Sex Work

15 Facts About the Underground Sex Economy in America


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A report from the Urban Institute this week looks at the scale and scope of the "underground commercial sex economy" in the United States. The researchers interviewed people from many facets of the commercial sex industry—including pimps, streetwalkers, high-end escorts, massage parlor staff, brothel owners, law enforcement officials, and public defenders—in eight cities: Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington, D.C.

It's some fascinating stuff once you get to the actual quotes and interviews with sex workers, but it is long (348 pages). I went through and pulled out some of the findings that seemed most interesting. Particularly notable for our purposes is that the report includes evidence that a) police have gotten more aggressive at targeting sex workers for arrest since the 1970s and 1980s, and b) many of the problems sex workers face could be ameliorated if the commercial sex industry wasn't driven underground. 

1. The sex economy is shrinking. Between 2003 and 2007, the size of the commercial sex economy decreased in five of the eight cities studied. The overall worth of the commercial sex economy in these cities is estimated to have been between $39.9 and $290 million in 2007. 

2. Brothels don't employ underage sex workers. Sex trafficking and pimping of minors occurred primarily through street and Internet-based prostitution and rarely through brothels or massage parlors. 

3. Gang involvement varies by city. In Denver, San Diego, Seattle, and D.C., gangs had a notable presence in sex trafficking and prostitution; no such connections existed in Atlanta, Dallas, Kansas City, or Miami. 

4. There's no evidence of a link between sex work and gun trafficking. The connection between prostitution and/or sex trafficking and weapons trafficking was found to be nonexistent. 

5. Prices are fairly consistent across cities. Sex work rates were "fairly consistent" across cities, the report said; bigger determinants of prices than geographic locations were the age, race, and ethnicity of the sex worker. White women and girls were reportedly more expensive and drug-addicted men and women least expensive. 

6.Pimp demographics vary. Pimps were about 85 percent male, 12 percent female, and 3 percent transgender. The majority (66 percent) were black, followed by Latino (9.6 percent), white (8.2 percent), multi-racial (8.2 percent), and Asian (2.7 percent). Most had at least a high school education, while about 27 percent had completed some college, 5.5 percent were college graduates, and 4.1 percent had attended a technical school. 

7. Pimps don't like being called pimps. Respondents said the word is too associated with violence and excess in the public mind.

"Pimp is like the tooth fairy, from the old '70s movies with big hats and big ol' chains. That's not me," one 27-year-old who had been incarcerated for pimping said.

"A pimp keeps all the money and dishes it out. That hardly happens anymore," another said. Only 15 percent reported using violence or force to control employees. 

8. Pimps employ non sex workers, too. A quarter of pimp respondents said they employed people to fulfill business related tasks outside of sex work, including drivers, secretaries, nannies, and marketers. 

9. Sex worker* demographics. Of the respondents, 33 percent identified as black, 17 percent as white, 11 percent as Latino, and 8 percent as multiracial. More than three-quarters (78 percent) were cis-gender females, 19 percent transgender females, and 3 percent were male. 

10.  Most sex workers have been arrested. Fifty six percent had received a warrant, been arrested, or been sentenced due to sex work related charges.

11. Police have gotten more aggressive, more sting-happy. Longtime sex workers said police have gotten more aggressive over time. In the 1970s, "it was cool," one 48-year-old sex worker said. "The police didn't really give you no problems, as long as you're not killing nobody, hurting nobody, they don't really care."

Police crackdowns and undercover stings on street-based sex workers picked up in the 1990s and 2000s, the report says. "They're everywhere" these days, one D.C.-based sex worker said. 

12. Longtime, street-based sex workers think it's gotten more dangerous, less convivial, less profitable. Sex workers who conducted street-based sex work in the 1970s and 1980s described the conditions as much less competitive, more lucrative, and not as dangerous as in later years. "Sex workers looked out for one another, partied with one another, and in some cases, considered each other family," the report notes. A 46-year-old D.C. sex worker who had been in the business since 1982 said "compared to now, there were way more (on the streets) back then. We all got along with each other. … We would all help each other out. We would go to restaurants in the morning."

13. Crack blamed for shift in street-based sex work conditions. The shift mentioned above coincided with the spread of crack in the mid-1980s and 1990s, according to the interviews with longtime sex workers. During that time period, smoking crack "became almost a normative behavior in (sex workers') social circles," the report says. Widespread crack use coincided with more (and younger) women taking to the streets, more competition between street-based sex workers, and lower prices/less profitability, according to those interviewed. In the 1970s and 1980s, street-based sex workers charged an average of $50 to $100 for oral sex and $60 to $300 for sex; in the 1990s and today, the rates have dropped to between $5 and $150 for oral sex and $5 to $250 for sex. 

14. The Internet has been good and bad for sex workers. The Internet era has expanded the pool of potential clients, removed the need to hit the streets for some, and made it easier not to get caught. Online prices are also higher on average than street-based prices, but also more unpredictable and inconsistent. 

15. Police and recession responsible for less street clients. Many sex workers surveyed said it's more difficult now to find wealthy clients on the streets. The reasons for this include tougher financial times as well as law enforcement crackdowns on sex work. 

* Though the term sex worker is used broadly to describe people involved in a wide range of sex related activities (stripping, webcam shows, adult modeling, etc.) its use here is solely to refer to individuals involved in trading intercourse or other direct sexual acts for money. 

NEXT: Coloradans Can Challenge Sentences for Marijuana Offenses That Are No Longer Crimes

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  1. You forgot to mention all the EBT dildo-purchasers.

  2. “A quarter of pimp respondents said they employed people to fulfill business related tasks outside of sex work, including drivers, secretaries, nannies, and marketers.”

    Don’t forget the piano players.

  3. The sex economy is shrinking. Yes, because of Internet “dating,” I bet.

    1. DTF?

    2. It is my understanding that poor, ignorant, fat and lazy EBT types are causing the sex industry to expand. I read that somewhere…some proglodyke site I think.

    3. The report actually included Internet sites like Craigslist and even “sugar daddy” sites

      1. I was thinking more, not Internet-mediated prostitution. Sex without the direct exchange of cash, though free food and drinks might be involved.

      2. What I don’t understand is why, in this day and age, any customers still pick prostitutes up on the street.


        1. One reason both sides of the transaction have [im]plausible deniability until the moment the transaction is made. Just people on a public street.

  4. uh oh, look out, Tulpa’s off his meds again. I am sure this is all a huge coincidence after I spent the morning studiously ignoring “Bo Cara”, right?

    1. That’s not Tulpa.

      1. Things got pretty heated in the animal rights thread. This cannot be a coincidence.

        1. It posted a video in the Independents thread. It’s Mary.

          1. Post some more of your vanity porn, Suge.

    2. Oh come on. Bo’s an over-earnest, awkward little weirdo, but he seems like a decent enough chap.
      He’s hardly the only one here who frequently gets into pointless arguments and doesn’t know when to stop.

  5. I think we have a problem.

    “Give me gold-plated day care and … start paying me 15% more & I still do not want a baby” – @AmandaMarcotte

    ? Elizabeth N. Brown (@enbrown) March 14, 2014


    The only reason to link to an Amanda Marcotte article is to ridicule. This does not do that.

    1. good thing for Amanduh because I doubt there’s anyone out there willing to provide the biological means for her to do so.


        My boyfriend has zero interest as well, and from what I can tell, this is also his experience. I mean, most people in my direct life leave me the fuck alone on this topic because they have learned that trying to get me to conform is a lost cause, because the usual forms of pressure are just ineffective. But even in this comment thread, you have people trying to exert pressure while pretending they’re not. It’s kind of hilarious.

        That was her in the comments.

        1. Sounds like a golden opportunity for a Nekromantik reference

        2. My boyfriend has zero interest in me as well, and from what I can tell, this is also his experience.


        3. Huh, that is surprising. A guy who goes by the name Punkass Marc really seems like the kind of dude who would relish the opportunity to undertake a task which requires some level of responsibility, maturity and effort.

            1. So that’s what self-hatred looks like.

              Kind of like a penis with eyes.

            2. Wow, so her boyfriend is not a spider plant, but instead an actual man.

              1. well one assumes so. It could be like Metatron down there.

            3. One word comes to mind:


              1. Wait, are we sad that she’s chosen not to release any spawn unto the world?

                One generation of Marcottes is enough.

        4. oh the comments…what a horror show.

        5. Let me guess, her definition of “usual forms of pressure” is that people with different opinions are allowed to exist.

      2. Amanduh

        Amanduh! HA!

    2. It is a strange article to link to positively, since it argues that pro-lifers shouldn’t even be engaged in good faith arguments at all, but rather shunned for the anti-woman bastards that they are.

      Such an, ah, extreme stance is not likely to go over well in libertarian circles, where people are (according to polling) about equally divided on the subject, as is the American public at large.

      1. Yeah, my first thought was oh, did Marcotte finally write something without foaming at the mouth?

        And then this was the first paragraph:

        So, the atheist/skeptic community is in an uproar on the subject of abortion, and since that’s kind of my jam, I figured I should weigh in. The question isn’t whether or not legal abortion is moral?outside a few kooks, nearly all non-believers are pro-choice?but whether or not those anti-abortion kooks should be indulged and given the privilege of having everyone treat their shit arguments like they have value in free-wheeling discourse, or if they should be shunned on the grounds of being shit arguments the same way anti-gay or overtly racist arguments are shunned.

        1. Yay, I’m a kook! And my shit arguments don’t deserve to be seen because they’re obviously shit!

          1. *High fives MJGreen*

            We can form a Kook Club!

              1. Kook club for my non-theistic brothers and sisters:


            1. I love it!

              1. but whether or not those anti-abortion kooks should be indulged and given the privilege of having everyone treat their shit arguments like they have value in free-wheeling discourse, or if they should be shunned on the grounds of being shit arguments the same way anti-gay or overtly racist arguments are shunned.

                There was a time when arguments in favor of allowing women to vote were “shunned on the grounds of being [being copnsidered] shit arguments [by opponents]”

          2. Me too! Who knew that my idea that embryos are genetically human, and I’m intensely uncomfortable with some “authority” drawing an arbitrary line between between human with rights and human with no rights was a shit idea?!

            1. In short, it is impermissible to interpret the term “right to life,” to give one an enforceable claim to the action of someone else to sustain that life. In our terminology, such a claim would be an impermissible viola?tion of the other person’s right of self-ownership. Or, as Professor Thom?son cogently puts it, “having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person’s body?even if one needs it for life itself.”[3]

              The Ethics of Liberty Chapter 14

      2. Right. Amanduh is by definition arguing in bad faith by refusing to take anything her opponents’ say at face value and instead substituting and beating up on a strawman:

        Similiarly, the reason anti-choice arguments are a bunch of half-baked, never-changing nonsense that they cling to no matter how frequently it’s debunked is simple: They don’t want to speak their real argument out loud. Their real argument is something like, “I strongly believe in gender essentialism, and people who violate my beliefs about what women and men should do and be like scare me. In particular, I find the notion that women might be lascivious and/or non-nurturing at times to be frightening, because those qualities belong to men, and so I am eager to punish women and force nurturance on them to restore order to the world.”

        1. Hey, Amanduh, if you can read minds, tell me what I plan to do on my next vacation.

          1. Magic 8 Ball says: You’ll spend most of your time jerking off at Hit & Run.

            1. Mary’s here.

              1. (He types with his left hand)

              2. No she’s not!

                1. ha ha. Mike’s taking care of business.

    3. I fully support Marcotte’s decision not to reproduce. I wish most leftards would follow suit.


      1. Perhaps we should all pool money for Marcotte to have her ovaries removed and set on fire. You can never be too safe.

        1. No. She’ll try to have kids when she’s 45 because it might be someone that will finally love her like she thinks she deserves and due to ClintonCare or WarrenCare we’ll have to pay for the massive fertility interventions required to wring a child from her dried-up babysack.

          1. That’s about time the revolution starts.

            Seriously, the time I have to pay for Marcotte’s fertility treatments is the time I gather my friends, raise the black flag, and start slitting throats.

          2. Goddammit, Sug. That prospect is worse than all of the slashfic you have ever posted on this site.

          3. Awesome SugarFraud! You should write vanity porn that no one reads!

            1. [SugarFraud runs off to shoot a quick note to the censors and masturbate…]

          4. “she’s 45 because it might be someone that will finally love her like she thinks she deserves”

            Or her standards will have slipped to the point of nearing reality?

          5. There was an WSJ article some time ago about how women need to educate themselves about their biological clock, and you wouldn’t believe the butthurt from feminists in the comments. They want to believe they can put off pregnancy as long as men and if you suggest otherwise, then you’re just being cruel. As if reality cares about their feelings on the matter. So sadly, in a few years Marcotte will probably be among the enlightened women railing against the evil biological clock conspiracy which was designed by the patriarchy to keep women barefoot and pregnant before they “feel” ready to be pregnant.

        2. Perhaps we should all pool money for Marcotte to have her ovaries removed

          Hmm. She shouldn’t have a problem with it.

          I think this is an excellent trolling opportunity.

          1. Great idea! Do that voodoo that you do best, Original Cock Gobbler!

            1. So I see you like gobbling cocks. Kool!

          2. And whoever donates the most gets the honor of setting them on fire.

            Or, winner’s choice of destruction.

          3. And this is why the world needs SnipStarter. A website dedicated to non-coercive, crowd-funded sterilization.

    4. Congrats Amanda, on your self-awarded Darwin Award! Way to go!

      But wait – you expect my kids to pay for your social security? Let’s see. You’re supposed to pay for the older generation’s social security, and have kids who will pay for your social security. You don’t want to have kids, and I’m totally cool with that. So will you please sign a petition asking for the abolition of social security, so that my kids don’t have to pay for you in your old age? Thanks!

    5. I suspect her attitude is all the birth control she needs; it can make a bronze prick go limp!

  6. 13. Crack blamed for shift in street based sex work conditions.

    As depicted in this groundbreaking documentary, produced by Koch Entertainment

    1. They stepped on the sidewalk cracks and broke their mothers’ backs?

  7. How much of the sex economy is in places like Craigslist and other online venues, rather than conducted through brothels and such? It seems to me that the hook-up culture and the growth of online services has rendered the issues prohibitionists talk about rather moot; in the former case the coarseness (real or imagined) of the sex trade is more or less out there for all to see, and with the growth of the latter there isn’t much that can be done (even if prohibitionists wanted to try cracking down).

    There will always be a Craigslist Casuals section, and for the time being at least hook-up culture is a strong cultural influence. What possible drawbacks could there be to legalizing brick-and-mortar prostitution that isn’t already present in these two mediums?

    1. Look TIT, I’m a poor student who just lost his job and I’m normally straight, but would be willing to work something out for the right Generou$ guy.



        1. People keep flagging my posts. I’m not a fake or flake. I’m just looking to make arrangement$ with with someone who can help me buy books for school. I cannot host, so I must travel to your place. No fats, no uggos.

          1. What about tacos, fried chicken and curry?

      2. The career market for elevator repairmen, pizza deliverymen, and naughty policemen continues to grow. Competition can be tight, but the overall market is expanding.

        1. The career market for elevator repairmen, pizza deliverymen, and naughty policemen continues to grow.

          Sadly, the quality of horny plumbers continues to deteriorate.

      3. Dude, you don’t want to end up like Tony, do you?


  8. Can’t Colorado legalize this and rake in the tax money?

    1. No, politicians’ first interest is to protect their own jobs. Allowing more people to whore themselves out devalues politicians’ jobs by exposing them to more competition.

    2. Too many progressives.


  10. 4. There’s no evidence of a link between sex work and gun trafficking.

    In fact, there might even be a negative correlation. For instance, Jax Teller wants to get the Sons of Anarchy out of the gunrunning business and into the brothel business.

    9. Sex worker* demographics. Of the respondents, 33 percent identified as black, 17 percent as white, 11 percent as Latino, and 8 percent as multiracial.

    But that only adds up to…..

    1. It said the rest were didn’t/wouldn’t respond to that question.

      1. You’re no fun, Ms. Brown.

        1. Might I suggest more dildo stories?
          They always get the lads stroking!

          1. Especially relating to Dildo Wars.

            PEAK DILDO.

            1. Looks like these posts (like the one I replied to) are getting deleted? I’m ok with that, but not sure I’ve seen that before…

              1. It’s very rare. There are a couple commenters–if you could call them that–who have stirred up a lot of trouble in the past. Beyond just being normal annoying trolls, these people have gone the extra mile and tried to cyberstalk people and screw with their lives.

                The handle that just had all its posts wiped is one of them.

                1. Thanks. For the record, since my post looks off topic, I meant no disrespect to ENB. Quite the opposite.

                  1. Peak dildo talk is never off topic.

                2. Who got run outta town now?

        2. Aha. Hadn’t actually added the numbers up. Thought you were genuinely correcting me.

    2. So I’m guessing ~31 percent are Asian, with the obligatory 0.1 percent Native American and Pacific Islander?

      Oh, and…

  11. ” cis-gender females”

    What the hell is that?

    1. For “cis” read “non-transgendered”.

    2. Anatomical girls who act like girls.

    3. Wherever you read that, you can safely strike it out and continue to read. The meaning of the sentence will not change.

  12. The Urban Institute’s policy recommendations are more government interferences in people’s lives:

    Policy and practice changes can help combat trafficking and prostitution.

    ? Cross-train drug, sex, and weapons trade investigators to better understand circuits and overlaps.

    ? Continue using federal and local partnerships to disrupt travel circuits and identify pimps.

    ? Offer law enforcement trainings for both victim and offender interview techniques, including identifying signs of psychological manipulation.

    ? Increase awareness among school officials and the general public about the realities of sex trafficking to deter victimization and entry.

    ? Consistently enforce the laws for offenders to diminish low-risk perception.

    ? Impose more fines for ad host websites.

    Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities

  13. 3% of pimps are transgender? I’m calling BS.

  14. There’s no evidence of a link between sex work and gun trafficking

    Drill sergeants figured that one out a century ago. “This is my rifle, this is my gun. The first is for fighting, the other for fun.”

  15. “Only 15 percent reported using violence or force to control employees.”

    Huh, imagine that.

    1. The threat if violence, on the other hand…

  16. He’s hardly the only one here who frequently gets into pointless arguments and doesn’t know when to stop.

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