Study Sheds Light on Shadowy World of Sex Workers

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Sex trafficking, prostitution, erotic massage parlors and brothels in eight major U.S. cities are estimated to have raked in between $39.9 million and $290 million in 2007, according to a new study that’s providing the first-ever estimates of the size and scope of the underground sex economy.

“With knowing the size of the economy, you get better a sense of what you’re dealing with and how big this market is,” says Meredith Dank, a researcher at the Washington-based Urban Institute, which authored the study published Wednesday. “Law enforcement now knows they can potentially seize $290 million in Atlanta that can be used toward providing services and education.”

Using information provided through a series of interviews with 142 former sex workers, pimps/traffickers, and child pornographers, the Urban Institute estimated the size of the commercial sex economy in Kansas City, Seattle, Dallas, Miami, Atlanta, Denver, San Diego and Washington, D.C. Those one-on-one interviews shed light on how the sex economy’s participants see themselves: Many of the subjects rejected the term “pimp,” for example, preferring “business manager.” Additionally, many pimps consider selling sex far safer than selling drugs.

Most of the interviewed incarcerated traffickers were behind bars for having trafficked an underage girl, despite saying they didn’t specifically seek out young women. The FBI estimates about 323,000 young people in the U.S. are at risk for becoming trafficked.

“They say they don’t want a juvenile, as one person said ‘16 will get you 20,’” Dank says. “They’ll often say, ’I didn’t know they were underage, they fooled you how could they not fool me?’”

Interest in the underground sex world has skyrocketed since the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act was signed into law in 2000. However, there was little extensive data on the size and scope of the sex economy before the Urban Institute’s study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, was published. While law enforcement agents interviewed for the study said it only scratches the surface of the sex economy’s shadowy underworld, Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris Project, a non-profit fighting to end sex trafficking, says the report is enough to show “that sex trafficking is an extraordinarily high-profit, low-risk enterprise.”

“It’s essential we flip the equation in order to stop traffickers from exploiting women, children, and men in towns and cities across the United States,” Myles said in a statement.

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