For the Sex Industry, Earnings Vary by City

The sex economy in Atlanta accounts for an estimated $290 million a year, while in Denver it brings in a relatively modest $40 million. Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

A massive, three-year study by the Urban Institute has produced significant findings on the size and shape of the underground sex economy in eight U.S. cities. It found massive discrepancies in how lucrative the industry is, both for prostitutes — who might earn as little as $5 per sex act — and their pimps, who tend to earn between $5,000 and $32,833 a week.

Funded by the Justice Department, the report uses both qualitative and quantitative data to assess how sex traffickers carry out their work in Miami, Dallas, Washington, Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Atlanta, and Kansas City, Mo. The sex economy in Atlanta accounts for an estimated $290 million a year, while in Denver it brings in a relatively modest $40 million.

The goals of the study were twofold: to arrive at a “more rigorous estimate” of the Unlawful Commercial Sex Economy (UCSE) in the cities in question, as of 2007, and to understand the structure of those economies.

The researchers paid particular attention to how the Internet has altered that economy. For qualitative data, they made use of interviews with federal officers, prosecutors, sex workers, child pornographers, pimps and more than a hundred convicted offenders.

Meredith Dank, the lead author, told The New York Times that the result is “the first of its kind to look in-depth and create a road map of the commercial sex economy.”

Among some of the major findings highlighted in the study:

• The UCSE decreased between 2003 and 2007 in five of the cities studied, but the drug economy increased in five.

• The Internet, as is perhaps obvious, has entirely revolutionized the sex economy and how business is negotiated and arranged.

• The pimping and sex trafficking cases that are prosecuted are only a tiny portion of the sex economy as a whole.

• There was very little connection between weapons trafficking and sex trafficking in the cities studied.

•The Internet has made child pornography especially easy to access; it takes “very little technological knowledge” to access or trade such content, which pornographers regard as a “victimless crime.”

• Pimps widely believe that sex trafficking is “less risky” than drug trafficking, among other crimes. (As one pimp put it in an interview highlighted by The Times, “I’ve never known a pimp that got in trouble for messing with adults. Law enforcement focuses on minors.”)

• Despite that perception, “child pornography laws need to be strengthened so that individuals who facilitate or host online child pornography content and communities are held criminally responsible for their actions.”

The full report, which amounts to more than 300 pages of information representing several years of study, is available online courtesy of the Urban Institute.