The Trade: Urban Institute’s 17 Findings on Sex Traffic in 8 US Cities


Let me tell you about the Urban Institute’s report, “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities.”

The report is 339 pages long, so you’ll probably prefer to read this than to read the actual report in its entirety. Although I do encourage you to do that.

One reason this report is so important is because as of now, we don’t have a lot of “verifiable and detailed” information about the sex trafficking industry (call the “Underground Commercial Sex Economy,” or the UCSE, in the report). We don’t have much solid data to show state and federal policymakers, so nobody’s sure what kinds of policies would be most helpful to stop sex trafficking—let alone how to enact those policies.

The Urban Institute received funding for this project in 2010. They conducted research, investigations, and held interviews with “stakeholders” and convicted offenders—people like pimps, child pornographers, sex workers, and law enforcement officials and prosecutors.

The researchers asked interviewees about the size, structure, profitability, and network of the sex trade, as well as about changes the trade has seen over time, and what they expect in the future. Researchers also tracked the size and fluctuations in the markets for drug and weapons trafficking, trying to identify any ties or similar trends.

Eight US cities were investigated:

  • San Diego
  • Seattle
  • Denver
  • Dallas
  • Atlanta
  • Washington DC
  • Kansas City
  • Miami

I’m not going to write 339 pages. But I can give you a rundown of the report’s 17 main findings. The findings are separated into those related to sex traffic and sex work, and those related to child pornography. (Brace yourself.)


Sex Trafficking Findings

1. In 2007 the sex trade brought in anywhere between $39.9 million and $290 million in the 8 cities studied.

2. There doesn’t seem to be much connection between weapons trafficking and sex trafficking, but drug trafficking is sometimes connected. 25% of pimps interviewed admitted to being drug dealers before getting into sex trafficking, and 18% said they continued to deal drugs while trafficking women and girls.

3. Sex trafficking operates over circuits that can be local, state-wide, regional, or national. Pimps transport women and girls along these circuits to work in different locations. They can also communicate with each other to keep abreast of what law enforcement is doing, and where big events might draw a lot of tourists. Pimps are connected.

4. Why do pimps become involved in sex trafficking? A lot of respondents said it had to do with being exposed to sex work in their families or neighborhoods, and not seeing many other job opportunities.

5. How do pimps “manage” the sex trafficking industry? Sometimes people already under their control will recruit others. Family or friends will act as drivers or provide security. Other times, legal businesses are complicit, and can provide fronts to enable trafficking. A pimp can work without these things, but having them in place means he can expand his operations, evade law enforcement, and control his victims more easily.

6. How do pimps recruit or control people for sex work? They use different methods, and they can be very skilled at using the most effective tactics on the most vulnerable targets. Many respondents said they were good at “adjusting their recruitment methods in response to their observations regarding the personal needs, experience, and vulnerabilities of the individuals they intend to recruit.” Pretending to be a girl’s boyfriend is a big one. They also fabricate a kind of mutual dependency between themselves and the people in their power, making it sound like “we’re all in this together.” Another tactic is to promise material wealth.

7. Some of the pimps understand more about the consequences of sex trafficking than others. Some said sex trafficking was a lot safer than drug trafficking, or other crimes.

8. The internet has made the lives of sex traffickers a lot easier, and a lot richer. It has “redefined the spatial and social limitations of the market.” So now trafficking can happen anywhere, to girls of any social class, and can serve johns of any social class. Both recruiting and selling are easier.

9. How involved in sex trafficking is organized crime? This varies from city to city. Mostly, pimps operate on social networks that don’t follow the traditional structure of organized crime. But big time organized crime may be present in places like strip clubs, brothels, and massage parlors. More investigation is needed here.

10. Only a very small percentage of people involved in sex trafficking are ever identified and arrested. “Multiple offenders expressed the sentiment that ‘No one actually gets locked up for pimping.’” Officials are extremely frustrated.

Child Pornography Findings

Child pornography was treated as a separate category in the report, because researchers discovered that it’s not really commercialized in the US. It’s mostly traded for free.

1. The production and consumption of child pornography is on the rise, and as it’s getting more graphic, the victims are getting younger. Those interviewed discussed very graphic and violent content, often against toddlers and infants.

2. Child porn is an international trade. People can make it, trade it, download it, and share it with others in different countries.

3. It’s disturbingly easy to access child pornography online. You don’t have to be very technologically savvy to get it or trade it.

4. Some of the child pornography offenders interviewed said they would like treatment for what they referred to as “an addiction” or “a sickness.” They felt there were no treatment options for them.

5. Possession and distribution of child pornography are known as “non-contact” offenses. Those who commit them see non-contact offenses as victimless crimes.

6. Child pornography communities exist online, which means offenders are surrounded by like-minded people. This “normalizes” child pornography for them. It stops being a very wrong thing.

7. Often, only the least tech-savvy offenders are caught. The more skilled ones—which are most of them—are harder to get due to resource restrictions.


The report follows this incredibly depressing list up with recommended suggestions, actions, and guidelines for states and the federal government. But that doesn’t make the 17 findings any less upsetting.


L. Marrick is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter. 50% of proceeds from her upcoming book Working Girl, a memoir of her time working for a professional escort, go to sex trafficking non-profits. She waxes poetic about swords and the Renaissance Faire at her author blog. She looks all professional-like at her copywriting site. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter @LMarrick.

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