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 November 12, 2004 in Pomona, California.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Elahe Izad
March 12, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
WILL BEGIN WITHOLDING FUNDS IMMEDIATELY
Sessions Makes Good on Threat to Sanctuary Citites
11 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday he’ll begin punishing sanctuary cities, withholding potentially billions of dollars in federal money — and even clawing back funds that had been doled out in the past. Speaking at the White House, Mr. Sessions said his department is preparing to dole out more than $4 billion in funds this year, but will try prevent any of it from going to sanctuaries."

Source:
THE PLOT THICKENS
Nunes Met Source on White House Grounds
13 hours ago
THE LATEST

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes was on the White House grounds "on the day before his announcement that he saw information suggesting that communications of then-President-elect Donald Trump and his advisers may have been swept up in surveillance of other foreign nationals." He notes he was not in the White House itself, and the President's team has disavowed any knowledge of Nunes's visit.

Source:
DEMOCRATS PUSHED FOR DELAY
Judiciary Committee Punts Gorsuch Vote Until Next Week
13 hours ago
THE LATEST
SENATE INTEL REQUESTS HIS TESTIMONY
Kushner to Testify on Russia
16 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Senate investigators plan to question Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a close adviser, as part of their broad inquiry into ties between Trump associates and Russian officials or others linked to the Kremlin, according to administration and congressional officials."

Source:
COULD ACCELERATE ITS DEMISE
Trump May Attack Obamacare Through Regulation
18 hours ago
THE LATEST

"With the collapse of Republicans’ health plan in the House on Friday, the Trump administration is set to ramp up its efforts to alter the Affordable Care Act in one of the few ways it has left—by making changes to the law through waivers and rule changes. The initiative now rests with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who has vowed to review every page of regulation and guidance related to the ACA." Some suggest that regulatory changes may be aimed at hastening Obamacare's demise.

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login