• June 2014
  • Vol. 15, No. 6

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Data on the Commercial Sex Economy

The growth of the underground commercial sex economy, including sex trafficking and child pornography, is an emergent issue, but policymakers often lack the reliable data they need to understand the full nature and extent of these activities. Understanding the scope of the problem is important for child welfare and related professionals because victims are often from the most vulnerable populations, including children involved with child welfare. In a new study, Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major U.S. Cities, researchers from the Urban Institute collected both quantitative and qualitative data in an effort to provide some insights on the issues.

Existing datasets on market changes for illegal drugs and weapons in San Diego, Seattle, Dallas, Denver, Washington, DC, Kansas City, Atlanta, and Miami were analyzed to provide an estimate of the overall size of the sex trade in those markets. Qualitative data were collected through interviews with stakeholders, including local and Federal law enforcement officers and prosecutors, and with convicted offenders, including sex traffickers, sex workers, and child pornographers. Some of the findings of the study indicate:

  • Some connection between drug trafficking and sex trafficking
  • The involvement of gangs in pimping in some cities
  • An expanded use of the Internet to facilitate sex work

In the area of child pornography, researchers learned that in the United States child pornography is largely noncommercialized and is often traded for free. Other findings indicate:

  • Child pornography is an escalating problem, becoming increasingly graphic with younger victims, and often features violence against infants and toddlers.
  • With the increase of the use of the Internet, child pornography is a crime that is global in scope.
  • Because they have never had contact with the child victims, persons who have been convicted of possession and distribution of child pornography often believe their crime is a "victimless" crime.

Finally, the researchers address the policy implications of their research, including the need for (1) training on human trafficking for law enforcement; (2) cross-training of investigators of narcotics, gangs, prostitution, and sex trafficking; and (3) strengthening child pornography laws to hold individuals who host online child pornography content criminally responsible.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major U.S. Cities, by Meredith Dank, Bilal Khan, P. Mitchell Downey, Cybele Kotonias, Deborah Mayer, Colleen Owens, Laura Pacifici, and Lilly Yu, is available on the Urban Institute website:

http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/413047-Underground-Commercial-Sex-Economy.pdf (5 MB)

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