Study: Atlanta's illegal sex economy is enormous

acarlson@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 17, 2014 

Atlanta's illegal sex industry is enormous, totaling nearly $300 million in 2007, according to a new study which extensively measures the "size and structure" of the underground commercial sex economy in America.

"Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities," a 339-page study released by the Urban Institute last week, surveys eight cities, including interviews with offenders, experts and law enforcement: Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, San Diego, Seattle and Washington, DC.

"To date, no reliable data exists to provide national or state policymakers with a verifiable and detailed understanding of underground commercial sex trade networks, or the ways in which these networks interact with one another on the local, state, or interstate level," the study's authors write as introduction. "In addition, there is no information regarding the relationship between the UCSE (underground commercial sex economy) and the local commercial sex trade or commercial sex activity conducted over the Internet."

Read the complete study here.

The aim here is both breadth and depth. As that introduction purports, the Urban Institute has sought nothing less than a reported picture of a massive illicit industry and the lived reality between commerce and its actors — the power imbalance between worker and "pimp"; the invisible money that nonetheless touches many hands.

As the Washington Post points out in a round-up of key points, "Pimps objected to the term 'pimp' as derogatory, even though they admitted to psychologically abusing the women under their control ... Pimps, brothels, and escort services rely on drivers, secretaries and nannies to run their operations. Offenders sometimes escape prosecution by paying off hotel managers and even law enforcement agents."

"While pimps took some steps to ensure employee safety, safety could not be guaranteed," according to the study. "Some respondents reported that employees were raped while working. Interviewees took varying levels of remedial action. When asked if he took his employee to the hospital after being raped, one offender reported, 'I would ask them; it depends on how they reacted. Some of them would act like it is okay and we would just keep going. Others, I would drop them off at a hospital. I would wait in the car or maybe go in with them.'”

The report on Atlanta, by far the largest sex economy of the cities surveyed, found that the "underground commercial sex economy ... is mainly comprised of three sex trafficking venues: street and online prostitution, Latino brothels, and massage parlors."

Between 2003 and 2007, nearly all of Atlanta's illicit markets saw an increase: its underground sex economy grew by more than $50 million, from $238 million to $290 million. Only its illegal gun market contracted, down to $146 million in 2007 from $169 million in 2003.

(The process behind the study's estimates above begins on page 24.)

Law enforcement interviewed for the study described a state-wide circuit for sex workers: "Atlanta, Macon, Augusta, Savannah, Columbus, and then back up to Atlanta."

There were some things that were beyond the scope of this study, including "conjecture" about any increases or decreases in the size of the cities' illicit economies between 2003 and 2007. However, it does draw some conclusions: "One of the most common statements repeated across sites was that investigators and prosecutors felt they were 'just scratching the surface' of the crimes that make up the underground commercial sex economy—sex trafficking and prostitution."

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service