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Estimating the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in the U.S.

Date Published
August 31, 2016

In 2010, NIJ funded the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center to measure the size and structure of the underground commercial sex economy in eight major US cities. The study was guided by four main research questions:

  • How large is the underground commercial sex economy in eight major U.S. cities?
  • To what extent are the underground commercial sex, drug and weapons economies interconnected in the eight major U.S. cities?
  • How do the ties between traffickers within the underground commercial sex economy affect the transportation of sex trafficking victims?
  • What are the network characteristics of the traffickers that operate within the underground commercial sex economy?

The study found that the estimates of the size of the underground commercial sex economy in the eight cities studied ranged from $39.9 million to $290 million in 2007. In five of the cities, the size decreased between 2003 and 2007. Researchers did not find a connection between weapons trafficking and the underground commercial sex economy, but in some cities, there was an overlap with drug trafficking. In five of the study sites, gang involvement in sex trafficking and prostitution seemed to be increasing.

Pimps and sex workers both cited many of the same reasons, especially socioeconomic conditions, for becoming involved in the sex industry. Pimps travel in circuits and use social networks to facilitate the transportation of employees to various locations for work. In trafficking cases, pimps use various forms of force, fraud and coercion to recruit, manage and control their employees. The widespread availability of the Internet has expanded the reach of the sex market for both recruitment and advertisement.

Across all sites, criminal justice stakeholders believed that the underground commercial sex economy was much larger than they were able to investigate, due to resource constraints, lack of political will or minimal public awareness of the prevalence of underground commercial sex economy crimes.

The researchers identified a number of implications for policy and practice.

  • Implications for states:
    • Mandate training to ensure that law enforcement is equipped with the knowledge needed to identify and pursue human trafficking cases.
    • Include force, fraud and coercion in their definitions of sex trafficking and enact statutes with broad interpretations of fraud and coercion that include subtle, nonphysical forms.
    • Allow law enforcement to use wiretaps to investigate human trafficking offenses.
  • Implications for communities:
    • Federal law should require that websites hosting service advertisements, such as Backpage.com and Craigslist.com, post trafficking hotline numbers. Similarly, states should mandate that local newspapers hosting classified ads post trafficking hotline information.
    • Cities and counties should address sex trafficking as a complex problem that requires a systemwide response.
    • Prevention campaigns should educate both boys and girls about the role of force, fraud, coercion and exploitation in sex trafficking.
  • Implications for federal, state and local law enforcement:
    • More resources should be available to state and local law enforcement agencies to maintain consistent and visible attention to sex trafficking and pursuance of investigations.
    • Law enforcement trainings, in coordination with prosecutors, should include techniques to interview both victims and individuals who offend to identify signs of force, fraud or coercion.
    • Local and federal prosecutors, law enforcement officers and judges should be trained on the evidence necessary to prove force, fraud and coercion according to the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act standards and standards of state human trafficking laws.
    • Investigative techniques to uncover organized crime, drug trafficking and gangs should be adapted to better uncover organized crime presence within all forms of the underground commercial sex economy.
    • Cross-training of narcotics, gang and prostitution/sex trafficking investigators should be developed and promoted.
    • Law enforcement agencies should increase their racial, ethnic and gender diversity and recruit individuals who are fluent in languages spoken by local individuals suspected of offending and victims.

The study used a multimethod approach that involved both qualitative and quantitative data collection with law enforcement, service providers and communities in eight U.S. cities: San Diego; Seattle; Dallas; Denver; Washington, D.C.; Kansas City, Mo.; Atlanta; and Miami.

About this Article

The work discussed in this article was completed under grant number 2010-IJ-CX-1674 awarded by NIJ to the Urban Institute. The article is based on the grant report Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major U.S. Cities by Meredith Dank, Bilal Khan, P. Mitchell Downey, Cybele Kotonias, Deborah Mayer, Colleen Owens, Laura Pacifici, and Lilly Yu.

Date Published: August 31, 2016