Urban.org released a massive study on the underground sex trade. Their research was based largely on interviews with law enforcement agents and offenders convicted of crimes including compelling prostitution, human trafficking and engaging in a business relationship with sex workers. The study focused on eight US cities: Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington, DC. Below are the study's key findings.
Pimps claimed inaccuracy in media portrayals: Most pimps believed that the media portrayals exaggerated violence. Some even saw the term "pimp" as derogatory, despite admitting to occasional use of physical abuse for punishment. Although pimps may have underreported the use of physical violence, they did cite frequent use of psychological coercion to maintain control over their employees.
Pimps manipulate women into sex work: From discouraging "having sex for free" to feigning romantic interest, pimps used a variety of tactics to recruit and retain employees. Some even credited their entry into pimping with a natural capacity for manipulation. Rarely, however, were pimps the sole influence for an individual’s entry into the sex trade.
Women, family, and friends facilitate entry into sex work: Female sex workers sometimes solicited protection from friends and acquaintances, eventually asking them to act as pimps. Some pimps and sex workers had family members or friends who exposed them to the sex trade at a young age, normalizing their decision to participate. Their involvement in the underground commercial sex economy, then extends the network of those co-engaged in the market even further.
Unexpected parties benefit from the commercial sex economy: Pimps, brothels, and escort services often employed drivers, secretaries, nannies, and other non-sex workers to keep operations running smoothly. Hotel managers and law enforcement agents sometimes helped offenders evade prosecution in exchange for money or services. Law enforcement in one city reported that erotic Asian massage parlors would purchase the names of licensed acupuncturists to fake legitimacy. Even feuding gang members occasionally joined forces in the sex trade, prioritizing profit over turf wars. The most valuable network in the underground sex economy, however, may be the Internet.
The Internet is changing the limitations of the trade: Prostitution is decreasing on the street, but thriving online. Pimps and sex workers advertise on social media and sites like Craigslist.com and Backpage.com 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.
Child pornography is escalating: 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."
The underground sex economy is perceived as low risk: Pimps, traffickers, and child pornography offenders believed that their crimes were low-risk despite some fears of prosecution. Those who got caught for child pornography generally had low technological know-how, and multiple pimp offenders expressed that "no one actually gets locked up for pimping," despite their own incarcerations.
Read a PDF of the full report at urban.org.