police gave updated information on their recent sting operations such as when they took in Johns and took down pimps.

One resident at the meeting reported that she had met an Uber driver who boasted about picking up sex workers he gave his personal number to and took between locations. He thought what he was doing was commemorable. Sgt. Gomez of the Pomona Police Department said this was in fact illegal, as he aided in sex trafficking which the Investigative Services Unit is currently looking into.

Another resident said she takes a different route home when picking her kids up from school to avoid Holt Avenue because of how many sex workers line the sidewalks. Village Academy High School corners Holt Avenue and Indian Hill Boulevard where students find themselves walking home through a sex trafficking catalog. About 10 other schools parallel Holt Avenue.

The major locations that sex workers occupy on Holt Avenue include Garfield park which has a large playground that is popular among Pomona’s youth, North Loranne Avenue and Clark Avenue. East of Clark Avenue is the Pomona Square shopping center, where the city installed gates on the entrances of the lot to be closed at night, so that solicitors can not circle around in order to pick up the workers or have sex in the lot.

The Pomona Valley Unified School District has been working on continued parent involvement, including a “Father Engagement” day last year, and a “Father Involvement Day” this year. Fathers and father figures can come together to ask about what they can do to help their children avoid sex trafficking and utilize safe practices in their daily lives, including across social media. 

Project Sister Family Services, a non-profit sexual assault advocacy and prevention group in Pomona shared their ideas of ‘See Something, Say Something’ signs to the meeting. 

Similar signs created by the city of Pomona scatter sparingly throughout the city. Christina Jimenez, manager of the outreach services at Project Sister, said how the organization has been in contact with the Pomona Police Department, about spreading those signs further into the city. The Police Department moved that decision making over to the Pomona City Council and have heard little to no feedback, Jimenez said.

Ensuring a bilingual poster was created, Project Sister designed two posters to stick on windows of local businesses as well as small cards with a QR code that opens a Linktree of resources for victims of sex trafficking to get immediate or long-term help.

The Struggle

The trouble that every division at this meeting comes across is communicating directly to the sex workers. Smith told a story during a ride-along, about a sex worker they briefly talked to in Pomona, trying to provide outreach and support to. The woman was fearful of being watched by her pimp and talking to the police, so she left after only a few moments of speaking with Smith. A few months later, the woman was picked up after being caught for a petty crime. She specifically asked for Officer Smith. She kept repeating the name and wouldn’t talk to anyone else until she saw Smith. 

Smith was contacted and the woman was given support services. She actually committed a petty drug crime to be caught on purpose. For some of the workers in this industry, that’s all they can do – get caught or stay stuck in the cycle. Everyone at the Anti-Human Trafficking Community Neighborhood United meeting on March 1 heard this story and understands the gravity of the situation. They believe outreach needs to be efficient and quick, as it’s a crucial aspect for community improvement. From their passion, they have bypassed the local government’s lack of intervention in the issue, and taken it into their own hands.

Sarah Van Buskirk can be reached at sarah.vanbuskirk@laverne.edu.

Lindsey Pacela can be reached at lindsey.pacela@laverne.edu.

Need Help Now?

If you or a loved one have experienced sex trafficking and are looking for help, call or visit:

Project Sister Rape Crisis Hotline: (909) 626-4357

Project Sister Child Abuse Hotline: (626) 966-4155

Project Sister Website: projectsister.org

Project Resilience Number: (909) 643-1635

Project Resilience Website: project-resilience.org

The National Human Trafficking Hotline: (888) 373-7888

Sex Workers: Stepping Out of the Shadows

Pomona's open secret: Prostitution unveiled

From survival to service: The journey of a former sex worker turned advocate
Online sex work and stripping prove safer than prostitution

Sarah Van Buskirk is a senior journalism major with a concentration in print and online journalism. She is the Spring 2024 editorial director for the Campus Times and has recently served as editor-in-chief, sports editor and staff writer. She is also currently a staff photographer for the Campus Times and La Verne Magazine, and a staff writer for La Verne Magazine.

1 COMMENT

  1. This article hits home for me. I lived in Pomona and used to work on Holt and East End St a few years back. Every morning I would pass by many women wearing fishnets and panties with stilettos, even in 50 degree weather. I would always wonder to myself , “who here is being held against their will and which person is here willingly.” It’s crazy to think that sex trafficking may be happening in my very own neighborhood and these women may need help. This story is just a reminder to be alert and aware of my surroundings and do my best to recognize signs of sex trafficking and prostitution that may be happening unwillingly.

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