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Economy

The Multimillion-Dollar, Underground Sex Economy

A first-of-its-kind DOJ-funded study debunks myths around sex workers and pimping.

A man stops to talk to a female police officer posing as a prostitute during a major prostitution sting operation in 2004 in Pomona, Calif.(David McNew/Getty Images)

photo of Elahe Izadi
March 12, 2014

In some cities, the underground commercial sex economy accounts for as much as $300 million a year.

That's according to a first-of-its-kind study, funded by the Justice Department and conducted by the Urban Institute, that provides estimates on the size of the underground sex economy.

The study focused on eight cities in 2003 and 2007, chosen to show regional diversity and also because of available data, official cooperation, and the availability of a sufficient number of convicted pimps and sex traffickers. In major cities such as Miami, the underground sex economy was estimated as $302 million in 2003; in Atlanta, it was $290 million in 2007. Washington's underground sex economy accounted for $100 million in 2007.

 

"We're not trying to make a statement that these cities need to worry because they are a hub for this," lead researcher Meredith Dank said. "Part of it is regional diversity in saying this is happening everywhere; there is a lot of money being made no matter what city you go in."

The figures provide a snapshot of the size of the underground sex economy, which grew from 2003 to 2007 in some cities. The figures also show that in many of the cities studied, the underground sex economy exceeds the drug and weapons economies. For instance, the underground drug trade in Miami was estimated at nearly $94 million in 2003, when the sex economy was $302 million.

Dank spent three years conducting extensive field research and interviews with former pimps, sex traffickers, sex workers, and law-enforcement officials. While much research and focus on sex trafficking has focused on victims and sex workers, this study provides insight into how pimps and traffickers operate.

"Having done research in this field for many years now, it answers a lot of stuff that we only knew anecdotally, but it also debunks some of the myths that get talked about within media and advocacy work," Dank said.

One of those myths? That physical coercion is the main tool pimps use—only 15 percent of those interviewed admitted to being physical with sex workers. Dank says that while many likely would not admit to using physical force, psychological coercion plays a huge role in the underground sex economy.

Another misconception is that all sex workers are forced to use drugs. "What we found is that at least a quarter of the individuals we interviewed actually had a strict rule not to use drugs, because it 'ruined the merchandise,' " she said. "There certainly are cases where there is forced drug use and a lot of drug use, but we need to start looking at all factors that come into play when you're looking at the underground sex economy, particularly when it comes to sex trafficking, because it's the only real way that you're going to address it the best."

Pimps reported believing that pimping was less risky than other forms of crime, despite acknowledging getting arrested as the biggest risk they faced.

The study also examined the use of child pornography, which has grown rapidly online and is increasingly depicting more graphic content involving very young children and even babies. Many of those interviewed who had been charged with distributing and possession ("noncontact" offenses), tended to believe their crimes were victimless because they weren't involved with producing new images.

Researchers suggest a litany of actions based on the findings in the nearly 400-page report, ranging from including coercion among the legal definitions of sex trafficking, to mandating that trafficking-hotline numbers be included on websites such as Craigslist and Backpage.com.

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