New report details vast sex economy

An escort slips into a high heel shoe in Washington D.C.
An escort slips into a high-heel shoe in Washington D.C.

The illegal sex industry in eight U.S. cities brings in nearly $1 billion a year, according to a new study on sex trafficking and prostitution published Wednesday.

The Urban Institute study, which was funded by a grant from the National Institute for justice to study human trafficking, examined underground markets for sex and child pornography in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Miami, San Diego, Seattle and Washington, D.C. The study is the first to take such an in-depth look at how the illicit industry functions.

“Because it’s an underground economy, getting reliable information from individuals is very difficult,” Meredith Dank, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute told msnbc. While many earlier estimates on the size and structure of the underground commercial sex economy were based on anecdotal evidence from small samples of people within the sex industry, “what we tried to do was take a more scientific approach.”

The study found that factors like a lack of economic opportunities, community encouragement and exposure influenced both pimps and sex workers to enter the industry. And, while the study was focused more toward parts of the sex trade that involve coercion or manipulation, the researchers also interviewed 36 sex workers to get a sense of how the industry has changed for them and to study that side of the economy. “Those numbers are part of the estimate as well,” Dank says. “It wasn’t only focused on pimps and traffickers, but those who were more ‘freelance’ as well.”

One of the findings that intrigued Dank was the fact that in six of the eight cities studied, the sex economy shrank from 2003 to 2007. The economic crash of 2008 didn’t spare the sex industry either; pimps and law enforcement officials describe special deals and dramatically lower prices in the wake of the crash. Looking at why those decreases happened and what implications expansion and contraction of the underground commercial sex trade might have now could be a fruitful line of future research, Dank says.

Because the grant (PDF) that funded the study wanted research on human trafficking and was commissioned by the Justice Department, the report paints an incomplete picture of the sex industry, according to some observers. “The Justice Department funded this study, so it seems official but is hardly impartial,” Melissa Gira Grant, author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work and a journalist who covers sex workers’ issues, told msnbc.

Grant says she worries that the study could be used to further marginalize sex workers under the guise of fighting trafficking, an issue Dank admits is something advocates and law enforcement officials need to be conscious of. “One thing that we made sure not to do, was say we need more arrests, particularly around those who are engaging with the sex trade,” she told msnbc.

“If we’re really focusing on trafficking, a lot of times sex workers and even some trafficking victims are being criminalized as a result. We do not say it’s the right way to go.”