The Equity Factor

Five Key Facts About America’s Sex Economy

A new report explores the underground sex economy of eight U.S. cities.

Credit: AP Photo/Laura Rauch

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Everyone knows that there is money to be made in the street, but the economics behind the nation’s underground sex trade have largely remained speculative until now. A new report from the Urban Institute explores the sex industry, from massage parlors to escort services, in eight U.S. cities. Pimps, who according to the study find their name derogatory, can make anywhere from $5,000 to $32,833 a week.

The report, commissioned by the Justice Department, studies the sex trade in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego and Washington, D.C. Many of the pimps, sex traffickers and sex workers interviewed were in jail. So while the study does not give a comprehensive picture of the sex economy as a whole, it’s arguably the most in-depth document on the subject ever produced.

Below, we list five key takeaways from the Urban Institute report.

1. Atlanta has the largest sex economy among the eight cities.

At $290 million, it outpaces its closest competitor, Miami, by $55 million. As the graphic from the New York Times below shows, Atlanta’s underground sex industry makes more money than the city’s drug and gun trades combined.

2. A lot of cash passes hands.

As this chart from the Urban Institute illustrates, the weekly income of pimps between 2005 and 2011 was substantial, with those in Atlanta raking in more than six times as much on average than Kansas City.

3. Pimps often find their prostitutes from acquaintances.

Between social circles (42.5 percent) and the local neighborhood (38.4 percent), pimps do most of their scouting from people they know. One pimp who spoke with the researchers shed some light on how surroundings influence people going into sex work. “When I was little, I was on welfare, I lived in the projects,” he said. “Dope fiends, pimps and prostitutes. Gang bangers, helicopter over your roof. That’s no way to live. Seeing glitz and glamour, I always wanted that. Coming up like that, having square jobs was never appealing.”

4. Sex workers regularly deal with violence or abuse.

Fifty-eight percent of sex workers have dealt with violence and 36 percent had abusive clients, according to the report.

5. Yet safety does not seem to be a concern of pimps.

While 16 percent of pimps carry weapons on the job, 22 percent of sex workers did. More worrisome: Only 6 percent of pimps said they are worried that their employees might get raped, killed, arrested or infected with an STD. Furthermore, everyone is looking out for themselves: 18 percent of pimps said they were most worried about their own safety, and 21 percent said their biggest fear was being arrested and prosecuted.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Bill Bradley is a writer and reporter living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Deadspin, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among others.

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Tags: equity factorinformal economypublic safety

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