America’s Underground Sex Economy Is Larger Than You Think—December 29, 2014


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.


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.

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