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Study sheds light on dark sex trafficking industry

A landmark Urban Institute study released today of sex trafficking includes some startling facts. Among them:

Convicted pimps and sex traffickers interviewed for the study said they raked in between $5,000 and $32,833 a week.

Pimps-unsurprisingly-make a lot more money than the prostitutes.

Pressure from a pimp is rarely the sole reason someone joins the sex trade.

“Female sex workers sometimes solicited protection from friends and acquaintances, eventually asking them to act as pimps. Some pimps and sex workers had family members or friends who exposed them to the sex trade at a young age, normalizing their decision to participate.”

Depending on the city, sex trafficking, prostitution, erotic massage parlors, internet-based prostitution and brothels brought in between $39.9 million and $290 million in 2007,  according to the surveyof eight major U.S. urban centers.

Pimps objected to the term “pimp” as derogatory, even though they admitted to psychologically abusing the women under their control.

Physical violence against sex trade employees is probably underreported, according to the study.

The underground sex economy thrives with help from the real economy, of course. Pimps, brothels, and escort services rely on drivers, secretaries and nannies to run their operations. Offenders sometimes escape prosecution by paying of hotel managers and even law enforcement agents.

The internet is the biggest boon to the underground sex economy, allowing offenders to recruit employees and find customers on sites like and The online market for child pornography is especially a problem as it reinforces illicit behavior and makes it easier for offenders to consider their participation a “victimless crime.”

Of the cities surveyed - Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington, DC – Atlanta’s underground sex market was the most lucrative, raking in $290 million in 2007. Money spend on illicit sex in DC and Miami went down between 2003 and 2007, to $103 and $235 million respectively, while more than doubling in Seattle to $112 million.

Source: “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major U.S. Cities,” The Urban Institute. Graphc: Tobey – The Washington Post.
Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.



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