The economy of commercial sex was done on the streets in the form of unorganized hustling for most of recent history, and until now it has been thought to have remained that way. A revealing study of 340 pages revealed what the inside of the lifestyle actually looks like and it is no longer dealing on the streets, with little structure. Instead, among the 250 people interviewed in the sex trade industry, it was found that pimps and traffickers with business models were not uncommon and the impact of the Internet was widespread, moving these deals off the streets.
The report by Urban Institute, led by Meredith Dank, was funded by the Justice Department and took three years to complete. Massage parlors, brothels, and escort services were studied in eight cities to “create a road map” of the business. Listed most to least profitable, the eight industries examined were those in Atlanta, Miami, Seattle, DC, Dallas, San Diego, and the least lucrative was Denver. The study has been praised by other researchers for collecting the best data thus far on the financial impact of the sex trade. The pricing was consistent countrywide despite, as Amy Farrell of Northeastern University noted, how much variation there was between communities.
Meredith Dank said they examined everything, “from point of entry to reasons to stay within it, and what the business and operations structure looks like.” Previous statistics given by law enforcement and advocacy groups lacked empirical analysis for validation. The 250 interviews conducted included law enforcement officers, lawyers, pimps, traffickers, and prostitutes, and the data collected gave insight behind motivations of sex workers, pricing, and market structures.
Researchers understood that the underground of sex trade must have evolved in the Internet era, but as they described it, this left only wide gaps in their understanding. Their speculations were confirmed, especially by the 73 convicted pimps and traffickers they interviewed. One respondent likened pimps to eagles. “They soar by themselves,” he said. With no direct support system to provide protection, remote data exchange became necessary for business and acts as a tip line.
They discussed the online social networking they used for trading information about avoiding the police, and tracking traveling employees to new cities. Many had established loose ties in the other cities, creating what the study called “circuits.” It was generally agreed upon by those interviewed that the Internet was seen as less risky. Moving the sex trade industry online was perceived as having only positive impacts on safety, both from law enforcement, and letting workers vet their clients.
The economy of sex is set apart from most other criminal markets. These operations are conducted on a small scale, where counterfeit goods and drugs, for example, are much more inclusive industries. The pimps averaged five workers at any time, but those five spots could be filled by completely different employees over the space of a week. Commenting on the high turnover rate, one person commented the employed sex workers “would always come and go.” During the interview, the person recalled a familiar pattern where they would work the weekend for the money they needed before returning to a boyfriend.
Past studies demonstrated that half of the respondents used online advertising and one in four used Craigslist and similar sites for employee recruitment. The rates have certainly climbed, but the Internet has taken these deals off the streets and facilitated a new place and way to grow the industry.
Though potentially providing a huge income, the sex industry also comes with huge expenses and many reported the money was burnt as fast as it was made. Ms. Farrell said that it was marketable, but not very profitable. One pimp paid $24,000 to a hotel, and another averaged $3,000 to $4,000 for weekly shopping trips for the workers.
The study showed a lot of areas that need more extensive research, but also served to point researchers in the right direction. Law enforcement, in a similar manner, will be able to assist more vulnerable victims. After witnessing the impact the Internet has had on the industry, the sex trade could become safer yet with larger cities now understanding who is involved and how the traffickers are interacting online.
By: Whitney Hudson
On Twitter: @Whitney_etc