New research out today claims to offer a window into the massive, murky world of the underground commercial sex economy in eight major American cities, relying on interviews with 250 law enforcement officials, sex workers, and pimps. And, like one might expect, this unprecedented peek inside shows that there's huge amounts of money to be made — and spent — in the sex industry.
"Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities" isn't perfect; the cities researchers examine include Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington, DC, which means that major population centers like New York City, Houston, Boston, LA, and Chicago don't play into this study's findings. In almost all of the metro areas examined, sex work is becoming rarer, but less risky and more efficient, enabled by Craigslist, Backpage, and social media.
When we get into the economics of entering or leaving sex work, the narrative gets less dry and more dicey. Researchers found that the prostitutes they interviewed for this report make, on average, $150 per hour. Most are women, and most work for pimps who make anywhere from $5,000 to $35,000 per week, much of which goes to covering travel and hotel expenses. Many women who enter the world of underground commercial sex work do so because they were ushered in by a friend or family member. The report noted that pimps say they prefer white women because they fetch higher prices and are "easier to control" than women of other races, that they steer clear of underage women in order to avoid law enforcement scrutiny. And once they're in, women don't typically want to stay long; the report describes "high turnover" in the industry. Which is where coercion from pimps comes in.
Pimps often have trouble keeping women interested in sex work on their own, according to researchers, and so they have to get coercive. Recruitment often involves misleading women, or targeting vulnerable populations. From the report,
Recruitment tactics used by pimps often include promises of a better lifestyle. One law enforcement official described how pimps groom women and girls through promises of living in a big home and affording a fancy lifestyle. One investigator described how pimps post online ads of women as a grooming mechanism by presenting it as a photo shoot [...]
With "low-end" prostitutes, pimps occasionally inflict physical injury on the women in their employ.
Law enforcement also discussed how some pimps will use violence against women and girls. These victims are then hidden from law enforcement and won't be advertised until they heal.
But "higher end" escorts, their looks too valuable to pimps to compromise, are often kept in the business through psychological manipulation.
From discouraging "having sex for free" to feigning romantic interest, pimps used a variety of tactics to recruit and retain employees. Some even credited their entry into pimping with a natural capacity for manipulation.
Overall, pimps do not come off very sympathetically in this report. At all.
But even less sympathetic than men who gain money by beating and manipulating a population of mostly vulnerable women are the child pornographers, who saw their crimes as "victimless."
Explicit content of younger victims is becoming increasingly available and graphic. Online child pornography communities frequently trade content for free and reinforce behavior. Offenders often consider their participation a "victimless crime."
I need a shower.