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Outside the sex sold legally in Nevada, prostitution in the United States transpires in the shadows of an underground economy. There are no ing records to trace, no receipts to scrutinize, and no legal records to analyze. Simply, it is difficult to grasp the size of this economy. But a groundbreaking study released by the Urban Institute sheds new light on how much money is generated by the underground commercial sex economy in American cities.
Knowing the size of the economy is the critical first step for enabling law enforcement, the judicial system, and policymakers to make informed choices about how to fight the harm that happens within these black markets. The research yields the first scientifically rigorous estimates for the revenue generated in the underground commercial sex economies of Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Miami, San Diego, Seattle, and Washington, DC, in and And in all but two of the cities, the size of the underground commercial sex economy shrunk during the five-year span.
But size is not the only pertinent question. It is also critical for judges, police, and policymakers to ask, what are the forces that compel someone to engage in the underground commercial sex economy; what are the business models, practices, and objectives; how does rapidly changing technology influence the industry; and what are the risks borne by those working in the shadows?
On a Tuesday afternoon in DC, a bus screeches to a halt inside the Union Station bus terminal, and off steps a year-old black female. But where she dreams of starting anew, others wait inside the bus station for the chance to exploit her femininity, economic desperation, family problems, low self-esteem, or history of sexual victimization. According to several of the 73 convicted pimps interviewed in and for the study, scouting at transportation hubs is one of their many recruitment practices.
Besides mass transit stations, pimps recruit women at nightclubs, strip bars, malls, high schools, college campuses, and neighborhoods and streets known for prostitution, as well as via online and social media channels. In other cases, women who are already involved in sex work, or are looking to get involved, ask men to protect and care for them in exchange for money, respondents said.
Nevertheless, pimps also said they employ women from all ethnic backgrounds. Most of the pimps interviewed are currently serving time for pimping or trafficking at least one minor. The few who admitted to intentionally recruiting minors said they did it because younger women are easier to manipulate, work harder to earn money, and are more marketable.
Others said recruitment simply comes down to having the reputation as a pimp who can provide security and is not physically abusive. Only 15 percent of pimps admitted to using violence against their employees at some point, but that is likely low. For their part, nearly one-third of the pimps said they entered the underground commercial sex economy because they grew up around it. Exposure to sex work as children made the trade seem like a normal, achievable means to earn a living. I had a sister who was an erotic dancer and another was a prostitute.
Others said they were attracted to pimping by mentors in their neighborhoods, aspirations of getting out of the drug game, and the desire to move up the economic ladder. The biggest challenge, most said, is controlling employee behaviors and actions.
And the first order of business is typically to collect all the money. Indeed, many pimps say they use deprivation to create dependency and motivate their employees by either compensating them with material goods or denying them these rewards.
Pimps also set up a host of rules, quotas, and performance incentives. Rules related to drugs and alcohol are common. Many pimps said that employees using hard drugs are typically unreliable and a danger to themselves. Others prefer that their employees not smoke marijuana or drink, but still tolerate it. Young dudes usually want to do drugs with them or rob them. Black dudes might try to fight them or might be pimps.
They try to take their money or say they will pay you later.
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About one in five pimps said they impose restrictions on their employees about what clients they can solicit, often banning black men and younger men. Pimps are commonly concerned that such clients would engage in drug use, be rough, commit robbery, or leave without paying. Black men are also suspected of being pimps scouting for new employees.
In terms of revenue, about 18 percent said they impose a dollar figure quota that employees would have to earn each day. Other pimps say that, instead of requiring quotas, they incentivize performance by collecting and depositing cash at the end of every night so that the group starts each day without money. If the employees want to ensure food, lodging, and other necessities, they would have to go out and earn more money, pimps reasoned.
Some pimps instill competition between employees by rewarding the most profitable with attention and affection, and ignoring those earning less. As with any other company, organizational structures typically take shape within sex work businesses. To run a successful sex business requires recruiting, job training, marketing, setting prices, arranging date details, providing transportation if necessary, protecting the staff, collecting and managing money, and seeing to the needs of the employees.
On rare occasions, bottoms are made an equal partner in the business. Bottoms are typically tasked with training new employees on how to solicit, prepare for, and conduct themselves on dates. In some cases, pimps will physically discipline their bottoms to keep their other employees in line.
According to the 28 pimps who shared information about business sizes, the of employees ranged from 2 to 36, including non—sex workers to facilitate business operations. Pimps often network with other pimps. These typically informal partnerships help pimps recruit employees, get intel on new business destinations, monitor law enforcement activity, advertise services, and even get financial help when times get tough. Some hotel employees and managers turn a blind eye to prostitution occurring within their establishment, help market services, give discounts, and even tip off pimps to law enforcement inquiries.
In return, they might receive money or free sexual services. Other businesses that pimps said gave them preferential treatment include mobile phone dealers, photographers, clubs, clothing retailers, car dealerships, and adult stores. Let me know when stings going on. He gave me a he up.
Within minutes, a client replies to her ad and she is engaged in an instant messaging conversation where she tells him the time, hotel, and room where he can find her. Half an hour later, there is a knock at her door. The old-school marketing methods— in the phone book, local newspapers, alternative lifestyle publications, and business cards—are still in use, but they are ceding more and more ground to online mediums.
Sex trafficking of women and girls
Forty-nine percent of pimps reported using Internet to attract business. Online classifieds, social media vehicles, discussion boards, chat rooms, dating websites, and custom web s are commonly used to attract and book new business. The spatial limitations that once governed the underground commercial sex economy are gone. Often the new clientele are higher-paying customers.
Moving marketing from the street to the information superhighway also helps pimps and sex workers better manage the physical risks of the business. A lot of creeps come out. Employee safety was a concern cited by only 6 percent of pimps. They were worried that their employees would be raped, killed, arrested, or infected with a sexually transmitted disease. To guard against physical violence, 16 percent of pimps said they carried weapons on the job, and 22 percent said their employees were armed.
But while moving more of the business online put many pimps at ease about some of the physical risks, it introduces new legal threats for pimps, sex workers, and clients. With every text,chat message, or other online communication sent between pimps, employees, and customers, a new opportunity arises for police to document transactions in the underground commercial sex economy. More business online makes evidence easier to collect.
Nearly 21 percent of the pimps interviewed said their greatest fear was being arrested and prosecuted. With few exceptions, respondents felt that law enforcement efforts surrounding pimping and sex trafficking have increased in recent years.
Pimps, cognizant of the legal risks of conducting business online, frequently opt to communicate with employees in coded language, through face-to-face meetings, walkie talkies, prepaid cell phones, or text messages. To guard against sting operations, pimps encourage employees to ask clients if they are police, scrutinize physical appearance and body language, and push johns to cross lines they know police are not lawfully allowed to cross. For some of the more risk-averse and astute pimps, a critical practice is to call the client and look for red flags that he might be law enforcement.
The truth hidden in the shadows of the underground commercial sex economy is a hard, difficult reality that is too often left unacknowledged. Teaching narcotics, gang, and vice investigators improved interviewing and evidence-collection techniques could lead to better identification of telltale psychological wounds, encourage inter-unit cooperation, and drive up prosecutions of pimps and traffickers.
Similarly, training prosecutors and judges on the evidentiary requirements needed to prove psychological coercion in court would go a long way toward making more cases. Simply sharing intelligence across law enforcement units and departments would facilitate better evidence collection.
One city giving other cities a he-up when they are going to crack down on pimping and prostitution would facilitate preparations for related migrations. Public campaigns highlighting the hard realities of sex work and trafficking would educate potential victims, prospective offenders, future jury members, school officials, parents, peers, mentors, and everyday people of the telling s and consequences of life in the underground commercial sex economy.
Attacking this black market where it lives online is also important. Laws governing websites that profit from advertising sex work could be strengthened to impose large fines and penalties. Above all, combating the underground commercial sex economy will require commitment in the form of resources and political will.
Those victimized in the underground commercial sex economy need access to mental health services, and law enforcement requires funding to persistently enforce laws.
The underground commercial sex economy is still unsettlingly murky, but by shining more light on it we can help more victims to escape the shadows. Urban Institute. Story and photos by.