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
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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.

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