The Economics of Prostitution in Eight American Cities

A new report published by the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center examines the underground commercial sex economy (UCSE) in eight major US cities from 2003-2007 with the aim to provide a better understanding of the size and structure of the UCSE, and help law enforcement and state and national policy-makers devise appropriate responses.

Data on the UCSE are notoriously difficult to come by due to the lack of accounting records, receipts, and legal records.  This study relied on a multi-method approach, using both qualitative and quantitative data collected in eight major US cities (San Diego, Seattle, Dallas, Denver, Washington, DC, Kansas City, Atlanta, and Miami).  "Existing datasets documenting the market changes for illegal drugs and weapons were analyzed to measure changes in these markets and estimate the overall size of these markets. [...] Qualitative data was collected through interviews with 119 stakeholders and 142 convicted offenders, including local and federal law enforcement officers, prosecutors, pimps/sex traffickers, sex workers, and child pornographers."

Note: an interactive version of this graphic is available at:
Below are some selected findings from the report:
  1. Estimates of the UCSE in 2007 range from $39.9 to $290 million in the cities included in the study. In five of the seven cities, the size of the UCSE decreased from 2003 to 2007. During the same time period, the underground drug economy increased in five cities and the underground gun economy decreased in three cities, increased in three cities, and remained the same in one city.
  2. There appears to be no connection between weapons trafficking and the UCSE. The overlap with drug trafficking varies by UCSE venue. In five of the study sites, gang involvement in sex trafficking and prostitution seems to be increasing: 25 percent of pimp respondents worked as drug dealers prior to working as pimps, and 18 percent of respondents continued to deal drugs while they pimped.
  3. Pimps and sex workers cited many of the same factors influencing their decision to become involved in the UCSE. Pimps described neighborhood influence, family exposure to sex work, lack of job options, and encouragement from a significant other or acquaintance as critical factors in their decision to engage in the UCSE. Sex worker respondents explained, and previous studies have also established, that street-based sex workers become involved in sex work for similar reasons such as economic necessity, family and peer encouragement, childhood trauma, and social acceptance.
  4. Different forms of coercion and fraud are used by pimps to recruit, manage, and retain control over employees. These forms include feigning romantic interest, emphasizing mutual dependency between pimp and employee, discouraging women from “having sex for free,” and promising material comforts.
  5. Twenty-one (58 percent) of the 36 respondents stated that they faced some type of violence as a sex worker. Thirteen individuals (36 percent) described instances of having abusive or violent clients. Moreover, it was noted that this violence became worse over time.
    "Yes. I've got stab wounds all over me. I've been stabbed in my head, all up my legs, in my kidney. I've been raped about 40 or 50 times. So I've been through all this stuff … ‘cause a lot of times people will drive way out somewhere where you don’t know where you're at. And I've had people, I've had to jump out of the car going on the freeway before to get out."
    "In 1990s, nobody was being killed. Back then, you were afraid of being beaten up and robbed, but now they shoot you. To me, it’s much worse today. They used to throw bottles at you and beat you up, but today, they have guns. If you weren’t afraid back then, you should be afraid today. Today you hear through word of mouth about the killings."
  6. The widespread availability and rapid expansion of the Internet has redefined the spatial and social limitations of the sex market by introducing new markets for both recruitment and advertisement. Offenders reported new marketing opportunities for pimps to connect with both recruits and clientele, including online classifieds, social media, and networking websites.
  7. Findings suggest that the cases of pimping and sex trafficking investigated and prosecuted in the United States represent only a small fraction of the UCSE. Across sites, criminal justice stakeholders felt the UCSE was much larger than they were able to investigate, due to resource constraints, political will, or lack of public awareness about the prevalence of UCSE crimes. Multiple offenders expressed the sentiment that “no one actually gets locked up for pimping.”

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Frederique Laubepin

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