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Study Provides In-Depth Look at Economics of Illicit Sex Trade

Study Provides In-Depth Look at Economics of Illicit Sex Trade

March 13, 2014 — In many U.S. cities, the illicit commercial sex-trade economy exceeds that of underground drug and weapons operations, according to a new study commissioned by the Department of Justice, the National Journal reports.

Study Details

The study, conducted by the Urban Institute, analyzed the sex-trade economy in eight major cities in 2003 and 2007. According to the Journal, the cities were chosen based on their obtainable statistics, regional diversity, the cooperation of officials, and the number of convicted sex traffickers and pimps (Izadi, National Journal, 3/12).

The eight cities included Atlanta; Dallas; Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; Miami; San Diego; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

In order to focus on the business side of the sex trade, rather than on the consumer side, the researchers conducted more than 250 interviews with "law enforcement officers, lawyers, pimps, sex traffickers, prostitutes and child pornographers, many of whom were in jail," the New York Times reports. The interviews included questions about pricing, market structures and the motivations of sex workers. The study looked at prostitution, pimping, massage parlors, brothels and escort services.

Size of Illicit Sex Economy

The study found that pricing -- $150 an hour for prostitution -- was consistent across all eight cities but that sex workers' age, race and drug use affected the price. It also found that small-scale operations are most common, with pimps keeping an average of five sex workers, and that turnover is high.

The size of the sex-trade economy varied by city, ranging from about $40 million in Denver in 2007 to an estimated $290 million in Atlanta that year.

Although the report did not estimate the total size of the illicit sex economy nationwide, it aimed to shed light on how the industry functions, particularly in the Internet age, according to the Times.

Respondents' Experiences

Half of respondents in the study said they advertised and arranged sex services online. About one in four respondents said they recruited sex workers through websites such as Craiglist and Backpage.

When asked why they became involved in the sex trade industry, many respondents cited poverty and family pressure as factors, and about 30% said that a family member also was involved in the sex trade.

According to the Times, one of the "most interesting findings" is that child pornography is often traded for free, so the market is smaller. Many respondents said they think child pornography is a victimless crime.


The study "is the first of its kind to look in-depth and create a road map of the commercial sex economy -- from point of entry to reasons to stay within it, and what the business and operations structure looks like," said the Urban Institute's Meredith Dank, the report's lead author. She added, "We'd hear numbers from law enforcement and advocacy groups. But there was never any empirical rigor that was used to estimate its size."

According to the Times, experts also said the findings could help law enforcement officials understand how the sex trade works and better assist victims. The study also underscores the dearth of research on the topic, the Times reports (Lowrey, New York Times, 3/12).