Lives of American sex workers revealed in unprecedented study

New study highlights lucrative nature of prostitution in America and says the internet has both facilitated it and made it harder to combat

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 8:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 8:45pm

A study about the world's oldest profession concludes that the lucrative underground commercial sex economy in each of eight large US metropolitan areas brings in anywhere from US$40 million annually to as much as nearly US$300 million.

The 340-page study by the Urban Institute, a policy research group, finds, not surprisingly, that the reach of the internet has facilitated prostitution 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.

Some pimps and traffickers actually had a business model they followed

"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 study funded by the Justice Department and released yesterday. "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 sex trade had a combined estimated annual cash value of US$975.3 million, the study found. In Seattle, the US$112 million estimate for 2007 was more than double the 2003 estimate of US$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. "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."

The study seeks to understand the size and structure of the sex trade through a look at eight metro areas: San Diego, Seattle-Tacoma, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Kansas City, Atlanta, Miami and Washington.

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

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 US$80 for a two-hour stay.

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

There is also a rise in Latino brothels in Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth and other areas. They often operate unnoticed in residential areas of 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 US$12,000 to US$16,000 in a single day.

Mobile prostitution was found across the cities. That is 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.


Characteristics of US sex trade

Characteristics of the sex trade in the eight US cities studied in the Urban Institute report:

ATLANTA: The city with the largest revenue generation, comprises street and online prostitution, Latino brothels and massage parlours, which are closely networked. The biggest conventional street-level sex trade of the cities studied.

DALLAS-FORT WORTH: Mostly pimp-controlled online and street prostitution with a growing number of massage parlours. Latino brothels are run out of homes.

SEATTLE-TACOMA: Street and online prostitution, massage parlours, home-based brothels and escort services. Highly organised parlours run foreign nationals with older prostitutes from South Korea, Vietnam and China. Money goes back abroad.

MIAMI:There is growth in high-end escort services, workers coming from Eastern Europe. Latino-run brothels are prevalent, with women smuggled in via New York and New Jersey. Chinese massage parlours replaced those advertising Hispanic women.

WASHINGTON: Prostitution has tamed in the city with changing demographics. Latino brothels are prevalent in the suburbs, with many girls forced to work off debt incurred coming into the country.

KANSAS CITY: Prostitutes work the streets for profits, using Craigslist and heavily. Women book "dates" online before coming into town.

DENVER: Street prostitution has dipped because of the internet. There are domestic and foreign nationals, some with ties to organised crime.

SAN DIEGO: Many gangs use schools and the community to recruit girls. Asian massage parlours are rampant.