Offenders, Former Sex Workers, Law Enforcement Detail Inner Workings of US Underground Commercial Sex Trade in New Urban Institute Study

The underground commercial sex economy (UCSE) generates millions of dollars annually, yet investigation and data collection remain under resourced. Our study aimed to unveil the scale of the UCSE in eight major US cities—Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington, DC. Across cities, the UCSE's worth was estimated between $39.9 and $290 million in 2007, but decreased since 2003 in all but two cities. Interviews with pimps, traffickers, sex workers, child pornographers, and law enforcement revealed the dynamics central to the underground commercial sex trade—and shaped the policy suggestions to combat it.

Kate Villarreal, (202) 261-5404
Stu Kantor, (202) 261-5283

WASHINGTON, DC, March 12, 2014 – A massage parlor in Seattle, a high-end escort service in Dallas, a makeshift brothel in rural California, a clandestine Internet site—the underground commercial sex economy in America is diverse, organized, and lucrative, extending far beyond the typical street corner.

A new Urban Institute report, based on research funded by the National Institute of Justice, yields the first scientifically rigorous estimates for the cash generated in the underground commercial sex economies of Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Miami, San Diego, Seattle, and Washington, DC (Kansas City, Missouri is included in the study but not in the size estimate). The report estimates that the underground commercial sex trade brought in $39.9 million in Denver to $290 million in Atlanta in 2007. The study also provides estimates of the underground weapons and drug economies as bases of comparison.

Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities compiles firsthand accounts from 260 interviews with both law enforcement personnel and underground commercial sex economy participants. The comprehensive report documents how the sex trade operates today and how it has changed over the last decade, due in large part to the growing availability and rapid expansion of the Internet.

Insights from local and federal law enforcement officers, prosecutors, former sex workers, and convicted pimps, sex traffickers, and child pornographers suggest that this underground economy is a much larger and more complex problem than commonly thought.

“I think we’re kinda like the Titanic,” said one San Diego law enforcement official. “We see the iceberg, but we really have no idea how big it is under the surface because we’re just seeing the top of it. We’re getting our feet wet with it, but it’s just spawning off into so many things.”

The first of its kind to document the business side of pimping and sex trafficking in-depth—including street and online sex work, escort services, massage parlors, and residential brothels—the study explores recruitment, advertising, rates and pricing structures, travel, and transportation. It also sheds light on the social networks that bring people into the sex trade, and keep them there.

Hundreds of quotes from convicted offenders and former sex workers offer a rare look into a business that frequently recruits in public spaces, such as shopping malls, high schools, and dance clubs, yet operates largely hidden from public view.

The study reveals, for example, how subtle and nuanced psychological manipulation, not just physical violence, plays a major role in keeping women involved with pimps and traffickers. Contrary to the popular image of the physically abusive pimp, convicted pimps described a preference for playing head games instead, feigning romantic interest and promising material comforts to exploit perceived vulnerabilities in their employees.

As one pimp stated, “I believe one of the strong points of this business is manipulation. Say an individual is left wanting, needing. She has aspirations for a bigger future, that’s key. A lot has to do with promising, what you have at that point.”

Manipulation was also a means to develop and preserve control over business operations and profits. Pimps said they often instigated competition between employees by maintaining romantic and sexual relationships with many and then showing affection for the most profitable worker.

The Internet as Intermediary

The study explores how the Internet has changed the market considerably, providing new business opportunities for pimps to connect with recruits and clients through online venues, and facilitating the expansion to cities beyond their home base. Offenders discussed testing markets by posting ads online to determine the level of demand before travelling to a new city.

A section on child pornography in the digital age finds that, relative to other activities within the underground sex economy, child pornography is a large, but mostly noncommercial exchange in the United States. Participants usually trade videos and images for free through file sharing and online communities. These communities, the study points out, can in turn reinforce and normalize child pornography offenses among their members.

The study concludes with targeted recommendations for criminal justice policymakers and practitioners, while acknowledging that there is still much more to learn and much more to be done.

“We were surprised to find that even in cities that are taking active strides to investigate and prosecute these crimes, law enforcement felt they were missing the resources, political will, and public understanding to fully attack the problem,” said study lead author, Meredith Dank. “Our talks with offenders confirmed this. They spoke of widespread pimping and sex trafficking taking place across the country, but said few get arrested, charged, or locked up for it.”

Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities was written by the Urban Institute’s Meredith Dank, the project’s principal investigator, along with a team of researchers: Bilal Khan (John Jay College), Urban Institute researchers P. Mitchell Downey, Cybele Kotonias, Deborah Mayer, Colleen Owens, and Laura Pacifici, and Lilly Yu (Rice University). It was funded by the US Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation. It provides information, analyses, and perspectives to public and private decisionmakers to help them address these problems and strives to deepen citizens’ understanding of the issues and trade-offs that policymakers face.


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