What You Didn’t Know About America’s Underground Sex Trade

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

It’s difficult to measure the size of an economy which, on paper, doesn’t exist. Weapons trafficking, drug trafficking, and sex trafficking all comprise a hidden, underground market which, away from the eyes of regulators, law enforcement, and economists, can be difficult to comprehend, let alone measure. And because there is so little in the way of data surrounding these underground economies, attempts at controlling them can feel a little like fighting blind: there’s no real way to ascertain the size, shape, or nature of the beast.

But earlier this year, the Urban Institute, a group made up of independent scholars whose aim is to provide scholarly insight into issues affecting urban areas, released an extensive report with the goal of tracking the size of the underground commercial sex economy, as well as trends within the industry that might help aid law enforcement officials and legislators alike. It’s a ground-breaking study.

The report is important for legislators and law enforcement because, as the study notes, the underground sex economy is one that is constantly adapting and responding to police and law enforcement tactics. Law enforcement moves in one direction, and those in the industry move in another. It’s easy to see why the problems created by the underground sex economy can often seem so insurmountable.

Meredith Dank, the report’s lead author, says that the study is “the first of its kind to look in-depth and create a road map of the commercial sex economy — from point of entry to reasons to stay within it, and what business and operations structure looks like,” she said in an interview with the New York Times. Previously, she said, “we’d hear numbers from law enforcement and advocacy groups. But there was never any empirical rigor that was used to estimate its size.”

Despite the groundbreaking nature of the report, other experts note that there’s still a lot of work to be done, and that the necessary data can be exceedingly difficult to collect. “They were scraping to find data that was reliable in just these communities,” commented Amy Farrell, of Northeastern University. “And they found a lot of variation across communities.”

That variation ranged from places like Atlanta, which had the largest commercial sex economy, worth $290 million in 2007, to places like Denver, which had the smallest of the communities surveyed, at $39.9 million. To put those numbers into perspective, Urban Institute notes, Atlanta’s underground sex economy was so large, that in 2007 it was nearly 2.5 times bigger than the 2013 payroll of the Atlanta Falcons. Additionally, a pimp’s average take-home pay for the week was anywhere from $11,129 in San Diego, to more than $32,000 in Atlanta.

In total, Urban Institute studied eight different American cities extensively; Denver, Washington D.C., San Diego, Miami, Seattle, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. The study, which collected data as well as anecdotal evidence, found that, across these cities, “the USCE’s worth was estimated between 39.9 and 290 million in 2007,” and notes that “in five of the seven cities, the size of the UCSE decreased from 2003 to 2007.”

Urban Institute has done more than just estimate the worth of the underground commercial sex economy. The report has also shed light on the many ways the industry has shifted, adapted, and changed over the past decade or so. Indeed, the picture that emerges from this study is very different from what most people think of when they imagine the world of underground sex work. Gone are the days of street walkers, for instance; today’s pimps are more likely to be working behind a screen than on the street.

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

Pimping on Craigslist

Among the numerous trends within the underground sex economy, Urban Institute found that the industry’s biggest source of growth has been online. Pimps and traffickers use the Internet as opposed to putting their employees on the street for a number of reasons, including personal and employee safety.

“Pimps and sex workers advertise on social media and sites like Craigslist.org and Backpage.com to attract customers and new employees, and to gauge business opportunities in other cities,” the report found. The study also notes that while “prostitution is decreasing in the street,” it is thriving online.

Researchers say that the shift toward online platforms has changed not just the way pimps run their businesses, but also the way customers interact with and select their dates. Nowadays, the study found, often times a prostitute “doesn’t need to take one step on the street; the business comes directly to her.” The sex worker simply gives her john a time and hotel room number via an instant messaging conversation, often using coded language to avoid detection by law enforcement.

For pimps, personal safety is a huge concern, and a big part of the motivation behind moving their businesses online. “Over the years, right, the Internet became an easier way to get money without having to take so many chances as far as injury, or assholes outside,” said one pimp, in an interview with researchers. According to the study, 49 percent of pimps reported using Internet ads to attract business.

Further, because online ads attract the attention of a different demographic than street walkers potentially would, the market for sex workers has largely shifted toward higher-paying clientele, another boon for pimps.

But while online appointments might make things safer than they were, sex workers still face violence. The report found that 58 percent of sex workers had reported facing violence, and 36 percent said they’d had abusive or violent clients in the past. One sex worker interviewed by researchers at the institute claimed she’d been raped “40 or 50 times,” and that she has “stab wounds all over” from former clients.

The underground sex economy’s increasing online presence is beneficial for law enforcement in some ways, in that it makes it easier to track a pimp’s activities, but, at the same time, the shift toward online advertisements and appointment-making is also a detriment because it makes accessing and promoting the industry’s services far easier for the offenders, too; for law enforcement, it’s like an ongoing game of whack-a-mole.

 A red neon light illuminates a shop in Soho on November 29, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A red neon light illuminates a shop in Soho on November 29, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The end of “the stroll”

Just as pimps and sex workers have increased their online presence in recent years, the number of prostitutes on the streets has declined. The Urban Institute study notes that most prostitutes on the streets in the U.S. are adult American citizens with drug addiction problems, whereas in previous years there were often many U.S. minors on the streets.

Law enforcement officials interviewed by the study’s authors have found that they “aren’t really seeing as many street walkers” and instead, “the girls are going inside to strip clubs and massage parlors and the Internet.” Law enforcement officials also expressed frustration amid the constantly changing industry, noting that “once we see something, we’ll start hitting really hard, and then they’ll change the way they’re doing things.” Officials also commented that most minors involved in sex work are controlled by pimps and advertised via the internet; pimps know to keep underage sex workers off the streets, where they’re more likely to be spotted by the police.

Those drug-addicted prostitutes who are still walking the street are often working entirely on their own, according to the study. Part of the reason for that, law enforcement officials say, is that “the drug dealer is their pimp.” Officials say that for pimps, a girl on drugs is too much trouble; “then you can’t control them. The drugs control them and then she’ll rip him off.”

A common thread

So let’s backtrack: how do people get involved in sex work?

For both pimps and sex workers alike, there is often a common thread linking them to the underground sex industry, researchers found. In general, most individuals interviewed grew up exposed to the industry in some way. “Pimps described neighborhood influence, family exposure to sex work, lack of job options, and encouragement from a significant other or acquaintance as critical factors in their decision to engage in the [underground sex economy].” Sex workers responded similarly, citing economic necessity, family and peer encouragement, childhood trauma, and even social acceptance.

“The community I grew up in was full of prostitutes,” one pimp told researchers. “My mom was a prostitute. I had a sister who was an erotic dancer and another was a prostitute.” Researchers speculate that early exposure to sex work normalized the industry for these participants, making it seem like an achievable way of making a living.

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

Recruitment is crucial

The study found that pimps often employ manipulative techniques to attract new employees, and found that scouting comprises a large part of a pimp’s job. “Recruitment,” the report notes, “is the most crucial component of any pimp’s business model.”

Despite a decline in the use of minors on the streets, pimps still largely target vulnerable populations, such as runaway and homeless youth, on their scouting missions. In particular, pimps often frequent transportation hubs for scouting purposes.

Pimps are drawn to younger recruits for a number of reasons, despite the increased risk of law enforcement intervention. Some admitted that they purposefully scout younger women because they are “easier to manipulate, work harder to earn money, and are more marketable.”

Most of the time, pimps who targeted younger girls used coercive or manipulative techniques to recruit them. “When they start recruiting, especially with young girls, pretty much what they do is go and give the girls an ear…and they will just figure out what is going on with this girl and they will fill that void,” a D.C. official told researchers. “They just take her and shower her with what she is missing: gifts, attention, whatever.”

Other law enforcement officials in Dallas report that pimps will present themselves as legitimate business owners to potential recruits, often using a cover business (such as a record label or modeling agency) for tax purposes and money laundering. “It’s part of the dream that they’re selling, it’s part of the recruitment process. ‘We’re going to make all this money, we’re going to make this record label and we’re going to be bigger than West Coast Records,’ or whatever.”

Still other pimps stay away from minors because of the risk of arrest. One pimp interviewed by the Institute’s researchers said that he’d “never known a pimp that got in trouble for messing with adults,” despite his own incarcerations.

A disturbing trend

One disturbing element of the increasing presence of the underground sex economy online is a parallel rise in child pornography in recent years. Researchers at Urban Institute found that “explicit content of younger victims is becoming increasingly available and graphic.” Further, because so much of the underground sex economy has gone online, researchers found that whole online communities have sprung up around child pornography sites, a phenomenon which only helps to normalize offenders’ participation.

Researchers at Urban Institute say they estimate that there are around 50,000 offenders working as part of organized child pornography rings worldwide, and there are likely millions of other individual offenders consuming the content produced.

Unfortunately, child pornography, the report found, is an escalating problem that has become increasingly accessible online, and which, because of its online nature, is seen as “victimless crime,” amongst offenders because most often individuals are arrested for consuming rather than producing the content.

Potential solutions

Urban Institute has proposed a number of law enforcement and policy solutions that could potentially help create more cases and dismantle more illegal businesses within the underground sex industry.

One simple solution is to encourage more communication between different law enforcement units and departments. For instance, “one city giving other cities a heads-up when they are going to crack-down on pimping and prostitution would facilitate preparations for related migrations.”

Many of the solutions will need to attack the underground market for sex work online, too, as the Internet continues to be a tool for pimps and sex workers. The Institute notes that “laws governing websites that profit from advertising sex work could be strengthened.”

Establishing stronger child pornography laws should be another priority, researchers say. To do this, however, the report notes that law enforcement units will need to invest greater resources toward staying up to date on new methods and constantly evolving technology.

Further, the Institute notes that better training for law enforcement officers, investigators, prosecutors and judges could help create more cases through more accurate identification of psychological trauma and coercion on the part of victims.
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