Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason.com
A report from the Urban Institute this week looks at the scale and scope of the “underground commercial sex economy” in the United States. The researchers interviewed people from many facets of the commercial sex industry—including pimps, streetwalkers, high-end escorts, massage parlor staff, brothel owners, law enforcement officials, and public defenders—in eight cities: Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington, D.C.
It’s some fascinating stuff once you get to the actual quotes and interviews with sex workers, but it is long (348 pages). I went through and pulled out some of the findings that seemed most interesting. Particularly notable for our purposes is that the report includes evidence that a) police have gotten more aggressive at targeting sex workers for arrest since the 1970s and 1980s, and b) many of the problems sex workers face could be ameliorated if the commercial sex industry wasn’t driven underground.
1. The sex economy is shrinking. Between 2003 and 2007, the size of the commercial sex economy decreased in five of the eight cities studied. The overall worth of the commercial sex economy in these cities is estimated to have been between $39.9 and $290 million in 2007.
2. Brothels don’t employ underage sex workers. Sex trafficking and pimping of minors occurred primarily through street and Internet-based prostitution and rarely through brothels or massage parlors.
3. Gang involvement varies by city. In Denver, San Diego, Seattle, and D.C., gangs had a notable presence in sex trafficking and prostitution; no such connections existed in Atlanta, Dallas, Kansas City, or Miami.
4. There’s no evidence of a link between sex work and gun trafficking. The connection between prostitution and/or sex trafficking and weapons trafficking was found to be nonexistent.
5. Prices are fairly consistent across cities. Sex work rates were “fairly consistent” across cities, the report said; bigger determinants of prices than geographic locations were the age, race, and ethnicity of the sex worker. White women and girls were reportedly more expensive and drug-addicted men and women least expensive.