The End of “The Stroll”
Just as pimps and sex workers have increased their online presence in recent years, the number of prostitutes on the streets has declined. The Urban Institute study notes that most prostitutes on the streets in the U.S. are adult American citizens with drug addiction problems, whereas in previous years there were often many U.S. minors on the streets.
Law enforcement officials interviewed by the study’s authors have found that they “aren’t really seeing as many street walkers” and instead, “the girls are going inside to strip clubs and massage parlors and the Internet.” Law enforcement officials also expressed frustration amid the constantly changing industry, noting that “once we see something, we’ll start hitting really hard, and then they’ll change the way they’re doing things.” Officials also commented that most minors involved in sex work are controlled by pimps and advertised via the internet; pimps know to keep underage sex workers off the streets, where they’re more likely to be spotted by the police. Those drug-addicted prostitutes who are still walking the street are often working entirely on their own, according to the study. Part of the reason for that, law enforcement officials say, is that “the drug dealer is their pimp.” Officials say that for pimps, a girl on drugs is too much trouble; “then you can’t control them. The drugs control them and then she’ll rip him off.”
A Common Thread
So let’s backtrack: how do people get involved in sex work?
For both pimps and sex workers alike, there is often a common thread linking them to the underground sex industry, researchers found. In general, most individuals interviewed grew up exposed to the industry in some way. “Pimps described neighborhood influence, family exposure to sex work, lack of job options, and encouragement from a significant other or acquaintance as critical factors in their decision to engage in the [underground sex economy].” Sex workers responded similarly, citing economic necessity, family and peer encouragement, childhood trauma, and even social acceptance.
“The community I grew up in was full of prostitutes,” one pimp told researchers. “My mom was a prostitute. I had a sister who was an erotic dancer and another was a prostitute.” Researchers speculate that early exposure to sex work normalized the industry for these participants, making it seem like an achievable way of making a living.
Recruitment is Crucial
The study found that pimps often employ manipulative techniques to attract new employees, and found that scouting comprises a large part of a pimp’s job. “Recruitment,” the report notes, “is the most crucial component of any pimp’s business model.”
Despite a decline in the use of minors on the streets, pimps still largely target vulnerable populations, such as runaway and homeless youth, on their scouting missions. In particular, pimps often frequent transportation hubs for scouting purposes. Pimps are drawn to younger recruits for a number of reasons, despite the increased risk of law enforcement intervention. Some admitted that they purposefully scout younger women because they are “easier to manipulate, work harder to earn money, and are more marketable.”
Most of the time, pimps who targeted younger girls used coercive or manipulative techniques to recruit them. “When they start recruiting, especially with young girls, pretty much what they do is go and give the girls an ear…and they will just figure out what is going on with this girl and they will fill that void,” a D.C. official told researchers. “They just take her and shower her with what she is missing: gifts, attention, whatever.”
Other law enforcement officials in Dallas report that pimps will present themselves as legitimate business owners to potential recruits, often using a cover business (such as a record label or modeling agency) for tax purposes and money laundering. “It’s part of the dream that they’re selling, it’s part of the recruitment process. ‘We’re going to make all this money, we’re going to make this record label and we’re going to be bigger than West Coast Records,’ or whatever.”
Still other pimps stay away from minors because of the risk of arrest. One pimp interviewed by the Institute’s researchers said that he’d “never known a pimp that got in trouble for messing with adults,” despite his own incarcerations.
A Disturbing Trend
One disturbing element of the increasing presence of the underground sex economy online is a parallel rise in child pornography in recent years. Researchers at Urban Institute found that “explicit content of younger victims is becoming increasingly available and graphic.” Further, because so much of the underground sex economy has gone online, researchers found that whole online communities have sprung up around child pornography sites, a phenomenon which only helps to normalize offenders’ participation.
Researchers at Urban Institute say they estimate that there are around 50,000 offenders working as part of organized child pornography rings worldwide, and there are likely millions of other individual offenders consuming the content produced. Unfortunately, child pornography, the report found, is an escalating problem that has become increasingly accessible online, and which, because of its online nature, is seen as “victimless crime,” amongst offenders because most often individuals are arrested for consuming rather than producing the content.
Urban Institute has proposed a number of law enforcement and policy solutions that could potentially help create more cases and dismantle more illegal businesses within the underground sex industry.
One simple solution is to encourage more communication between different law enforcement units and departments. For instance, “one city giving other cities a heads-up when they are going to crack-down on pimping and prostitution would facilitate preparations for related migrations.” Many of the solutions will need to attack the underground market for sex work online, too, as the Internet continues to be a tool for pimps and sex workers. The Institute notes that “laws governing websites that profit from advertising sex work could be strengthened.” Establishing stronger child pornography laws should be another priority, researchers say. To do this, however, the report notes that law enforcement units will need to invest greater resources toward staying up to date on new methods and constantly evolving technology. Further, the Institute notes that better training for law enforcement officers, investigators, prosecutors and judges could help create more cases through more accurate identification of psychological trauma and coercion on the part of victims.