We already know that the sex trafficking is thriving in the U.S. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimated last year that approximately 100,000 children in the United States are forced into sex trafficking every year. Now we know just how much it is thriving. A study by the Urban Institute, released this week, reveals that the underground sex trade is worth nearly one billion dollars annually in eight cities.
The federally funded report seeks to understand the size and structure of the sex trade through a close look at eight metro areas: San Diego, Seattle-Tacoma, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Kansas City, Atlanta, Miami and Washington.
Over $290 Million in Atlanta
Estimates of the money made in the illicit sex trade in 2007 varied from just under $40 million in Denver to over $290 million in Atlanta.
Some surprising and depressing findings from the report:
* Pimps and traffickers interviewed for the study took home between $5,000 and $32,833 a week.
* In several cities, including Atlanta, there are “Latino brothels” where girls from Mexico work after being promised a “better life” by pimps.
* Physical violence against sex trade employees is probably underreported.
* Pimps, brothels and escort services often employ drivers, secretaries, nannies and other non-sex workers to keep operations running smoothly. Offenders sometimes escape prosecution by paying of hotel managers and even law enforcement agents.
* 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
* 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.
* Women, family and friends facilitate entry into sex work. 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.
A Family Business
One pimp in the study is quoted as saying: “My mother was a hustler. At an early age, she would pick me up and say, ‘This is my pimp here.’”
A 45-year-old African-American male explained the impact of conversations with his aunt at a young age:
“At age five and six and seven, I seen it because my auntie was a ho. I’ve seen men come and go all the time, didn’t know. One night, I saw and asked. She said, ‘The clothes on your back, the apartment, this is how I pay the rent.’ I had nothing but love for my auntie, that’s what made me fall in love with a working woman. Then my sister and my momma did it. It’s been in the family. My uncle and father were pimps.”
Meredith Dank, the lead researcher on the study, was especially struck by the business aspect of the illicit sex trade: “We often think about the commercial sex economy as a hustle, where there’s no real thought or planning that’s involved. But we found . . . the opposite _ that some pimps and traffickers actually had a business model they followed.”
“Some of the findings might ruffle some feathers in the end,” Dank said during an interview at the McClatchy Washington Bureau. “One finding is that in some cases women are doing the recruiting of the pimps. Most people want to say all women are the victims and all men are the perpetrators. If we are really going to address this issue, I think it is really important to know the external factors and environmental factors that are pushing people into it.”
How to Combat Trafficking and Illicit Prostitution
Shedding light on the workings of the illicit sex trade is vital to helping its victims, and this report is a welcome step in that direction.
Let’s hope that the Justice Department, who funded the study, will now work to combat trafficking and illicit prostitution. Here are the steps that the report proposes:
Cross-train drug, sex and weapons trade investigators to better understand circuits and overlaps.
Continue using federal and local partnerships to disrupt travel circuits and identify pimps.
Offer law enforcement trainings for both victim and offender interview techniques, including identifying signs of psychological manipulation.
Increase awareness among school officials and the general public about the realities of sex trafficking to deter victimization and entry.
Consistently enforce the laws for offenders to diminish low-risk perception.
Impose more fines for ad host websites.
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