Sex trade in eight cities worth nearly $1 billion, study says

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A study to be released Wednesday about the world’s oldest profession concludes that the lucrative underground commercial sex economy in eight large U.S. metropolitan areas brings in anywhere from $40 million annually to as much as nearly $300 million.

The unprecedented 340-page study by the Urban Institute, a policy research group, finds — not surprisingly — that the reach of the Internet has facilitated the flesh trade and made it harder to combat. The report and its in-depth interviews with 73 convicted pimps and traffickers also challenges conventional wisdom on the illicit side of the sex industry.

“We often think about the commercial sex economy as a hustle, where there’s no real thought or planning that’s involved,” said Meredith Dank, the lead researcher on the exhaustive study funded by the Justice Department. “But we found . . . the opposite — that some pimps and traffickers actually had a business model they followed.”

And business has been good. In seven of the eight cities, the commercial sex trade had a combined estimated annual cash value of $975.3 million, the study found. Researchers were unable to estimate the economic size of the business in one city: Kansas City, Mo. In Seattle, the $112 million estimate for 2007 was more than double the 2003 estimate of $50 million.

The study did not differentiate between forced and unforced prostitution, but it did have another surprise finding: The recruitment and pimping of women is no longer just a man’s world.

“Some of the findings might ruffle some feathers in the end,” Dank said during an interview at the McClatchy Washington Bureau. “One finding is that in some cases women are doing the recruiting of the pimps. Most people want to say all women are the victims and all men are the perpetrators. If we are really going to address this issue, I think it is really important to know the external factors and environmental factors that are pushing people into it.”

The study is novel in that it builds off of existing data on the illegal trade of drugs and weapons and uses them as a proxy to construct a model for measuring the economics of the commercial sex trade.

“I think it gives you an order of magnitude that hasn’t really existed,” said Bilal Khan, the study’s methodologist and a mathematics professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. “Methodologically, it’s a breakthrough, coming up with an estimate simultaneously for the size of all these illicit activities.”

Shared with McClatchy before publication, the study seeks to understand the size and structure of the sex trade through a close look at eight metro areas: San Diego, Seattle-Tacoma, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Kansas City, Atlanta, Miami and Washington. The methodology developed for the study, said Khan, should be usable by other researchers interested in quantifying an illicit activity previously studied mostly from the perspective of law enforcement.

While the study is a first of its kind, it’s not without limits. The focus is through the lens of imprisoned pimps and traffickers, and those who put them behind bars. Future studies could break past stigma and focus on the sex workers themselves, said Sienna Baskin, co-director of the sex workers project at the Urban Justice Center in New York, an advocacy group.

“I think that people are uncomfortable talking about this issue, writing about it,” she said. “One thing that we’ve noticed: When people are developing policy and laws regarding sex work, sex workers are rarely at the table. There’s not a lot of knowledge because sex workers aren’t represented.”

The sex trade has evolved. Gone are the days of colorful brothels, scantily clad prostitutes on bustling street corners or flashy pimps who control a range of illicit activities in a particular neighborhood.

Instead, in Washington, many of the women blend in outside popular nightclubs just blocks from the White House.

In New York City, sex workers book rooms at hotels like the Liberty Inn, a nondescript corner hotel on the West Side Highway along the Hudson River, which charges $80 for a two-hour stay.

The commercial sex trade is widely segmented, the report found. There’s still common street-level prostitution — almost exclusively men and women selling themselves in impoverished neighborhoods to feed a drug habit. The price of the sex act in this commercial activity, say in Kansas City, was almost directly tied to the price of crack cocaine or heroin, researchers said.

There’s also a rise in Latino brothels in Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth and other areas. They often operate unnoticed in residential areas of many large cities with large populations of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Three or four women working together for a pimp may see 100 men each on a Sunday, bringing in collectively $12,000 to $16,000 in a single day.

Mobile prostitution was found across the cities. That’s where a pimp might have a small number of women on a circuit, advertising online in advance of arrival to a particular city, always working with an eye toward the next stop. In Kansas City, this trade follows the same highway route that illegal drugs do, although the connection between the two is unclear.

The Kansas City Star documented human trafficking in an award-winning series in 2009. The Charlotte Observer also chronicled the commercial sex trade that year, showing how it moves up and down the East Coast.

And there’s freelance prostitution, where women working on their own advertise in the personals sections of local newspapers or on websites such as Craigslist or, which feature adult sections.

One striking theme throughout the report is how much the commercial sex trade operates like any other business. The report estimates that in the period after 2005, pimps in Atlanta were bringing in about $32,000 a week in gross revenue before subtracting the cost of doing business. In Dallas, the number was closer to $12,000; in Miami and Seattle, about $18,000.

But the net profit was smaller than it was for drug sales, for example. The commercial sex trade involves hotel rooms, leased cars and marketing. Some pimps even spent thousands of dollars on websites with professional photography. One even took business classes at a local community college.

“They’re definitely spending a decent amount of money on hotel rooms, car and travel expenses,” said Dank. “But they’re also spending a decent amount of money on themselves. A big part of the pimping culture is looking good, smelling good. To be able to recruit women, you have to play the part.”

Another surprise is that in the eight cities, researchers did not find a strong link between the commercial sex trade and trafficking of guns and drugs. They operated largely independent of each other, although there was evidence of gang involvement in the coerced sex trade.

“It is high reward, but less risky,” Eric Sano, a Seattle Police Department captain, told McClatchy. “I stop a gang member with a young lady in the car that I believe he is exploiting and pimping, he can just say it’s my niece. . . . Even if we catch him in the act of promoting her, there is a strong likelihood once she is released they’ll get back together. She is a reusable commodity.”

For the San Diego area, the study found that the notorious Bloods and Crips, fierce California rival gangs, actually cooperated in the prostitution business even as they fought bloody turf wars in the separate drug business.

“I think there is a lot more collaboration happening there than people assume,” Dank said.

The Internet has proven both a blessing and curse for law enforcement. The open use of Internet advertising makes it easier to track the commercial sex trade, but pimps are increasingly taking the business to peer-to-peer networks, where Internet servers are avoided, making it harder to locate and track them.

“That’s a tough nut to crack,” said Sano, who heads Seattle’s coordinated criminal investigation section. “We’re trying to figure how to adapt.”


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