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.