WASHINGTON, DC, March 14, 2014 ( – A government-funded U.S. study has shed light on the economic forces and cultural trends driving the illegal underground sex trade, including prostitution, child pornography and human trafficking.

The in-depth study, conducted by the Urban Institute and released Wednesday, focused on the underground sex trade in eight major U.S. cities: Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington, DC.  For their report, the researchers interviewed prostitutes, pimps, traffickers, child pornographers and law enforcement officials to gain an estimate of the size and scope of what they call the “underground commercial sex economy (UCSE).”

“From high-end escort services to high school ‘sneaker pimps,’ the sex trade leaves no demographic unrepresented and circuits almost every major US city,” the researchers wrote. “The U.S. underground commercial sex economy comprises a multitude of venues and activities. These venues and activities include street and online sex work, escort services, massage parlors, and brothels.”


While the illegal sex trade may be known as the world’s oldest profession, the study authors say it has been transformed in recent years by the same technological and cultural influences that have changed the rest of the world.  The internet, in particular, has altered the way sex trade kingpins do their business.

“The Internet is changing the limitations of the trade,” the authors wrote. “Prostitution is decreasing on the street, but thriving online. Pimps and sex workers advertise on social media and sites like and to attract customers and new employees, and to gauge business opportunities in other cities. An increasing online presence makes it both easier for law enforcement to track activity in the underground sex economy and for an offender to promote and provide access to the trade.”

According to the researchers, the internet has also made it easier for pimps to recruit young, naïve girls who believe if a ‘business’ has a social media presence, it’s legitimate.

“For some, they need the grooming process,” one Dallas police officer told interviewers.  “Myspace and MocoSpace; believe it or not, people still use them, and the ones that are using them are usually younger, and pimps are on there like crazy. We just had one two weeks ago, that we got a call … and when we interviewed the girl, she took the laptop and opened it up, showed us, and there she was taking self-pictures of her in her thong and a little top on and I’m like, ‘Ok, and who put these on?’ She says, ‘Oh I did. … Yeah, this is a hook-up site.’”

The officer blamed “society changes” for young girls’ willingness to talk to pimps who solicit them online.  “It’s glorified now to be a pimp, you look at the TV shows, ‘Pimp my Ride.’ Pimp this, pimp, it’s in songs, everything is pimp, pimp, pimp, and so when these guys do that, you’ve got these screwed up girls who don’t know any better and they’ll think that it’s cool and they’ll hang out with them, and they’ll start smoking with them and after that they’ll say, ‘Oh you want to try it?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll try it.’”

Another police officer in Washington, D.C. said, “I want to say that now a lot of these young girls are looking at this sort of thing like it is the ‘in’ thing. I have seen pimps as young as 18 or 19 years old. And the girls, even the case we just had, these guys did not come to them and say, ‘Hey, we want you to come and do this.’ This girl and a couple of her girlfriends, the youngest was 13 and the oldest was 15, they went and found this guy and told him that this is what they wanted to do. And of course he said yes.”

“So now it is very different. It is not like a lot of these girls are being forced into it, even the youngest ones. Even though they are juveniles and they cannot make these kinds of decisions they are knowledgeable enough to say whether or not they want to do that. The money is good; the only thing they can see is how much money they are making, but not how much money they are actually making because [the pimp] is the one that is going to get all the money. He is just going to give them a little here and there and make them feel like he is taking care of them.”

But for every girl who chooses to enter the illegal sex trade, there may be another who was forced to do it.  A major concern of the study’s authors is that an increasing number of those who sell their bodies for others’ pleasure in the U.S. are foreign victims of human trafficking – in simpler terms, they are sex slaves.  Some come to America with their captors believing false promises of legitimate work and money to send home to their impoverished families back home.  Others are simply sold into slavery by destitute or drug addicted family members. 

As borders become more porous and the world more connected, it has become easier for traffickers and their victims to blend in, particularly in more ethnically diverse neighborhoods in larger cities. Often, by the time law enforcement catches up to a trafficker, the children he or she brought into the country have grown up in the sex trade and now feel they have nowhere else to go.

The study’s authors interviewed one Miami cop who said, “What we’ve been seeing in the last [investigation] we did is a lot of the girls were doing it voluntarily at that point, [but] had been trafficked in seven, eight years ago. They paid their [smuggling] debt off and they stayed down there. They know how to make money now so they do it voluntarily. They’re much older now, not very attractive, it’s kinda like this is all they got.”

Other law enforcement officials told researchers that for higher-end prostitutes, even those who were coerced into the lifestyle, it can be especially hard to trade the financial trappings of that life for a less luxurious existence.  

“Unfortunately, once they’ve worked in the business for so long, they’ve made a certain amount of money, to try to get them to come out of that culture is extremely difficult,” said a Dallas police officer. “I've interacted with some of the victims and they're living on a different scale. But that’s their lifestyle that they’ve been accustomed to. So going to work at a regular job, making regular money, that’s not an easy transition for them and they don’t go into that very willingly.”

According to the study’s authors, the exploitation economy is worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the U.S. alone.  The 73 convicted pimps and traffickers interviewed for the study all made between $5,000 and $32,833 a week while they were still working the trade. In Washington, D.C., pimps can make up to $234,000 per year for each prostitute in their ‘stable,’ all under-the-table and tax-free. 

But like most industries, the sex trade has suffered during the recession as would-be clients tighten their spending.  And while a decline in prostitution sounds like a good thing, the study’s authors point out that the slight contraction of the real world sex trade has coincided with a massive explosion in the popularity of child porn.

“Child pornography is escalating,” wrote the researchers. “Explicit content of younger victims is becoming increasingly available and graphic. Online child pornography communities frequently trade content for free and reinforce behavior. Offenders often consider their participation a ‘victimless crime.’”

But child pornography is far from victimless, as a child must first be victimized in order to produce the content.  And the internet has made it more likely that children will be victimized – or forced to abuse themselves on webcam – over and over again as live internet “sex shows” become more popular, and more accessible. 

“I think that if it weren’t for the technology, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” said one convicted user of child porn the researchers interviewed. “The technology gave me nerve to get stuff that I wouldn’t have ever gone up to anyone to get.”

Another said, “It was an accident actually, I was looking for other types of porn. I didn’t look for it, I came across it. Holy s—, this is horrible, but it’s great, but it’s horrible. Like any other addiction, I look at it for the rush.”

The study’s authors recommended a number of societal changes that could begin to reduce the size of the underground sex trade.  Their suggestions include better training for law enforcement, awareness campaigns aimed at school officials and the general public, increased enforcement of existing laws, and hefty fines for websites that host ads for sex offenders.

To read the entire 348-page study, click here.

For more LSN coverage of the illegal sex trade, click here.