The blog of the Urban Institute
March 12, 2014

New research sheds light on America’s underground commercial sex economy

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 and accompanying feature, based on research funded by the National Institute of Justice, is the first to estimate the monetary size of the underground commercial sex economy in US cities and to address its deep complexity. We now have scientifically rigorous cash estimates for the illicit commercial sex trade in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Miami, San Diego, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

Based on 260 interviews with both law enforcement personnel and participants, we have gained a better sense of 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.

Here’s some of what we now know:

  • It’s sizable. The underground commercial sex trade brought in from $39.9 million in Denver to $290 million in Atlanta in 2007 alone.
  • It’s sophisticated. Our interviews with 73 convicted pimps and sex traffickers reveal operations that followed legitimate business plans, which included strategies for recruitment, advertising, travel, transportation, supplies, and other expenses. They also cultivated networks and business relationships with others involved in the trade.
  • It’s complex. We now have a much deeper understanding about who goes into the underground commercial sex trade and the different reasons why. Pimps spoke of growing up with family members in the business, being recruited by women to pimp, or segueing into the sex trade from selling drugs. Some felt they were well-suited for the business based on personality or even a propensity for manipulation.
  • It challenges stereotypes. We now have empirical evidence that calls into question existing myths about the sex trade. For instance, contrary to the stereotype of the physically abusive pimp, convicted pimps described a preference for using psychological manipulation instead, feigning romantic interest and promising material comforts to exploit perceived vulnerabilities in their employees.

So, what happens now? Prevention, for one. Though their roles are different, both offenders and victims can enter the underground commercial sex economy through similar pathways, and these pathways can begin in disadvantaged neighborhoods.  Now that we have a better sense of how and why people get involved, we can strengthen prevention efforts by investing in child welfare programs, schools, community programs, and more to ensure that young people have other options.

Intervention is also key. We need more resources and mandates for law enforcement and service providers not only to find, arrest, and convict sex traffickers, but also to provide services for those who want to leave the life, but have few alternatives.

We’ll have more to share from the report in the coming weeks. Please check back to our interactive feature for periodic updates.

Photo by LM Otero/AP


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


I have first-hand knowledge of many, many women for whom sex work is a) their primary source of income, b) a rational and freely-made choice based on the economics, and c) for many, a profession for which they feel proud to practice because they bring real happiness to their clients and it is something for which they are uniquely qualified and skilled. None of the women I know have pimps, nor have they ever. Your study completely leaves out the independent sex worker, the best of whom can easily generate incomes of $500K per year. Thus I also question your figures. Frankly, your "study" appears to be nothing more than another backdoor way of claiming that all sex workers are victims. THAT IS NOT THE TRUTH. Many are, and those who are should be helped, but if policymakers would stop prosecuting those who are consenting adults, participating of their own free will, and prospering while doing so, then those same sex workers would be in the best position to help law enforcement identify and aid victims. I believe that most independent sex workers are very supportive of prosecuting those who exploit and traffic. I also believe that sex work is valuable, real work that should be honored and allowed like any other helping, caring profession. I am a member of Sex Workers Outreach Project (, but these comments are my own and not an official statement of SWOP.
How ridiculous just another study that uses factious figures to support what the government wants people to believe...Where exactly did they come up with these figures and people to support this information because I promise you none of it or them is real...It just more propaganda for people to buy into....Get over it none of this information is accurate nor correct, it is just more lies the government wants us to believe...The truth is out there but that certain is not the truth contained within in that study and article...It is all lies people, do not believe everything they tell you...Just because you read it does not make it so, believe nothing of what you hear and even less of what you read when it comes to government sponsor studies....